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So much work comes and goes and sometimes it’s important to take another look.  We spoke Ríonach Ní Néill about her career and experiences over the last 30 years in Dance. We also spoke about her film The Area, about how city-scapes exists simultaneously in its past and current forms, and how creativity is a form of political action.

This is a transcribe of our conversation, originally part of ROOM 2022.


“Words simply cannot express everything that's going on. Dance is an integrated thought system. Because it's everything working at the same time. Your entire body is engaged. ”



“This film looks like we have freedom of the city, but it was literally for a moment. ”



“ I exist, the world exists”. We exist together and there is joy and awe simply by being here. ”



Ríonach Ní Neill

recorded 01.12.2021 

Why Dance?

Okay, I started Irish dancing when I was three. Then I spent a few years going ‘can I do ballet, can I do ballet, can I do ballet’, and I was really lucky. I had a wonderful ballet teacher from a very young age, Anne Tighe in Dublin. A very small, very personal school. Well ahead of her time in terms of respecting your body, your individual abilities and limits, and expression in an art form, like, classical ballet is not very individually focused.


Everything else felt wrong, yeah, I didn't fit in anywhere else, literally didn't fit in anywhere except in a dance studio with dancers. And that was home. And it made perfect sense. And it was also much more intellectually stimulating. You know, I mean, I loved researching. But it's not as, it's not as challenging, it's not as intellectually challenging, it's not as, completely encompassing, as when you are working in dance, in choreography.


Words simply cannot express everything that's going on. Dance is an integrated thought system. Because it's everything working at the same time. It is not sitting still and having a thought. Your entire body is engaged, in that your exploration of the world is sensory, but you're also soaking in so much more information about the world because you're moving through it. But then you're also then shaping the world back out of it, because you're moving through it. So there's this constant two-way, two directions of information exchange, you know? In comparison, when you are writing, like 90% of your mind/body  is not in use, and in fact is artificially stilled, so, there's so much effort in that. We're not naturally meant to be still.

So with dance then, intellectually, I mean, often it's considered not to be an intellectual art form, and that can only be said by people who've never danced. Because it goes beyond, I think that's what it is, it goes beyond.. The process is so quick, that it looks like instinct, or it looks like feeling (which we all know is denigrated and kind of in the hierarchy of intellect). But actually what it is, is that you're processing so quickly that you're getting from A to Z at a much faster rate, you can come to a conclusion. And then in terms of expression as well, there is a multiplicity, a constant multiplicity and expression in dance. It is not a fixed text. You know, even to use the word reading dance, I don't agree with that. Because we're not reading dance, we are experiencing it. You know, we know that your mirror neurons are firing. So you are not just passively receiving, but in fact, your mind, you are moving with the person that you are looking at. So you are, in a way stepping into their body when you are looking at dance. Yeah, I just feel in a way that it's actually a more efficient form of communication.


What prompted The Area?

So, The Area is 26 minutes long. But it took from 2007 to 2013 to make it.  What happened is, I was leaving my work as a dancer in a state theatre, Tanztheater Bremen, and coming home. And in my last year there there were a few older dancers, as in they were 39…  And in Germany, you have the choice that at the age of 40 you keep going, or you can retire. You have to sign a document then that says “I will never step on a stage in Germany again”. So I was seeing dancers who were older than me, they were dealing with what it’s going to be like going on pension, you know? And all those things that happen when you retire; your identity, your self-worth, the community you have, all of that is taken from you and who are you afterwards? And I thought that this is a very interesting dilemma. And who better to explore and answer that for me than older people? So, I started up, when I came home, I started up a dance club for older people in Dublin called the Macushla Dance Club. And I took the official EU definition of older at that time, which is 50 plus (laughs). Hilarious! So I qualify now! But. So they were older, and the first day.. So I set it up as free classes, and it was in the Dublin North East inner city, where I had spent much of my life actually. And the first day, the first class, I said, “it looks like Henry Street has followed me into the studio!” There were so many, (so Henry street is our big shopping street), there was like 40 people there. It was fantastic. All assumptions about age and the likes were quickly smashed into smithereens by people. And it just, for the next years that I was running the club, it was like, my favourite time of the week. Absolutely my favourite time of the week. And I would invite dance artists who were in the dance studios to come in and share what they were rehearsing, share what they were exploring, and then the club would give feedback. And it became, you know, it was a really, it kind of broke the rules then for all of us about what dance could be, because most of the people coming there were in their 70s and 80s. And they had ballroom you know, they had social dancing backgrounds and the likes. And there was I with my ballet and contemporary dance background and all the other professional dancers around. So we really, it was, we really learned a lot from each other.


Group collaboration.

So the film came from this amazing group of people who worked together, mixing the group and professional dancers and doing, making some choreographies. And then, so, I suppose one of the things with it is, the way that I work actually is that I have a problem or a question that I want to, that I need to scratch. It’s an itch that I need to scratch. And then I ask other people to come and help me work that out.


And we were Dubliners, and I was just very struck by their, you know, the really close relationship they had with the city, and one that was matched by me actually, I had just this intense knowledge of Dublin at that time. So I realized that they used the city as, like, a diary, like a journal. So you could be walking around with Paddy, or Teresa, or with Jim and they'd be pointing at, you know, they'd be pointing at the sky and going “this was something else before, this was a cinema before and this is what we used to do there”. And actually what really struck me was a guy, who's younger actually than them, a fantastic musician Colm McCaughey. He was in with us and he stood outside the dance studio and pointed up in the air. And he said “I was born there”. And then he drew with his finger the layout of the room. So they'd had the shop downstairs and he was born “just there”. And that's in the film. So this idea of a city as a palimpsest, of multiple layers, and also that what you see physically is not what you actually see, that it's not just what you see. That you are seeing its past character what was there before; the buildings that were there before, the people that were there before, the events that happened there before. You are seeing them at the same time as you are seeing what it is right now. So that's how we kind of did this story of the city. Like this, you know, the city and its people as two things that can't really be separated from each other.


It's an absolute bitch to edit. Ah, because I was, I was.. I kept going to Joe (Lee, co-director and editor), “so it just follows my hand down and in and out we go, you know?”. And I'm, I'm gesturing, I'm dancing things out. And he’s like “and I have to translate that into camerawork and editing?”, you know? So yeah, that took, that took a lot, but it was literally a key moment for me. That was kind of, the conceit of this film.


The chosen locations.

And then the opening scene as well, that's in the loading bay of a big department store that used to be the ballroom of a cinema. Everybody, the older people that were there, they used to go there, they used to date there, they used to dance with each other there. And it was amazing to just call up the department store and go “So.. what this is now, this used to be... - so can we come in and, can I bring in a five-piece band, and can we have a dance?” And they were like “yeah grand, no problem”. So you have the cars going past and I think at some point, you see somebody pushing a rail of clothing past and stuff. And everybody just went for it. They were like, “we are reliving this and we are recreating this, right now”.


We were down in the docks as well, because a lot of them, this area, this centre-city area, goes from like, like very much a central area, then there's crossing a road and you're into the former docklands of the city. And this is what's happened to the docklands, from being like working docks to this strange financial services centre which has become, meaning the land is privatized. That's  happened to cities all around. And it's kind of a stealth privatization of the city. So where we were filming on the tram tracks and near the tram tracks and all that, that was not allowed. You were supposed to get a permission, you had to get a license in order to film there because... People think it's public property. But it's not, it's private. So at one point, we were filming away, because we'd given up trying to get permission. The layers and layers of bureaucracy, and it was international companies, all of this kind of stuff became too much. And the cost was crazy. So we were doing guerrilla filming. And we're filming away and we could see in the distance two Yellow Jackets [security guards] coming in our direction. We're like ..!! But then one of the ladies who was in her 80s, and is one of the most vibrant and energetic and powerful people I know, she just suddenly switched on this persona of like, frail, older person, “oh, we're just doing a little, you know..”, and played them up like this. “So we're doing nothing in particular, we're little old ladies”... Everything that they were - they were in the film in order to break that stereotype. But they were perfectly happy to use it if necessary, in order to get what they needed to do. So we managed to shoo them out of the way.


The Tramlines and privatization.

These are areas that they remembered because this is where the cattle were herded down.  There were little farm animals (in the film). There was little, there were even little farms there only 50 odd years ago, not like a century ago. So they were this is a place that the people who are performing there had access to all their lives, until recently. Where they had grown up, spent all their lives is now not theirs. So that part in particular was our graffiti, that was our body graffiti. And we go, well, you know, we're gonna tag here. We're tagging this with us now. And this is now. We filmed this, this has now become what that  is, in a way.


It's still not ours. So even though in the film we're trying to claim back the city, we haven't. And that's something that we have to be careful with, as artists that were allowed these little moments of freedom. So that you know, that film looks like we had freedom of the city. But it was literally for a moment.


This is happening around us, everywhere we go now, this kind of corporatization and privatization of space. So that your freedom to do different things in different places is much more limited now. You know? Where can you sit down, and where can you sit down on the grass and eat? Or you know, “this park must only be used for this purpose”. So I have one part where Robert (Jackson) is dancing through a park. But you're not actually allowed to kick a ball around that park. You're not, you're only allowed to act in these specified ways in these areas. It's counter to humanity.


Marginalization amongst the cast.

One thing is that these are people who have been marginalized all their lives. There is, there's lots of different marginalization that can happen. There's marginalization due to your age. (Now, that's like, I am experiencing it myself already, that's a definite one). You get marginalized, you know, when your life circumstances change, when you become a parent. But then there's also being born marginalized in more deprived areas. And these are the areas that are historically deprived, historically marginalized areas. So unfortunately, not one person in that film ever had a sense of entitlement or ever had an experience of being, you know, having that kind of power.


There's quite a lot of community resistance, a lot of community activation. There are activists in that group, people who spent their entire lives fighting for community rights in the area, who fought against the International Financial Services Centre, who have fought the drug epidemic in the area that's been there for decades. So  yeah, there's a lot of action like that. And then at the same time, there's a kind of , I suppose, sadly, there's a kind of an acceptance that this shit happens. That somebody, who has got nothing to do with where you are, will come in and fundamentally change it. They just see “what can we do for ourselves and what can we do for our local community? How much can we get back?” So there's this, kind of, very much a David and Goliath kind of relationship there. And is there correct representation? No. Do we have proper local government in Ireland? No. Do our local governments have proper representation? No. And that all comes through there. So you really do see people working  on the margins, just trying every day, to make their family and their neighbours’ lives better. And there's so much energy spent defending against, rather than actually being enabled to improve. Because people will. People will always try to improve and make where they are better for the next generation, if they are given that chance. So, little democracies happened in that group, and in that film that’s, we tried to, that’s what we tried to kind of present.


A changing city.

I think if I took a camera around a lot of those locations from 10 years ago, (it was filmed in 2011 and then again in 2012) I'm not sure how many of those would be recognizable, and definitely, very, very few of them would be accessible.


I think now insurance is a massive way of controlling people's behaviour. Whether I could get insurance to cover what we did, I don't… It would be very difficult now. So that's a great way of, a kind of a subtle and difficult to argue with, way of controlling and diminishing people's agency, anywhere. And it's a massive, massive issue in Ireland that isn't being framed that way. This is actually insurance, the way that our insurance structures are framed, is impinging on your freedom, your actual human rights. I don't want to say the word freedom because it's now such… it's been hijacked by people that I have no interest in being associated with. But yeah, it has. It has limited what we can do.


Key members of that group are no longer with us. They gave and gave and gave and gave. So is there a new generation of them, I'm not sure yet. But it's absolutely necessary.


Are things improving?

You said it, it's about quality of life, and how that's defined. And, how we are defined. And I 100% disagree with this labelling of us asour worth is around what we produce and what we consume. No. No! It isn't, you can't argue with that. You can't kind of, well “it's defined as this”, a little bit more or a little bit less. It's like, unambiguously from the word go, NO. That is wrong. And that's what we have to start with, you know? I mean, we have a very right wing, we have right wing parties, who literally seem to only see things economically and make a mess of that. Grand, if you can do it properly, but they don't even do it properly. And running things, running services, running public services,  trying to organize society based on economics doesn't work. Because it's apples and oranges. Yeah, and you can't buy your way into a good quality of life. That's what they don't seem to understand. You literally can't. And yet we are, we are being told that this is how we are. And then that everything else is aside, aside to us, a little side dish, but not crucial. But the crucial thing about us, is being.


I mean, you know, we've been taught this idea that actually we have evolved from hunter gatherers, onwards. Actually, the agricultural revolution, mostly, was a huge step back for humanity. A huge. And then the thing is, that within one generation, we couldn't go back because we'd lost that knowledge. Isn’t that absolutely shattering? We've always been told, every generation, you're learning more you're learning, it's better, it's better, it's better. No, we've lost what makes us happy, we've lost what we're here for. We're actually just here to exist. Thanks very much. That's it. My job's done, I'm breathing. I don't need to validate myself to anybody else any more. And nobody else has to validate themselves, their existence to be here, far from that like “Hello, I'm breathing. Thank you”. There you go. That's my new greeting.


Tell us about the balancing scene?

One of the things with that balancing scene.. You know what, it's very enjoyable to pile a bunch of old chairs, and they are bentwood chairs. So they’re like the chairs that were in Bewley’s Café, and Bewley’s Café was set up by Quakers. And even when I was younger Bewley’s Café still was running very well. If there were older people who are on their own, they used to come in and very quietly be served their dinner for free, no big fuss about it, no big marketing, because the Quaker idea of serving and of human good was there. So there's that little reference in my head. But balancing on top of them is actually very pleasurable, and I would recommend everybody to just go and stand on one leg, close your eyes if you want to have a bit of you know, a bit more challenge, and then just enjoy it. You know, you're actually allowed to just do things to enjoy. That moment, the scenes there are just, for me, just really, really beautiful. And even in the background there looks like to me and Joe my co-director, there's a kind of a metal door there that was like some service door for electricity or something like that. And in real life, it's manky. But in the light there, it looks like some kind of burnished copper, you know? And it's like, it's a manky spot there.  I'm underneath the, just an air access into this manky car park. But we, you know, we didn't even light it. Joe found the light. Joe found that, and he created this kind of Caravaggio-esque (we like to claim, or I like to claim) scene there of beauty. And I think if you go looking for beauty, real beauty, that argument about consumer/producer fails with it, it can't stand in it. And also by doing that - you can't find this by thinking in that way. You have to reframe your perspective on life again, in terms of “I exist, the world exists”. We exist together and there is joy and awe simply by being here. So there's these kind of moments put in there just to go “I'm not arguing with you here tonight. Here. This, this is what I see.”


The path forward in dance

People are living in ways worse circumstances now, we are nowhere near for either, for any body, for any gender, we're nowhere near liberation. So I think us Western European dancers have a moral obligation to connect more with our brethren around, because there's very few places that are safe now. And we're not doing enough about it. But that's where it is.


As long as you don't fall into the Instagram trap, you know, of... like how much Ballet has changed since Instagram? Because it's now all about extreme extensions and turning you’d swear if you looked at Instagram that ballet consists of grand jetés, grand battements, fouettés and pirouettes, and there's actually nothing else. But as long as you don't fall into that trap, then the opportunity for having an audience, and actually being seen is much bigger than what we had, what I had.


Dancers, we need to have more confidence, because what can happen is that there can often be a disconnect between what dance artists, dance companies are making, and then maybe the dance organizations and venues and all that stuff we're doing. There's often a lag and we become clients. We need to have more dancers running, you know, on those boards or in decision making, not an advisory, but in decision-making roles. We used to have a dancer-led organization, and that was volunteer run. And it was, it was a very effective voice because it was, there was no, there was no filtering of our voices. It was our voices. And then sometimes what happens then is when you do get a resource, when you get resourced, that your voice is not amplified. You think you're going to be amplified, but no, what happens is it gets filtered through somebody else's interpretation of what you should be doing, and the artist is weakened. So we have to be very careful when we look for resources. What kind of resources and who controls it? So I'm very much about the artist being the producer, the artist/producer model, and whether we produce each others’ work or you know, sometimes you choreograph sometimes you produce, but you control the budget. You say it so that any resource that you get in is there to strengthen and amplify what you're doing and not detract from it, or start to instrumentalize it for the purpose of something else. It is changed, definitely. There's you know, there's a much broader understanding of who can make art. But I think we just need to maintain that confidence or find that confidence to go “we will, we will dictate our own art form”.