Act 1: Reflections and Ruminations
A dancer’s ‘body’ is their primary vehicle and stage to illuminate meanings in the minds, hearts and lives of their audience. A duet begins with this arrangement of bodies, on and off stage. Irrespective of audience reactions, a dancer is at their best, on stage. Feeling alive, while dancing. When the curtain falls and the dancer returns back into the mundane, their joy de vivre dims out. Ripped toenails, cracked knees, sprained ankles, broken hip, the pain is now closely felt. The body weeps for attention. With wounds nursed, costume and makeup taken off, the dancer’s mind gushes with thoughts of the next set of rehearsals. But, what if the curtains were falling for the last time?
Off stage, life is predictable with birth, growth, depletion and death. Ageing is life. Then why does depleting body and mind affect the spirit of life and living? Why is dance only a sign of youthfulness? Is it fair to compare an ageing body with a youthful one? Why must our bodies be subjected to fitness standards based on socio-cultural conventions? Reminiscing the dance duet film Epilogue, this essay flows as a three act performance, reflecting on impressions drawn from poetic voices in the film and other related readings and references. Epilogue, the second film from the Belfast International Arts Festival (BIAF) 2022, was aired online as a part of the Attakkalari India Biennial (AIB) 2021-22. This film was a collaboration between Festival Artist-in-Residence Eileen McClory and retired professional dancers Jane Mooney and Sandy Cuthbert, along with video artist and film-maker Conan McIvor, sound designer Helena Hamilton and poet Maria McManus. Maria’s poetry, heard in the film’s voice over, holds together the dance duet’s narrative while a very brief excerpt visualised, sets the context for this essay.
Two bodies drag themselves in a lethargic motion in the warm pre-twilight glow of sunset. As if awakening from a nap. Dressed in neutral skin fitting costumes, their bodies blended in this golden light. The film’s framing closes in on the glistening skin on one of the dancer’s shoulders. Then intercuts by zooming in on her wrinkled veins and lines on the hands and eye corners. I’m drawn to the spoken words offering clues about the identity of these bodies rising from the floor. “Aah they are two senior dancers!”. “Wow! They still dance!”, I tell myself. This validation brings courage to a vulnerable corner of myself that worries about its own waning energies, even though I’m not a dancer. Maybe because I’m not a dancer, and lead a largely sedentary life with much less agility and athleticism.
The film transitions. Camera zooms into brilliant vermillion red drapes contrasting with the golden skin of the dancers’ bodies, floating against a black background. Red evokes a sense of new blood, new life and verve. The dancers are seen dressed in that red sheer fabric with dynamic undulations and poetic folds. Slowly twirling with red rose petals drizzling on them, the scene resembles a Sufi dervish dance performance by flamboyant flamenco dancers. The dancers’ orbital movements express their blissful all-consuming dream-like trance state. The older bodies feel richer dressed by the vibrancy of their past memories. Dance is an addictive potion that tempts them back to where they once belonged: The Stage.
Act 2: Recollections & Reconciliations
Scenes from the backstage reveal a motley of preparation rituals, sounds of hammering, squishing, clicking, lips smacking, stretching, the drill of makeup and costume, the stage wiped clean, for the viewers to warm up for what is to come next, on Stage. These backstage scenes make cinematic references to Martha Graham’s film, A Dancer’s World, where she refers to the dressing room as a “very special place… where the act of theatre begins”. The two dancers are preparing themselves to face their own shadows, and find new glory in the spotlight. They are pitting themselves against their own younger bodies. Gradually the dance duet of two live performers turns into two duets of live dancers staged against their own past imageries. Projections of each of the older performers’ films are cast on the stage’s back wall. The live dancers are constantly looking back at that wall, recollecting or competing with their old moves.
The music is joyful. Jane has a childlike amazement in seeing her own agility and athleticism in the older performance. In sportingly improvising her steps, she whispers to herself, “Look at her, that’s me”, admiring the strong, sharp twists, extending arm lines and pauses. In reliving the past energies, Jane is seen acknowledging her joy of dancing, just as her younger, unafraid experimenter. An iota of self-doubt prompts her to encourage herself,” Relax. Go for it”. In time, Jane’s muscle memory kicks in and she echoes movements of the projected film, with ease, grace and flow, and at an unhurried pace than her younger self. Her inner radiance is palpable in the joyous expression on her face. Unlike younger Jane, she is now visibly relishing her dance.
Sandy, by contrast, grapples with competitiveness, in a subtle duel or a war with her younger self. Choreography in the projected film is free, uninhibited, a little child-like too, when Younger Sandy, paces back and forth and sideways with apples scattered on the floor. Older Sandy wraps the apples in her arms, kept tightly pressed on her chest. She moves within a defined circle of apples arranged around her. Periodically an apple drops on her face which she tries hard to catch. She misses some too. The tension mounts and eventually, unable to reconcile with the burden, she falls helplessly to the floor, dropping all the apples she guarded as precious thus far. Younger Sandy hastily fills up the apples in the folds of her dress, at the end of the projected film. Older Sandy lies on the floor, and silently looks on to her past. What are the apples telling us about her life? Might they embody fertility, attractiveness, rewards, repute and accolades accumulated over the years? Intangibles that were close to Sandy’s heart. Naturally, when she drops all apples, confined within her idea of Dance, she feels despondent. There is a visible sense of loss, grieving and mourning for a past life of vitality and youthfulness. Was this the gravity of emotions? Was Sandy yearning to grasp for this youthfulness?
From duets with younger selves to juxtaposition of dancers in two different landscapes. We see dancers having an introspective yet silent gestural dialogue, between their ageing bodies and their own interior psyches, embodied as exteriorscapes. As if the dancers having returned from their dreams are trying to reconcile with their changed bodies to shift their concepts of dance that complement their emerging stages of life. Jane is peaceful and calm in a refreshing serene, verdant garden. She seems to find her unlimited source of joy and inspiration, right inside herself. Sandy, who was in a broken state, is staged at the edge of a serene lake in a gray bare landscape. She quarrels with her past, in painful warring motions suggesting her unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Then she moves into the lake, nearly submerging, perhaps baptizing herself into a new life? Her gesture of holding and caressing an invisible baby, that she looks fondly towards, might indicate peaceful reconciliation with her new identity in the aged body.
Act 3: Reclamations & Reformations
In the final act of the film’s staging, Sandy and Jane are in their vermilion red dresses, gagged and tied to a pole against the back wall of the stage. They struggle to rip out of these bondages which are also the same red as their dress. Is their own vitality from the past holding them back? Sounds of a car revving complement their energetic struggle to break free. Break free from expectations, conventions and their own conceptions of what dance or their dancing selves had been. The dancers persist and free themselves. Jane and Sandy strut down the front stage holding their hands up along with a resounding climactic applause and showering of rose petals, falling upon their radiant faces. They seem ecstatic in their new dance expression of oddly stiff and crude hand and neck movements. Jane and Sandy appear to walk confidently towards a rewarding future after fully embracing their age. Even after grace and flow might have left their muscles and bones, their joy of dancing would remain unabashedly. The dancers’ place is restored, they reclaim their purpose on stage, once more.
Epilogue, beckons us to view ageing as multilayered and rich, where the old and the young coexist. An ageing dancer is seen to have many disadvantages in a “youth-driven dance world”, laments Janine Bryant, BFA, MA, SFHEA, PhD Candidate and Former Chair and Director of Programs, Eastern Univ., St. Davids, from Pennsylvania, USA. In her article, Ageing and Range of Motion for Dancers: An Introduction to a Three-part Series (2019), Janine opens up dialogue on how an older mature body possesses knowledge that is “more thorough, hard-earned and worth valuing”. This is seen in their posturing, stabilization and muscle tuning, even though they have low flexibility and a limited range of motion. She opines that learning about the biology of ageing, a healthy process of ageing and training routines help the dancer with career longevity. Janine traces scientific evidence on movement as a source of maintaining bone and muscle strength along with dietary patterns that can affect collagen health, tissue regeneration and recovery from injuries. She encourages dancers to keep moving, as impaired mobility, negatively impacts their health and wellbeing.
Japanese dancer, Kazuo Ohno, led by example, showing age was never a disadvantage in the Butoh dance tradition. Jiří Kylián from the Netherlands Dance Theatre (NDT) pioneered in bringing about diversity and inclusion. NDT3 was founded in 1991 for dancers over the age of 40. This idea grew outwards and Dance On Ensemble Berlin (DOE) initiative was started in 2014, in Germany by Diehl & Ritter. Ty Boomershine, the artistic director, had faced ageism while he believes he is at his best performance ability in his late 40’s. Jane Hackett, Former Director, English National Ballet School and Artistic Programmer and Producer for Creative Learning at Sadler’s Wells, also works to challenge myths about ageing through their theatre’s Elixir Festival. It was first staged in 2014 as a way to celebrate lifelong creativity, giving a platform for professional mature dancers along with their own Company of Elders, a group of non-professional dancers in their 60’s to 80’s. It is believed that Europe and Australia are slower to recognize the capacities of older mature performers than those in the USA. In India, where I come from, it’s only a mature seasoned dancer that is revered as a Master Artist. Rarely do dancers retire in their 30’s, not even women. Even with bodily transformations from marriage and childbirth, women dancers transition to performances suited to their age and stage of fitness alongside teaching, mentoring and coaching. A difference in perception of age in the Western classical dance tradition such as Ballet vis-a-vis other cultural contexts, was raised by AIB Director, Mr. Jayachandra Palazhy in his comment made during the BIAF after screening conversations.
In the post screening conversations, Jane mentioned that using poetry in the film reinforced their Irish literary tradition. Experiences of Ageing in Short Stories by Irish Women Writers gave me a nuanced socio-cultural view of representations of ageing women in Irish literature, by women. Reifungsroman, a famously coined term by Barbara Waxman, in her article titled From “Bildungsroman to Reifungsroman”: Aging in Doris Lessing’s Fiction (1985), mentions a subgenre derived from the German root word Bildungsroman. The new breed of narratives were about ripening and maturing in deeply emotional and philosophical ways highlighting varied aspects of ageing, distinctly different from the coming of age stories of younger and adolescent protagonists, in pre to early 20th century writings. Epilogue is an ode to all dancers who might be able to reflect on ageing in dance, while opening themselves to avenues for a new age and stage in their dancing lives. Must the language of an ageing body be heeded to? What moves and creative possibilities lie in a limited range of motion? The call of the hour is to reform the convention of dismissing older dancers of any artistry or perfection. The life of a dancer is and can be led through, with and in dance. As a collaborative symphony of dance duets composed in the language of films, sounds, music and poetry, Epilogue is Eileen’s very own transmedia Reifungsroman, now emblazoned in the collective legacy of Northern Ireland and the global repository of arts and culture.
“ I gave my all…I did not choose the dance, The dance chose me”.
Maria McManus, Poet/ Epilogue Collaborator – Epilogue, 2021 [Film]
 Belfast International Arts Festival. 2021. Quoting Martha Graham/ Epilogue – Belfast International Arts Festival. [online] Available at: <https://belfastinternationalartsfestival.com/event/epilogue/> [Accessed 4 March 2022].
 Maria McManus, Poet/ Epilogue Collaborator – Epilogue, 2021 [Film]
 Martha Graham Dance Company, 1957. “A Dancer’s World”.
Available at: <https://youtu.be/aFTNmGBKC2Y> [Accessed 4 March 2022].
 BBC Radio 4. 2016. “A Dancer Dies Twice – BBC Sounds” (Isabelle Mortimer, Dancers’ Career Development). [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b075pm41> [Accessed 4 March 2022].
 D’hoker, Elke. “Experiences of Ageing in Short Stories by Irish Women Writers.” Nordic Irish Studies 17, no. 1, 2018: 145–60. Available at: <https://www.jstor.org/stable/26657503> [Accessed 4 March 2022].
 O’Byrne, E., 2021. Ageing in literature: ‘Old age isn’t about being unhappy… it’s about blossoming’. [online] Irish Examiner. Available at: <https://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/artsandculture/arid-40204814.html> [Accessed 4 March 2022].
Bryant, J., 2019. “Aging and range of motion for dancers: An introduction to a three-part series”. [online] International Association for Dance Medicine & Science. Available at: <https://iadms.org/resources/blog/posts/2019/april/aging-and-range-of-motion-for-dancers-an-introduction-to-a-three-part-series/> [Accessed 4 March 2022].
 BBC. 2017. BBC Radio4-Seriously…, “Why do dancers die twice?”. [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1fkwdll6ZscvQtHMz4HCYYr/why-do-dancers-die-twice> [Accessed 4 March 2022].
 York-Pryce, S., 2020. “Widening The Boundaries”. [Blog] Delving Into Dance: Exploring the world of Dance!, Available at: <https://www.delvingintodance.com/dwords/widening-the-boundaries> [Accessed 4 March 2022].
 Dance-on.net. n.d.”Dance On | Home”. [online] Available at: <https://dance-on.net/en/> [Accessed 4 March 2022].
 .op.cit. BBC. 2017. BBC Radio4-Seriously…, “Why do dancers die twice?”
D’hoker, Elke. “Experiences of Ageing in Short Stories by Irish Women Writers.” Nordic Irish Studies 17, no. 1, 2018: 145–60. Available at: <https://www.jstor.org/stable/26657503> [Accessed 4 March 2022].
Waxman, Barbara Frey. “From ‘Bildungsroman’ To ‘Reifungsroman’: Aging in Doris Lessing’s Fiction.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 68, no. 3, 1985: 318–34.Available at: <http://www.jstor.org/stable/41178344> [Accessed 4 March 2022].