Dancers performing “The River” by Flora Fauna Project. Photograph by Agata Stoinska

The River

A new landscape for contemporary dance

For dancers, moving beyond our comfort zones—the places we know to be familiar and safe—often involve pushing the physical limits of the body, training to extremes to create a new normal. But sometimes going beyond comfort zones can also be an inward action, having the bravery to be vulnerable and let go, trusting the body to move towards its places of intuition and feeling. This is what the Dublin-based Flora Fauna Project has been encouraging everyday people from their community to do.

Over the past three years, the Flora Fauna Project has developed from a single choreographic work for three contemporary dancers into a community-focused series of staged performances, talks, and dance workshops involving locals from some of the most challenged areas in Dublin. Led by dance choreographer Maria Nilsson Waller and music artist Stace Gill who have been collaborators since 2017, the project is remarkable in its desire for real human connection and its approach to building relationships and trust with the community.

In the most recent iteration of Flora Fauna Project, Nilsson Waller and Gill collaborated with a group of seventeen women—mothers, daughters, and grandmothers ages 20 to 71—from Sheriff Street and Ballybough, an underserved neighbourhood in Dublin’s northeast inner city overcome with social and economic hurdles.

Gill had grown up in a similar neighbourhood in Dublin. The 42-year old composer and musician in the synth-pop band The Sei, has a background as a Montessori teacher and is also creative director of D-Light Studios, an art space in the north inner city that is home to many creative projects, artists, and start-ups. It was Gill who connected with the group of women with the help of a Dublin football player from the Gaelic Athletic Association, Michael Darragh Macauley, who is an ambassador for regeneration in the northeast inner city and works closely with women’s football teams in Sheriff Street and Ballybough. With hopes of starting to get to know the women, Gill went to watch one of their football matches and to her surprise, they invited her to join the team.

It took a large leap of faith for Gill, who was unsure if she would be accepted by the group and worried she might not physically be able to commit due to past injuries from 18 years of playing soccer. She also admits that she had some deeper reservations about joining the group, having grown up around real dangers in her own community. But as she started playing football with them, she experienced an outpouring of acceptance, friendship, and team spirit. With emotion in her voice, she says, “These women have an incredible sense of solidarity . . . they just took me in and I was swept up by them.”

Maria Nilsson Waller and Stace Gill, creators of Flora Fauna Project.

The foundation of trust was there when Gill finally asked the women if they would consider joining her in the dance studio with her collaborator, Nilsson Waller. Six months later, the group of women performed in “The River”—a contemporary dance piece that appeared on the stage of the Project Arts Centre in Dublin for two nights at the beginning of March, just before the lockdown due to Covid-19.

In the six months leading up to the show, Nilsson Waller and Gill led contemporary dance classes for the women and rehearsed them for the performance, but their main purpose, says Nilsson Waller, was simply to “hold the space” for them—creating a safe and judgement-free environment for the women to access their own bodies and emotions through a guided, imaginative process. In the absence of any expectations or requirements in the studio other than involvement, the women were not students but co-creators, and Nilsson Waller’s choreography for “The River” drew upon their individual stories, emotions, experiences, and natural movements that had emerged during their months together.

They decided to name the show “The River” because, as Gill explains, “We wanted all the women in the piece to flow to their own natural state, whatever they were feeling at any given time.” While the choreography was set for the 25-minute long piece, the women’s focus was not to show-off movements, but rather to be completely present with themselves moment to moment. “They didn’t need to ‘perform’ anything on the night; all we were asking them to do was to be honest, tune in, let your body be soft,” Gill says.

This approach comes from the idea of natural intelligence, what Nilsson Waller describes as “learning to listen to the body and trusting that the body knows what it needs.” While she first began exploring natural intelligence in her choreography for professional dancers, it has been crucial in bridging the gap to a non-dancer community. As if speaking to the women in her notes for “The River,” she wrote, “You carry everything you need already.”

As if speaking to the women in her notes for “The River,” she wrote, “You carry everything you need already.”

The 35-year-old, Swedish-born Nilsson Waller has been a dance artist and choreographer for 17 years. She studied contemporary dance from a young age at the Swedish National Ballet School, and went on to train at the Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance and the Cannes Jeune Ballet. Her ideas around natural intelligence in the Flora Fauna Project come from studying nature, and are a continuation of research she began nearly a decade ago on man’s relationship to a wild, even hostile, natural world with her piece “Last Land” (2012), inspired by the two remaining no man’s lands on Earth located in Antarctica and Africa. In an early version of this piece from 2011, large sheets of newsprint lit by projections became the outlines of a slowly transforming landscape—shifting icebergs inching over the ground, or what could have been the continuously evolving forms of sand dunes. In the years after, Nilsson Waller looked at deep sea ecology in her piece “Founder” (2014) and at unknown borders and space in “merry.go.round” (2017) to complete a triptych of work on the relationship between humans and nature.

Nilsson Waller likens man’s collective fear of the wilderness to a fear of what is wild, unknown, and impulsive within our bodies. However, she says, “If you let nature do its thing, eventually there will always be a balance and a harmony. Like in the jungle, or in the deep sea, things have evolved to an incredibly balanced, interconnected system.”

In the Flora Fauna workshops, participants are offered poetic nature imagery as a way to bypass the brain and other learned behaviours of the body, allowing each individual to start tapping into their own interconnected system of emotions and sensations below the surface. The main task is “sending people back to themselves,” Gill says, “to try and help more people find freedom.”

This permission to feel and give expression to an inner world using the body is something that Gill and Nilsson Waller believe is especially needed in their local context. In Dublin, says Gill, there is a harmful culture of “slagging”—casual and playful mocking, to keep people from taking themselves too seriously—which can impact people’s ability to be open about their feelings and supportive of one another. She also believes the influence of the Church and the long history of oppression in Ireland, especially oppression of the female body, has made many Irish self-conscious and closed-off from their bodies. To ask this group of women to intentionally take up space with their bodies and feel free to play with imaginative prompts has ultimately led them to transcend many deeply rooted physical, cultural, and emotional boundaries.

Gill knows what this is like from first-hand experience. At a young age she turned to writing and singing Irish music for solace, as it was one of the only socially accepted forms of creative expression in her circle. Looking back to her first experience with contemporary dance in 2017—when Gill was invited by Nilsson Waller to compose music for a new dance piece she was creating at the HATCH Residency with Dance Ireland—Gill openly admits, “I was no different from [the women]. I was self-conscious. . .and I was absolutely terrified of going into that dance room with them to collaborate.” Unbeknownst to them, this residency would lead to Gill’s and Nilsson Waller’s long-term collaboration on the Flora Fauna Project. Although Gill had never taken contemporary dance before, Nilsson Waller welcomed her to join the three dancers in daily warm-up classes and actively participate in conceptualizing the piece that would become “Flora + Fauna,” the very first iteration of the project, performed at Riksteatern, Sweden and later in Dublin. As one of the “Flora + Fauna” dancers Marcia Liu remarks, what stood out to her most during the creative process was the “de-centralized approach” to the human being or performer. She explains how they practiced “not being the ultimate smart commander of our bodies nor other bodies” and developed ways to “feel and listen more” to both themselves and those around them. It was a transformative experience for Gill on all levels—physical, emotional, and spiritual—having been encouraged to move and express herself freely in a non-judgmental environment for the first time. “I felt like I had come home. I felt like I had a space,” she says.

Dancers prepare backstage for “The River” by Flora Fauna Project. Photograph by Agata Stoinska

Gill and Nilsson Waller have continued to see some of the therapeutic effects of their practice. The women from “The River” have commented on sleeping better and having less neck pain and overall tension. Nilsson Waller explains how the body often keeps a “score” of past emotions, trauma, and experiences that we may not be conscious of but can be unlocked through movement. Gill has observed this in herself, as she describes using the imagination and the body to gently approach an area of tension that may hold a shock or emotion from a past event, and then begin to release it. As the women have shared similar stories, Gill relates how the workshops “became an hour where they got to be themselves, tune into their own bodies again, and then start to heal things in their lives that they didn’t know where to begin with.”

After the HATCH Residency, Gill and Nilsson Waller were compelled to share what they had learned and decided to bring Flora Fauna into the community, feeling that other people like Gill, who were untrained in dance, could benefit from the process.

For their first workshop, they ran contemporary dance classes for 80 ten-year-old students over two-and-a-half months as part of the Children’s Art in Libraries program in Ballyfermot, an underserved community in the suburbs of Dublin. While Gill was confident in the personal results she had with the Flora Fauna process, she felt it would be another feat getting these children to accept contemporary dance. Nilsson Waller was slightly more optimistic, as her experiences with young audiences had shown her that contemporary dance is “not always a big step away for people who have never seen it. It’s just you haven’t been exposed to it yet.” While the social and cultural circumstances were different, over the past five years she had delivered over 200 workshops to children, had performed in non-conventional venues like the library, and had been touring her pieces to small, rural communities around her hometown in Sweden where children would not otherwise have the chance to experience contemporary dance.

With the children from Ballyfermot, “We ask them to imagine or to embody being a tree. We asked them to really imagine, to remind themselves of the feeling of stepping into a forest, we try to get them to feel it through their bodies. A lot of these kids have never been in the forest. They don’t really know what that smells like. But somehow we get them to do that in their imagination,” Nilsson Waller explains.

While some of the teachers offered to not bring back particularly problematic children the next week, Nilsson Waller and Gill insisted that no child be left out. “This is the exact space for people who are feeling the most vulnerable, the most afraid, and who are the most angry,” Gill says. “It can’t be the message to them, or to the rest of the kids, that you can’t feel what you’re feeling. It goes against everything that we’re trying to teach.” At the end of the ten-week workshop, the children performed “The Forest,” a contemporary dance piece choreographed by Nilsson Waller to music composed by Gill. It was a celebratory moment; Gill and Nilsson Waller were overwhelmed with how proud the students looked, their sense of ownership, and the support they showed each other as well as their Flora Fauna organizers.

“This is the exact space for people who are feeling the most vulnerable, the most afraid, and who are the most angry,” Gill says.

After having such a positive collaboration with the children, Nilsson Waller and Gill asked, why not run Flora Fauna for adults? They had tested the process on Gill over the past year and also saw similar success with a focus group of ten adults who they reached through an open call and led through four sessions of basic contemporary dance technique and choreographic tasks, culminating in a performance at D-Light Studios. It was shortly after that Gill connected with the women from Sheriff Street and Ballybough who invited her to play on their football team.

For Nilsson Waller, having a sustained engagement with the community, over several weeks or months, was essential to the success of their collaborations. In this way, working with the community was not unlike working with professional dancers, in which establishing a creative process and rehearsing a piece would happen over an extended period of time. Nilsson Waller admits she could not have connected with this special group of women without the strong relationships Gill made through playing football over three months and with D-Light Studios being situated in-between the two communities.

Show them free: Performing “The River” in front of a crowd in March, 2020. Photograph courtesy of the company.

For “The River,” Gill composed a new piece of music, a flowing, meditative track that was meant to be a “cushion” of sound for the women to find safety and stillness in. Details in the music, as well as the lighting have been essential from the beginning, as Nilsson Waller and Gill carefully designed the environment both in studio and on stage to make the women feel as if they were in a “cocoon,” wrapping the audience in with them.

Looking back to March, not having known then that theatre spaces would soon be closed due to the pandemic, Nilsson Waller and Gill remark on how valuable it was for the women to be able to perform in a theatre in front of an audience of family, friends, strangers, and peers. “It was so important for their bravery that they were able to stand up and show people what they had learned and how free they had become,” Gill says. In a pre-show intimate chat with the women, she recalls telling them, “You need to give your kids permission to do the same. You want them to be free. They’re going to be watching you, show them free.”

Although the performance is now finished, Nilsson Waller and Gill intend to continue working together with the women in the studio to keep unearthing their voices, stories, and expressive movements. Along with the classes, they are looking forward to an excursion to Glendalough—an important nature preserve for Ireland, known for the beauty of its wilderness and ancient spiritual sites, just an hour away from Dublin near to where Nilsson Waller and Gill live—to see the real landscapes that inspired much of the Flora Fauna Project. In the last month, Nilsson Waller and Gill have released the music for “The River” on an EP titled “Lumen” and have made plans to produce a documentary on the women’s experiences in the dance workshops. However, the most exciting chapter may be yet to come, Nilsson Waller says. “It will be interesting to see how the dance will evolve when we start to give the keys to people who haven’t gone through dance training, who have not been shaped or influenced by [a traditional] system.”

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