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The film crew hadn’t expected such a turn-out, and were scouring the room for a spare chair ahead of the Lord Mayor Caroline Conroy’s arrival.
More than 30 people, mostly older locals, had gathered in the F2 Fatima Centre in Rialto last Thursday afternoon for the screening of Dance Till Dán, a short film produced by the Fatima Groups United.
The walls of the third-floor arts studio were decorated with collages of old newspaper headlines, portrait photos of men in armchairs against pop-art backdrops, a shelf of knitted houses.
After the Mayor entered, director Lorna Fitzsimons told those gathered that they were about to see a showcase of the FGU’s creative outlets: the Fatima Poetry Vigilantes, and its dance and drama groups.
“This film is a celebration of our poetry, dance and drama,” she said. “It’s a proper collaboration.”
Fitting five vignettes into six minutes, the film blends stanzas penned by the Poetry Vigilantes with playful interpretive dance from members of both the poetry and dance groups.
Richly coloured, and shot in and around Rialto and Kilmainham, Dance Till Dán offers a portrait of this corner of Dublin 8, delving into personal histories, and into impressions of isolation, mortality and self-expression.
At the screening, about 10 cast members sat in the front row, muttering with delight as they spotted themselves in shots – dancing outside a local flower shop, in the Bully’s Acre cemetery, in front of walls decorated in elaborate graffiti tags.
Most of the performers were above the age of 60. Their on-screen movements included tai chi-like hand motions, simple but carefree and joyous.
The scenes were shot over two days in January 2022, says choreographer Mia DiChiaro, a teacher with the Fatima Dance Group. “It was a moment when people were still wearing masks.”
Many of the dancers taught by DiChiaro were older people, she says, and the anxieties of the pandemic fed into their performances. “It was about what it means to move again, and come out of the home.”
They wanted to convey the desire to escape the drudge of lockdowns, says Richie Keane, a poet and community development worker with the Fatima Groups United. “It was the igniting of a passion in the movement and lighting.”
Dora Kelly, a poet and dancer, says it was an expression of self-confidence regained.
“They gave us the licence to do this, and we gave ourselves the open gate to just go for it,” said Kelly, after the screening ended. Around the room, viewers and cast members milled around and chattered over tea and coffee.
Dance Till Dán was Kelly’s first foray into filmmaking.
From Kilmainham, and in her mid-50s, she became involved after joining the Fatima Poetry Vigilantes as a writer, she says. “I had written poetry as a teenager, and I’ve always liked language. I’d write for myself, a bit of prose.”
It was her son who encouraged her to participate in the Vigilantes’ weekly sessions. He had been contributing pieces to the group since it formed during the first national lockdown in 2020.
Kelly wasn’t a stranger to art projects at the F2 herself. “I had come to the centre for various art things for years,” she says. “Anything creative.”
Prior to production, DiChiaro, Kelly’s daughter-in-law, told her that a plan was in motion to bring the poetry and dance groups together for a project.
DiChiaro asked Kelly to think about places she might like to write poems about, Kelly says. But “I had no intention of doing any dancing whatsoever.”
By the time shooting started though, she and many of the poets found themselves stepping off the page, putting movement to their thoughts.
In the mishmash of ideas floating around, the groups merged easily, she says. “The poets didn’t end when the dancers started.”
Poetry in Motion
Dance Till Dán was first conceived as a straightforward collaborative project between the poets and dancers, says Richie Keane. “It became a film when we wanted to make something that could be recorded.”
Bringing the two artforms together in film embodied a sense of togetherness that the filmmakers sought to capture, says Catherine Ann Cullen, who leads the Fatima Poetry Vigilante group and was Poetry Ireland’s inaugural poet in residence.
“Poetry can be very solitary, so the thing about the project was to give the dancers a chance to write and the poets a chance to dance,” she said.
Cullen fed writing prompts to the Poetry Vigilantes.
These served as the foundations for each of the five vignettes, eliciting vivid glimpses into the neighbourhood of yesteryear, she said. “They tended to be based on memoir, on their own experiences.”
In one segment, called “Window Shopping”, the narrative is assembled around Kelly’s recollections of a former grocery store, now a florist, located on Emmet Road in Inchicore.
Dancers, including Kelly and Keane, perform child-like hand clapping games.
DiChiaro, the choreographer, says she didn’t want there to be set choreography. “My role as a facilitator was to offer these playful improvisation cues.”
In voiceover, Kelly remembered the shop’s owner as “Mr Collins”, calling his business “a childlike cave of wonders”.
“Jigsaws and little boats called to me as I entered with my mam,” she read.
Says Cullen, the poet: “She was thinking back to her childhood, going to that shop with its magazines, a few toys and the groceries.”
Kelly was portraying nostalgia, but also the feeling of connectedness, Cullen says.
That shop wasn’t simply a place where ice creams could be bought for a couple of pence, Kelly says. It was a place of neighbourliness. “It’s the ‘Good morning, how are you?’ The interactions. The exchange of pleasantries.”
Celebration of Life
Themes of memory and loss underpin the loose narrative, created from a range of poetic voices, says director Lorna Fitzsimons. “They were standing in the new, and reflecting on the past.”
The filmmaker, who is also a drama teacher in the centre, says she would tend to produce darker comedies.
But in this instance, even the most poignant of moments wasn’t portrayed as a lament. “It was a celebration of life,” she said.
In the fifth and final vignette, titled “Bully’s Acre”, five of the cast act out an almost druidic dance in the cemetery near the Royal Hospital Kilmainham.
The scene was devised to honour Carmel Heffernan, one of the dancers, who passed away before production began, says DiChiaro. “It was a sense of loss, both for Carmel and certainly from Covid too.”
A woman, in voiceover, pays tribute to her late friend. “Maybe on our next project Carmel will join us in spirit,” she says.
They twirl in slow motion. Hands were cast against the surface of a bright yellow flag, which was intercut with shots of Kelly spinning as her hip-length hair was caught in the wind.
Dancer Kristina McElroy says the willingness of each performer to lean into the fusion of movement and words created the sense of unbridled optimism in each frame.
“It was this amazing alchemy, in which everyone was willing to say yes, and go along with it because of the lovely sense of community that there is here,” she says.
Just Go For It
Sat at the back of the art studio, as attendants departed in drips, Kelly pondered how she and her friends had reached this moment.
Dance Till Dán has been shortlisted for the 2022 Creative Lives Awards, recognising voluntary and community-led creative projects in Ireland and the UK.
It was fresh from being shown at the Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin. It is billed for the ROLLOUT Dance Film Festival 2023 in Macau.
Opportunities of this kind are rare, she says. “But one thing sparks everything.”
Signing up for different groups in the centre was what gave her a tide of confidence, she says. “I went to college for the first time in my 50s. I’d never have done that if I hadn’t come here.”
It gave her the courage to pirouette around a graveyard without feeling self-conscious, she says. “Like, if nobody saw the end results except us, I wouldn’t care.”
“But the fact that it has gone to these festivals, and somebody in a Berlin audience is wondering ‘What the hell are they doing?’”
She bursts out laughing at the thought.
[CORRECTION: This article was updated at 2pm to correct Kristina McElroy’s name, and the name of the Macau film festival]