ASSUMING classical model poses, West Cork-based dancer Tara Brandel, wearing high heels and a dress, slowly becomes covered in blood as part of her provocative award-winning show, Circus.
Having been performed at the Cork Midsummer Festival this year as well as at the recent Dublin Fringe Festival and in San Francisco and Seattle, it can be seen on Culture Night, this Friday, September 20 as part of an Uilinn West Cork Arts Centre event at Skibbereen town hall.
Tara, whose work “has always been very feminist and often touches on themes around gender and LBGT themes,” says her bleeding model is inspired by the #MeToo movement.
“I’m interested in the rage that came out of it, a rage that was made visible and was given a voice. The piece is open to different interpretations. As I perform it, it actually feels very empowering.
“It’s saying that this is a woman’s inner experience. The stilettos in it are about the whole objectification of women.”
The dance show also includes Tara as “an ageing pole dancer”.
“I started pole dancing on a whim for my 50th birthday last year, having seen a 71- year-old woman pole dancing on Italy’s Got Talent. I decided to take a class in it and got completely hooked. I started to train seriously at it and put it into a performance.”
Tara agrees that pole dancing has sexual connotations. “That’s historically where it has come from. But there’s now something called pole fitness which is what I trained in. I also did a little bit of Chinese pole dancing which you often see in circuses, done by men. It involves leaping, jumping and flying on poles. You need incredible strength to do it.”
Living in Cappaghglass, near Ballydehob, across the road from the house she grew up in, Tara enjoyed “a creative upbringing”. Tragically, her writer father, Marc Brandel, died by suicide in 1994 when he was 75 and Tara was in her 20s. She created a dance piece called Under Wear to explore his last moments. Her mother worked as a ceramic sculptor.
“My parents moved here from England in about 1961. They were part of that early wave of artists that came to West Cork. It was a magical time to be here.”
Tara was always encouraged to dance, having started as soon as she could walk. She took ballet classes in West Cork in the 1970s with Ian Montague from the Royal Danish Ballet Company.
“As a young child, I didn’t really learn much technique. But I got to be in really amazing performances such as one about children in the Industrial Revolution.”
Having attended Ashton School in Cork city, Tara moved to England with her mother at the age of 14.
“We went there partly so I could train in dance because there wasn’t really anything available here. England was where my dance training really took off.”
She spent four years training as a contemporary dancer at the Laban Centre in London and has been choreographing extensively since 1990. Before that, Tara attended experimental post modern dance classes at Dartington College.
“I got to join in with the students, even though I was only 15.”
After the Laban Centre, Tara came back to Ireland and worked as a dancer in the 1990s. She went to California to do ten weeks training with “the grandmother of contemporary dance, Anna Halprin.
“I had read about her and really wanted to work with her. I got some Arts Council funding to train with her. When I got to San Francisco, I was offered a job in a dance centre and a work permit. It was great to be there. It was a peak time for the contemporary dance scene.”
It was also a good place to be a lesbian. Tara had come out in London.
“LGBT culture is really vibrant in San Francisco.”
She returned to West Cork when her visa ran out after six years. She built a house near Ballydehob and helped to set up Croí Glan, a professional dance company for dancers with and without physical disabilities. While Tara doesn’t have a disability, her work has always been about diversity.
“I’m really excited about seeing diverse bodies on stage and people with a wide range of body types. With my show, Circus, I wanted diversity in other ways. So I’m working with a street dancer from Nigeria called Nicholas Nwosu who is currently a new immigrant in Ireland.”
Nicholas, whose dance style mixes hip hop, twerking and hip-let, is seen dancing on video at the Circus show. It isn’t live because Tara was in the U.S when she put the show together and Nicholas was in Ireland.
“Also, seeing him projected on video gives that sense of separation that new migrants sometimes talk about.”
Tara says that her show is also, partly, “a romp through gender stereotypes. In quite a lot of the show, I’m in male drag. The idea is to look at toxic masculinity.”
The inspiration for Circus partly comes from Tara’s two year residency at the West Cork Arts Centre in 2015/16. During that time, she had a retrospective of 25 years of her choreography.
“It was through that retrospective that I knew I wanted to focus on my own work, separate from Croí Glan and go back to earlier ideas about gender and feminism.”
Tara still works with Croí Glan and is delighted that the company has just got its first arts grant.
While it has had Arts Council project funding all the time, the arts grants are “new bigger grants for companies that have been established for a while. It gives us opportunities to create more work each year which will be bigger and more ambitious.”
Tara keeps fit by dancing.
“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to dance,” she says. “I’m grateful at 51 to be still dancing.”