Dance in this State of Exception

Dancers Marc Stevenson and Alessandra Ruggeri.

FEW art platforms are considering the State’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Excluded from society and most employment opportunities and with no State subvention for third level education, men, women and children languish in provision centres. They are out of sight and out of mind, living on a frugal stipend while application cases are processed over years.

It can be a decade before a decision on their future is made, potentially deportation. The interim is cruel.

Scene within a Direct Provision Centre.
Photo: Luca Truffarelli

Choreographer and dancer Catherine Young has worked with privately owned Direct Provision Centres (DPC) in Kerry and Cork, running workshops and creating stories in movement and voice with these displaced communities. Driven by such work and with the support of The Arts Council, she has made a professional and relevant contemporary dance show. ‘State of Exception’ tours to Lime Tree Theatre on Wednesday February 26, 8pm.

Catherine responded to queries from Arts Page. “‘State of Exception’ is my concept. I was working with Tralee based asylum seekers and made a piece ‘Welcome the Stranger’ that was part of the 1916 commemorations for Banna Beach. I’d wanted to design such a programme as it is hard for people to meet asylum seekers generally. A lot are not from a drinking culture.

“In the last three years I have created three big shows, one annually, as  part of the outreach arm of my company Catherine Young Dance (, working with these communities.”

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An experienced practitioner who has done plenty with our own Dance Limerick, she is emphatic that “dance is a great way to connect. Dance is universal, non verbal and it brings a lot of joy.”

Within the DPCs, immigrants would bring their songs and dance moves to her class “and I’d find a way to incorporate them into the shows. I wanted the class and network to be respite for them, a bit of fun.”

She baulks at the idea of wringing people’s back-stories from them, the why and the how they got to Irish refuges. “I don’t think we have the right to ask them for their stories.

“You have to gain trust first and I never ask, I think that’s quite invasive and prefer dance as a way to connect. I want them to feel welcome.”

Catherine Young has worked with two centres in Tralee, three in Killarney, Limerick’s Mount Trenchard and another in Longford town. It was in Longford, with a professional team of creatives, that ‘State of Exception’ was made once funding came through.

Asylum seekers, their identity veiled, appear only at the beginning and end of the 75 minute show to enhance its authentic feel. With those who had wanted to tell their stories, “we sat down and recorded them. These sound clips are interspersed with sound design throughout the work. We have live music, four professional dancers and four musicians.”

Over eight weeks, working gratefully in the residential Shawbrook dance centre and with Longford’s Backstage Theatre, the team committed to what The Irish Arts Review described as “a powerfully visceral experience and one of the most compelling depictions of the refugee crisis to date.”

Yet the entertainment value is high. Catherine says that “the music is wonderful, with cello, drumming, voice and this is such a physical show with lots of dance – contemporary dance and in parts, fused with African.

People enjoy the show from purely a dance and music perspective, it’s a lovely symbiotic experience” and yet, there is a political ferocity and exposition evident.

Approach ‘State of Exception’ as you choose,