Stage

Binding body, mind and soul

Ahead of this weekend's Georgian celebrations in Armagh, poet Maria McManus tells Gail Bell about new poetry-dance film BIND and how it started with a bunch of letters

Dancer Rosie Mullin, one of the performers in BIND by Quotidian - Word on the Street, which is being screened in Armagh on Thursday
Gail Bell

THE healing place of the soul, the enduring motto of Armagh's iconic Robinson Library, has helped inspire a collaborative new art film marking the building's 250th anniversary.

BIND reunites the poetry talents of Maria McManus, choreography of Eileen McClory and film-making skills of Conan McIvor, in an eclectic celebration of books, women and letter-writing - as well as the legacy of the enlightened Archbishop Richard Robinson himself.

To be screened as part of Armagh's Georgian Weekend (November 25-28), the innovative film stemmed from a letter writing campaign conducted by McManus in 2019 to "fill the void" left by the primate's private correspondence being burned - at his own instructions - following his death in 1794.

"For BIND we went back and re-visited that correspondence and used it as a point of departure to develop something new for the library," explains McManus, whispering down the line from Aviemore, Scotland, where, coincidentally, she is in a library, on a break during a writing retreat for a new project with the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris.

"We received letters from people of all ages, from all backgrounds and perspectives, some writing to historical figures from the past, some writing to their future selves, on a wide range of subjects, but because there wasn't one coherent theme coming out of it all, we decided to take a handful of lines from different letters that we felt could merit development and become themes of interest."

The library's own motto - inscribed in Greek over the entrance - was one such chosen line, with an excerpt provided by award-winning Co Down poet, Moyra Donaldson, another. She submitted a poem to the letter writing project featuring the words: "A woman addresses her body."

Others selected were: "Here I am, as tiny as a word on a page" (taken from a letter and poem written by another Co Down-based poet, Olive Broderick); "What will we do with the time we have left?" (author unknown) and the poignant opening sentence of another letter: "I am writing to you because I cannot speak" (author unknown).

Dancer Clara Kerr, one of the performers in BIND

Out of the few hundred letters sent - one particularly memorable one was penned by a young child as a panegyric to his beloved teddy bear - many were from women, notes Belfast-based McManus, who founded her Quotidian – Word on the Street creative arts production company to "put literature into public spaces".

"You have absolute autonomy on a page - you can write and say exactly what you want and the page itself isn't going to argue back, so it is kind of interesting that women took up the opportunity," she says.

"There were a number of letters about loss, maybe the result of the impact of the mother and baby homes. A few came from women who had given up children and one was from the daughter of a man raised in one of the industrial homes who decided to write to her dead grandfather.

"So, the film explores the theme of 'binding' in several ways: the binding of books, as bonds across time and generations, and also in the costumes, metaphorically linking corsetry to constraints on women at the time.

"It looks at the lack of access to education and expression of the body. The Robinson Library is also a character in the film, which was recorded there earlier this year."

In another innovative move, development of the dance movements was informed by sign language, with Belfast poet Bebe Ashley translating the original five lines of text for choreographer Eileen McClory and dancers Ryan O'Neill, Clara Kerr and Rosie Mullin.

Dancer Ryan O'Neill, one of the performers in BIND

"Because dance is a language; a communication through the body, and sign language is also a communication through the body, we were keen to experiment with gesture," says McManus, whose original poems for the piece are spoken by actress Roisin Gallagher in voice-overs.

"Overall, the film is very evocative of the late 18th century, through the costumes created by Una Hickey and also through the set, which is the actual library itself.

"And, in addition to corsets and crinolines, the costumes feature large pockets which 18th century women would tie around their waists and keep items such as thimbles, pin cushions, cures for various ailments, a small notebook or a love letter.

"They weren't allowed to have property or to have an education, but they could have these things in their pockets. The film is a kind of interplay between movement and freedom and exploration on one hand and containment on the other."

The letters which led to BIND are now stored in an archive box at the library where correspondence from notable public figures from the past, including Jonathan Swift, Florence Nightingale and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, are also held, but it is hoped the film won't be consigned to a shelf following its premiere at the Market Place Theatre Studio in Armagh this Thursday.

"I hope the film will be reused and become a transferable thing," concludes McManus, a former occupational therapist working in adult mental health and dementia care before giving up her "double life" in 2013 to work full-time in the arts.

"BIND was originally intended to be a performance piece on stage until Covid changed things, but the upside is that we now have something that isn't as ephemeral. I hope people will appreciate the binding of the past with the future and a sense of place in this beautiful homage to the legacy of the 'healing place of the soul'."

BIND, featuring music from Katie Richardson and supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, will be screened at Market Place Theatre Studio on Thursday November 25 at 8.30pm. Tickets are free and can be booked online at armagh-navancentre.ticketsolve.com

The Robinson Library is situated beside the Church of Ireland cathedral in Armagh

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