Gutter attacks US-influenced news media via modern dance

Jane Hardy speaks to choreographer Eileen McClory and dancer Kevin Coquelard about the provocative new dance theatre piece Gutter, which debuts at the Belfast Festival this weekend...

Kevin Coquelard as the Host in Gutter. PICTURE: NEIL HAINSWORTH
Kevin Coquelard as the Host in Gutter. PICTURE: NEIL HAINSWORTH

IF YOU wanted to deliver a blistering attack on today's US-influenced news media, you might not choose modern dance as your vehicle – how about a juicy TV drama like Succession?

Yet Belfast dancer and choreographer Eileen McClory has produced a powerful dance theatre piece titled Gutter – as in the 'gutter press': Rupert Murdoch's empire, CNN, Fox News, Question Time and some BBC News output should not expect an easy ride.

So what does dance add to McClory's social comment? She explains the nature of her work: "I would call it dance theatre, it's physical theatre. It has a script and characterisation with highlighted movement."

McClory (40) adds that Kevin Coquelard, the Paris Conservatoire-trained dancer who plays the Host in the one-man show, a showman/anchorman figure, is giving us "stories that only the body can tell".

Dancer and choreographer Eileen McClory
Dancer and choreographer Eileen McClory

She says that our bodies are incredible storytellers.

"We forget we read body language more than what people actually say, in setting tone. Movement can push things further as you build up character."

She adds that the dance the anchorman does with his table is a good example.

McClory and Coquelard (30) have collaborated on Gutter. He trained in movement in France, she got her Master's in contemporary performance practice at Ulster University.

The choreographer was the winner of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Major Individual Artist Award in 2022.

"I got £15,000 which enabled me to develop this and set up Off the Rails Dance, with support from the Belfast International Arts Festival and the City Council and The MAC. We do need funding for the arts."

Dancer and choreographer Eileen McClory at the Strand Arts Centre. PICTURE: DARREN KIDD/PRESSEYE
Dancer and choreographer Eileen McClory at the Strand Arts Centre. PICTURE: DARREN KIDD/PRESSEYE

I had a sneak preview of a scene right in the middle of Gutter. It was electric. Moving to one of the Looney Tunes, Coquelard becomes larger than life as he lists the countries whose problems we're faced with in the 24/7 rolling news world. McClory notes it's the "bombardment" that affects us.

More manic than Richard Madeley on GMB, our presenter speeds up as he lists Syria, the United States, El Salvador, adding everywhere you can think of. There is no detail, no context, it's just in your face as he moves forward behind the presenter's desk.

He puts the boot or polished shoe into infotainment, factual reporting as fun and games. The seriousness goes, the absurdity remains.

McClory says: "Yes, 'infotainment', that's what it is, information parading as entertainment, material for satire shows."

You'll laugh at this scene, maybe a tad nervously, as the guy speeds up and the words smudge and blur. As the French dancer says: "People watching my meltdown behind the table get the physicality which reveals things that can't be said."

But they are there in the gesture, pressure and hype. He may be a victim of the news juggernaut too as he twists and turns under the pressure. As Coquelard puts it, his character isn't the king, "he's the pawn".

Gutter was dreamed up when McClory was working in New York around the time of Barack Obama's election: "I was working there and the coverage was obsessive. They sensationalised everything to keep people interested."

Originally written about the tabloids and now with a broader remit, there is a question of trust here, underpinning questions of 'fake news'. Interestingly, this term has been around since the late 19th century, current again since Trump.

We discuss the terrible situation where it was hard to know at one point who had struck the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza.

"Yes, it was awful and you didn't know which side was responsible."

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Which news outlets do Coquelard and McClory turn to? Coquelard admits that he doesn't watch news programmes or TV, but turns to satirical magazines or goes online.

McClory adds: "I currently don't watch the news because my children, Ayala (three) and Amari (coming up to two), are in control.

"But I would try to watch Channel 4 News, I would trust the BBC when there's verification. I didn't want this to come across just being about news – we need excellent reporting everywhere and I remember growing up with our own UTV news, so different.

"But I'd trust anything Sir Trevor McDonald said."

Kevin Coquelard as the Host in Gutter. PICTURE: NEIL HAINSWORTH
Kevin Coquelard as the Host in Gutter. PICTURE: NEIL HAINSWORTH

It may be that the media feed us what they think we want to hear. But there are risks, as McClory indicates when talking about the rise of casual misogyny onscreen, which half the population may not enjoy.

"We tackle that, and have included quotes from Russell Brand and Piers Morgan, all in the public domain. And Laurence Fox's awful comment about a woman on GB News, though I'm not sure we'll use that.

"But it's about how women are treated differently to men and the way sports reporters ask female athletes different questions."

Coquelard mentions a typical insult: "I saw something with Pamela Anderson on a late night show with the male presenter saying she made his carrot rise."

The narrative concerning our news presenter asks big questions about trust and truthfulness. McClory agrees: "Yes, it's dance but like all my social comment shows, it helps me understand the world a bit more. It is dance, it's entertaining, you'll enjoy it – but at the end, you may come away feeling, 'Oh my God.'"

And maybe not optimistic about resetting the news media button. And the narrative featuring our anonymous TV man has no happy ending.

McClory explains: "We see this green presenter at the start building his career, creating his own studio. He gets bigger, has three cameras, but is also more dependent on the voices of the producers he hears telling him what to do via his earpiece.

Kevin Coquelard as the Host in Gutter. PICTURE: NEIL HAINSWORTH
Kevin Coquelard as the Host in Gutter. PICTURE: NEIL HAINSWORTH

"He has to do what they say and there is a breakdown."

You wonder if the character in the Matalan suit – "We need three, as he sweats a lot" – becomes more sympathetic, as I am told there's a death at the end: but no.

McClory says with a laugh: "He's manipulated you."

Gutter, October 28 and 29, The MAC, Belfast. Visit belfastinternationalartsfestival.com for showtimes, tickets and full festival programme