The Real, like common sense, or sanity, or any other behavioural norm, is nothing more than the agreement between a majority of people of what is expedient for that community. It is a bell curve, and like any sociological contract, there will be outliers, people who were never asked, who never agreed. Extraterrestrial Events is a playful but searching collection of apercus gleaned from this outlying territory.
There is a constant tugging at the edges of what we agree. Artists, scientists, the 'mad' will not be constrained inside this border... and we rely on these explorers to shine a light on the parts of our human cosmos that we might eventually choose to colonise. The agreed Real is the stable home base, the point of departure, but we are constantly flinging ourselves outward, individually and collectively, to find new places to be ourselves. The central conceit of Extraterrestrial Events is a dataset of 446 stories of UFO encounters through which Connaughton trawled for nuggets which caught his eye. These are edited into the precise and agile soprano of Kim Sheehan, whose character is the nucleus around which this show orbits. She tells her stories in a hesitant way at first, apologising for having stupidly 'made it up'. But she goes on, returning to an outlandish recounting of intensely lived events. She is at times disturbed, anguished, and it is impossible not to empathise. And yet in assessing the literal 'facts' we only have her testimony, which is so far outside my own lived experience that I have to put her beyond the pale, into the Un-real, the mad.
But there is a reality working inside her attempts to speak and to be heard. It is the needful reality of picking up the imperfect tool to hand, and using it to say what she needs to say. She wants to convince us, so among the descriptions of alien faces and UFO shapes, there are oddly precise details such as angles, times, the kind of detail we learn as children to convince when we fear extra persuasion may be necessary. "The cattle were behaving normally though" - she is using this unbelieved story to breach a gap, to communicate, artlessly plucking from life the words she needs to reach her listener.
It is a neat metaphor of a pragmatic artistic process, assembling the elements to hand in order to say something, perhaps greater than the sum of its parts, maybe even getting to a truth which lurks in the gaps. The difference is Connaughton's is a deliberate adventure, skillfully weaving many of the artistic options available to him, and not the messy howl of someone who has not found a societally usefullkugiyuklkuyjbhytbytf
So this assemblage is full of enjoyable imagery, musical and physical as well as environmental, which launches around Sheehan and her Alien alienation.
Michael Gallen, stage right on interstellar piano and pan-galactic electronics, has made a gripping and resonant contribution to this space opera. Following Sheehan's apologetic opening, the dancers in the dark lay on the ground, breathing heavily, their voices morphing into coughing, grunting and retching, like an hilarious take on Ligeti. But despite a moment of murmuring among the audience and then laughter, the musical development of this retching is genuinely and absorbingly musical. Sheehan's vocal articulation is also full of unfamiliar life, gently glitchy and exploratory. At times reminiscent of Stockhausen's Stimmung, words are lovingly held and twisted. Another musical image unavoidable in my head is Lamonte Young, whose Dream Chord was designed mathematically to be a new sound, one which could never have occurred before in nature. And yet to underline Sheehan's psychological distance from home, there are here and there sentimental and familiar chord progressions, squelched slightly out of skew.
And to the dancers: when the lights come up, we are treated to the amusing sight of the four arrayed in identical drab, redolent of lo-fi sci-fi, equal parts Doctor Who and Star Trek. The vocabulary of the costumes is exactly the same as the words Sheehan uses - the vocabulary you would use if you wanted to convincingly describe a suspended moment with aliens if all you had to go on for this description was the TV and books of your childhood.
The movement has this aspect to it as well, earthy embodiment to describe the unearthly. The quartet are like insects, or the vibrating analogue dials in Professor Zarkov's spaceship. When Sheehan breaches the distance between her and her listener (an unconvinced Connaughton), they range to the far corners of the stage, almost as if her efforts are rewarded by these projections, they can land and explore for her. But when she gets lost in her words, when she tries too hard, they buzz around and fall over themselves. The really alien moments come when she manages to get close to saying something really true... the panicky need in her is echoed by dribbling blue ectoplasm from the mouths of the performers. These grey ghosts, another dimenson of herself, are there to tell her something, but she is not their master. They come and go, zippy beeping satellites conjured from the deep vacuums of her imagination but acting in the emotional content of her outpourings. The shapes are strong and clear, and the movement is zippy and fun - Sheehan's difficulty is not Connaughton's, and his decisions are light and athletic. The choreography is only one of the elements of this ambitious show, but it is well pitched and airtight.
Language and alienation are the twin suns of Extraterrestrial Events. Sheehan sings entirely in French, divorcing her from us a little further, a screen in the background helpfully translating for us the literal meaning of the wavelengths she is emitting. The desire in all of us to get past words and express the inexpressible, is presented here in an extreme form, and it doesn't take long before her plight becomes identifiable as ours. Auteur Connaughton, along with Gallen and the performers, has created a Fantastic World, immersive, consistent and authentic, to uncover a little truth among the absurd.
In a week where several terrible things happened, but which also saw the annual Towel Day, it seems appropriate to allow Douglas Adams to sum up an optimistic possible outcome of this evening's investigations into the outer reaches of communication:
"Let's think the unthinkable, let's do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all."
Bryan for DRAFF
Extraterrestrial Events ran at the Samuel Beckett Theatre until 28th May as part of the Dublin Dance Festival. Image: Jose Miguel Jimenez
Posted: 29th May 2017