Fidget Feet: Taking to the Skies

Fidget Feet dance company heads to Cork on the 23rd, bringing with them a double-header of aerial dance shows. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with dancer and creative director Chantal McCormack Daly.

Pursuing a labour of love is a tough business, as any creative or media individual will tell you. It is quite something else, then, to effectively blaze the trail for it in your home country. For Cork musician Jym Daly and Donegal dancer Chantal McCormick-Daly, it’s been a consuming passion to establish their company Fidget Feet, and bring the thrill of aerial dance to essentially a new audience, one largely built up from scratch in their own case. It’s a process Chantal is evidently proud of. “Fidget Feet received its first commission in 2004 from Customs House in Newcastle, in the UK, to create a solo show called I Can’t Handle Me. Previous to this, we toured Ireland with support from local arts offices, to village halls, churches, anywhere that would take us, with our first shows in 1998. I trained in dance in the UK, and the reason we set up Fidget Feet is we wanted to move home to Ireland, be the first aerial dance company here, and bring what we’ve learnt in the UK to Ireland. We had to wait till Circus became a recognised artform by the Arts Council, before we could move home in 2007. Since then we’re now the leading aerial dance company in Ireland, funded by Arts Council, Culture Ireland, Donegal County Council & Limerick City & County Council. We’re the resident company at Irish World Academy of Music & Dance at the University of Limerick, & our permanent home is at the Irish Aerial Creation Centre.”

The process of establishing a regular touring schedule, effectively building something new for themselves in terms of booking, scheduling and venue liaison, was the foundation of their activities, one laid carefully over the course of years. Chantal is grateful to their Leeside home, the Firkin Crane Theatre in Shandon, in particular. “We’ve been touring successfully since as early as 1998, so the relationships we built since then, we still work on, we build trust with venues, working together to build audiences. Firkin Crane was one of the first venues that supported Fidget Feet, offering us residencies to create work since 2001. Without their support we wouldn’t be where we are now, and we’re excited to be coming back.”

In June, the company will be hosting the annual Irish Aerial Dance Festival in Letterkenny. How did the concept come about and how has it been to see grow the last few years? “I went to the original Aerial Dance Festival in Colorado in USA in 2005, funded by a travel grant from Arts Council. There I trained for two weeks, working with amazing teachers, and I wanted to bring something like this back to Ireland. We started with funding from Dance Ireland, and in Dublin Dance House, we ran weeklong Aerial Forums once a year for three years. Then we partnered with Donegal County Council & An Grianain theatre, moved up to my home county and started running the Irish Aerial Dance Festival there with funding & support from these partners . In year one, we had forty participants for one week, with six teachers. Now we have over twenty teachers, and over 170 participants. Shows, workshops, symposiums and lots of fun. It’s in its eighth year this year, and we have plans to expand, if we get the funding, to make it into a programming festival, so it becomes a platform for national and international circus companies to show their work. We aim for this by 2019, the festival’s 10th anniversary. It’s a dream come true to see it grow and for it to be at home. When I was growing up in Donegal, I knew I wanted to be a dancer but there was not much for me to do – so now we are offering this to any young person that would like to have a career in the arts & circus.”

In 2015, Fidget Feet opened the Irish Aerial Creation Centre in Co. Limerick after garnering funding via Arthur Guinness Projects in 2013. Chantal takes us through the process of planning and creating such a centre, and tying it into the group’s community engagement goals. “It was down to a trip to Montreal in 2008, to the Cinars festival, & we had a tour of Cirque De Soleil’s headquarters, and I thought, ‘Ireland deserves something like this. Much smaller, but a space!’ (laughs) So I had a bee in my bonnet to find a space. We got LEADER funding in 2012, to write a feasibility study on converting a barn into a creation centre in Westmeath, where we were based. In 2014, we were offered the Guinness award of €45,000 seed money to find a space. We were resident company at the Irish World Academy of Music & Dance in the University of Limerick, so I talked to Michael O’Sullivan, the director, if we could move the Creation Centre idea to Limerick, could we be partners, and could we teach aerial dance to the Academy students. He said yes, so we found a warehouse space near the University, and moved in 2015, with support from Limerick City & County Council for three years. With the addition of the Arts Council’s supports for professional development and training at the centre, we had our partners. Then with a Small Capital Grant and McManus funds, we were able to kit out the space. We are so thrilled to have been granted €350,000 plus, in March, funding from Limerick City & County Council to move into a new building in the city of Limerick by 2019. So it’s all go, go. go!”

The group is touring Ireland this month, and after all that’s been accomplished and what they’ve set up for aerial in the country, how is it for Chantal to still get into the spaces and rooms around the country, and further afield, and just perform? “I’m a mum, and I thought maybe with these three businesses, and being a mum, that maybe I don’t need to perform too. But my heart is all about creating and performing, that’s why I do everything I do, without that chance to perform my heart amd soul would be lost. So I have to choose when I can perform, so not all the shows & not all year. I have a great team of performers & a small team in the office (three of us) so together we try to make it work. Lots of late night admin work for me!”

The group performs two shows at the Firkin Crane on the 23rd of this month, for two distinct audiences. The early show, Strange Feathers, is for a younger, formative-years audience. “I went to India, and did a course called Next Generation, where I met my Icelandic partner, Tinna Gretars, from Bird and Bat Dance Company. We hit it off, and together we choreographed the show in Ireland and Iceland. Riverbank in Ireland supported the show and we premiered it last year there. In Iceland we did a small tour with Culture Ireland & Icelandic support, so we’re thrilled to be taking it to so many Irish venues. I have always wanted to make an aerial dance piece with music for the early years. For kids between eighteen months and seven years old, it’s a beautiful, magical piece. If anyone like The Elves & The Shoemaker, they’re going to love this too. Lovely music and the story of two little birds learning to fly, the audience sitting on cushions right in the action, if they arrive at the venue early they can make a mask to watch the birds… It’s all about magic & imagination, and for parents & children to enjoy together.”

Likewise, evening show Hang On is more of a sweeping drama, telling of the ongoing struggle between genders and the precarity of love. “Hang On is one of the shows we have toured internationally since we made the half-hour version in 2010. We have now extended it to fifty minutes, and added some projection. It’s about male & female meeting, and how we compete, struggle, draw lines apart, and then find a way to work together. But even then, if you find your true companion for life, the fear of losing them can be overpowering… it’s a simple story, that everyone can identify with.”

It’ll be a chance to touch base with local arts centre and long-running partners ahead of an expanded schedule this year. “We have a few Irish and international shows planned. Hang On goes to Costa Rica in May, Strange Feathers tours Ireland again in October and November, then Norway & Denmark. We’re researching two new shows, Bingo Wings & Hip Opera, that we hope to create in 2018/19, and we hope to tour a new show, Second Coming in 2018. Hope to see you all in Cork!”

Fidget Feet presents Strange Feathers and Hang On at the Firkin Crane Theatre on Thursday March 23rd. For more information on show times and tickets, go to firkincrane.ie.

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