Cracked Open: Reflection on Moving the Body-Brain, Moving the Brain-Body – a danced lecture

By Fearghus Ó Conchúir and Paul Modjadji

Paul Modjadji posing in a wide stance

Photo by Nic Billington.
[ID: Paul Modjadji, an artist from South Africa, looks towards the camera while posing in a wide stance with one leg bent and slightly turned in. His torso is rotating away from the camera with one arm swinging behind. Paul wears a black top with cuffed sleeves, cuffed black pants, white socks with red writing on the top, and black shoes with a bag slung around his body.]


For the inaugural Creative Brain Week at Trinity College Dublin, curator Dominic Campbell introduced me to choreographer, activist and scholar Paul Modjadji. Typical of Dominic’s sensitive and inspired relationship building, he used the structures of Creative Brain Week and its focus on creativity and brain science as a way to introduce two dance artists that he suspected might have something in common. This article provides a brief account of the encounter between Paul and me, Fearghus Ó Conchúir. The relationship is still fresh but its impact, as we hope this article conveys, is nonetheless significant enough to want to communicate.

Prompted by Dominic’s creative matchmaking, Paul and I had a conversation via Zoom that allowed us to speak about our dance-making as a way of engaging with and transforming difficult legacies that are invariably written on and encoded in our bodies. This is not to think of our bodies as material without agency, merely molded by external “forces” (as misconceptions of Foucault might suggest).[1] A combination of Foucault, Butler and Barad helps us to recognise embodiment as material and discursive.[2]  Dance is a form of knowledge that understands and practises the making of individual and collective bodies. To the extent that it challenges or re-choreographs the pathways of a status quo or proposes alternatives to hegemonic formations of individual and collective bodies, dance is a political activity.

Political activity is whatever shifts a body from the place assigned to it or changes a place’s destination.[3]

Within that context I shared with Paul how I have worked with dancers to take on and shift particular corporeal legacies in Ireland, a culture shaped by colonialism, Catholicism and nationalism as well as political and economic neo-liberalism and globalisation. When Dominic invited us to present a session in Creative Brain Week based on these initial conversations, I suggested that we exchange choreography from our archives and see how it might resonate and be rearticulated in our differently acculturated, trained and racialised bodies – bodies that nonetheless could acknowledge in one another a queer kinship.  We called our session Moving the Body-Brain, Moving the Brain-Body – a danced lecture.

This approach of asking someone else to take on, or embody a troubling legacy was a strategy I have recognised in operation in my own work. I’ve used it as a way of externalising, examining and ultimately altering through transmission something that I would have struggled to gain perspective on exclusively from an individual subject position. Paul agreed to the offer, perhaps with questions, as his reflections below detail, that he withheld in a spirit of generosity.  Our intention was to exchange choreographies, however my testing positive for Covid the week before the event meant I couldn’t attend in person. Consequently we focused on Paul’s embodying of my work: that’s not to say that there wasn’t an exchange in the process. To witness Paul take on and transform a solo that was made through me was already to learn about the structures in my body that produced the work, and it revealed potential in the movement that wasn’t evident to me before. Exchange doesn’t necessarily require the same or even similar input to be mutually rewarding.

The work I offered him was a solo from a dance film commissioned for national television in Ireland in 2010. The work is called Mo Mhórchoir Féin: A Prayer. The Irish language title (I grew up in an Irish-speaking area ) refers to the Confiteor, a prayer in the Catholic mass which has the words: ‘Trí mo choir féin, trí mo choir féin, trí mo mhórchoir féin’, ‘Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.’  The lines in the prayer are traditionally accompanied by the gesture of beating one’s chest in confession of sin, though the choreography queers the gesture with ripple through the spine that connects ground to a free pelvis and the weight of my elbow as it beats against my ribcage, mixing mortification and pleasure.

As someone who started my dance-training at the age of 23 – relatively late – I am aware that my body was nonetheless trained.  One of the most powerful agents of that training was the Catholic Church where as a member of the congregation and as an altar boy, I learnt an aesthetics of worship and a choreography of when to sit, stand, and how to move with decorous elegance from place to place with just the right bowing of the head – an arrangement no less precise, if less articulated, than the conventions of épaulement in classical ballet.

The film was shot in a Catholic church in Dublin chosen because it resembled the kind of country churches familiar from my childhood.  I knew that activating my personal stake in this work would contribute to its authenticity and to its actual rather than represented transformation of legacy. And so I dance between the sanctuary and the pews, while an altar boy prepares to leave after Mass.  The altar boy and I are watched by an older woman. The context of creation was also the aftermath of the publication of the Ryan and Murphy Reports into abuse perpetrated, concealed and consequently facilitated in Catholic institutions. I was aware that much had been written and spoken about in relation to this abuse and that words were important after generations of disabling silence.  But I was also aware that much of this abuse was perpetrated and suffered bodily and that the full expression of embodiment had not been included in the responses to that abuse.

Though I had not experienced abuse myself, I knew that my body had been shaped by the religious culture that allowed abuse to happen. As a gay man, I might have readily identified myself as a victim of religious exclusion in a state where the legacies of Catholicism and colonialism conspired to keep homosexuality criminalised until 1993. Yet, I felt it was also important to acknowledge my complicity in carrying and thereby carrying on the influences of a Catholic upbringing that I inevitably perpetuate.

In making Mo Mhórchoir Féin, I also wanted to challenge the easy conception of Catholicism as anti-corporeal. The very fact of the church’s perennial anxiety about controlling bodies signals the persistence of bodies in spilling beyond the strictures that nonetheless help constitute them. For the more theologically-minded, the church’s historical emphasis on the mortification of the flesh is also in tension with the religion’s central articles of faith that insist on the incarnation – making flesh – of God in the human form of Jesus: no birth, no bodily suffering on the cross to expiate the sins of humanity, no death, then no redemption and no Catholicism. On a practical level, often forgotten is that the figure of an unclothed man, the crucified Jesus, dominates the church space.  So when the commissioners queried my choice to wear only underwear in the film as potentially provocative, I could draw attention to the sanctioned precedent on the cross. While that presiding body is still, mine moved vigorously and joyfully, as I recognised how I’d managed to make it possible for my queer body to express itself in a space it might not be expected to occupy. It is not a body raging outside the church but one staking a claim inside the church, asserting its always already valid place there. It is important for me to acknowledge this corporeal agency and the responsibility that goes with it rather than only think of myself as a victim of institutional power.  As Foucault reminds us, we are all implicated in networks of power:

Power is exercised through networks, and individuals do not simply circulate in those networks; they are in a position to both submit to and exercise this power […]. We can also say, ‘We all have some element of power in our bodies.’ And power does—at least to some extent—pass or migrate through our bodies.[4]

This was the complex solo I wanted to share with Paul.

A man in black dances in front of a mostly seated audience. Behind a man watches from a TV screen.
Courtesy of Creative Brain Week. [ID: A black African man dressed in black dances in front of a mostly seated multi-ethnic audience who watch intently. One person stands and films the dance. Behind a white man watches from a large TV screen. The dancing man is upright with his left arm bent in front of his body.]

Reflecting on embodying an excerpt from Fearghus Ó Conchúir’s dance work Mo Mhórchoir Féin – A Prayer.

It was Fearghus’ idea to exchange dance excerpts from our existing vocabulary of works as an entry point to a lecture on “The legacies of trauma carried in our bodies”, a dialogue session we were invited to co-facilitate for the Creative Brain Week conference. I must admit that I initially met the suggestion with much trepidation and conflicting emotions. The idea itself sounded tempting, even though my internal compass screamed, “Obstacles and complexities ahead!” Even with our shared commitment to the art of physical expression, I was mindful of my own internal battle to rectify parts of my inherent guilt, which rendered the suggestion a tall order to co-sign on, particularly at this point in my sojourn.

As I fast approached the fourth decade of existence in this sometimes awfully convoluted world, I had arrived at a point in my artist journey where I was in search of my own truth. Which could also be translated as dealing with a masked identity crisis, informed by a heavily loaded past.

I grew up in what could be considered a “Westernized African” setting. I attended what was termed “Model C” or “white” schools in South Africa. I learned from a very young age to accept the white gaze and Eurocentric standards as markers of success and propriety. It is within this predisposition that my development as a young adult, and later, my training as a classical dance student and dancer shaped and primed my identity and work.

Dr. Khanyisile Litchfield Tshabalala, a Pan Africanist and an African spirituality scholar, asserts that, due to our complex exposure to colonization and Islam Christianity, most Africans exist in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance. Where our very existence is governed by two opposing ideas that are both true to us, yet stand in total contradiction to each other.[5]

The ambiguity I initially felt at the idea of taking on Fearghus’ piece was underpinned by a rejection to the tempting and strong pull towards returning to that shadow. As I raged through the many reasons why this idea could prove to be retrogressive, and at best only re-traumatize me, I felt from my body, an urge, a pleading, a gentle sway to lean in, and open myself up to it. Yet another classic moment of common cognitive dissonance, where the brain and the body are in conflict.

What most people are likely to notice at face value when they see me are the obvious social constructs: my race, possibly my age, (to those well-versed in queer culture), perhaps my queerness, and my inclination towards dance and the artistic community in general. What many barely perceive fully are the complexities of not only being black, but also African, specifically Molobedu of the Balobedu tribe, a revered matriarchal tribe from Southern Africa that is renowned for its dynasty of queens who conjure up rain.[6] My grandmother, Queen Mokope, and after her, my cousin, Queen Makobo, are some of the queens who have ruled over the Balobedu tribe. My niece, Mosalanabo, is a queen in waiting. When she turns 21 she too, will ascend the throne and rule over our people and continue on her calling as the queen of rain, Queen Modjadji the seventh. This is my heritage and ancestral lineage. For me, the two identities “black” and “African” hold two different afflictions.

Add on to that, just like Fearghus, I come from a complex history that is troubled and marred by colonial oppression, patriarchy and the enforcement of western religion. A history that informs me to this day. It is in this background that I learned to perform the Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty ballets before I had the chance to learn my own traditional dances and cultural songs, never mind immerse myself in our customs and language. Psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon put it eloquently, “To speak a language, is to take on a world, a culture.”[7] This is a fracture that I am presently toiling to make up for with the same fragile fervor and stern commitment I showed the ballet barre all those years as a young dancer.

Accepting the call to receive Fearghus’ transformative work Mo Mhórchor Féin- A Prayer was a moment of deep internal clash and turmoil. An opportunity that sparked a commitment to dedicate my work moving forward to righting what has been diminished, rebuffed, and erased, whilst relearning what was inheritably mine.

Experiencing Fearghus’ work, firstly online, I was immediately struck by the intent of the artist to go only where very few have been brave enough to go. Historically, the church is an unchallenged institution. Understanding the delicate history of Ireland and the many years of fighting for its independence and soul, I instantly felt a sense of connection and perhaps even empathy for a people who knew something about the scathing hand of oppression, division and colonization.

As a queer body, the work invited me to also consider our shared trauma, inherited shame and conflicting relationship with our spirituality. These factors cracked open a window for me to understand with my mind, what my body sensed straight from the beginning. But when I did eventually meet up with Fearghus for our first and only walk-through of the piece he was not concerned with theorizing the piece. He had no fascination with breaking it apart and going into its hidden nuances and artistic subtexts. He welcomed me to a space where we would speak through our bodies. And in so doing, revealed right before me a piece of work that speaks beyond he and I as individuals, but calls us to a conversation about us as a collective. A collision of all that is yesterday, today and the future. As two bodies in a space, and not two brains attempting to philosophize the experience of trauma, we were able to instantly find mutual points of connection and recognize our shared humanity.

Yet, we may have our differences, and that’s okay too. This moment, this piece, is an invitation to look deeper and gaze beyond traditions and norms. For me, in its purest form, the piece challenged the structural pedagogies of our religions at the same time as it challenged me to think about what it means to conform, and about how I define morality, spirituality, sexuality, bodies, power, binaries, oppression, control and essentially freedom.

Embodying Fearghus’ Mo Mhórchor Féin first in a quiet rehearsal room in Cork–a vibrant town in southwest Ireland whose name I have always found amusing, and later in front of an audience in Dublin left me bare open, transformed. In it, I felt my own pain, struggles and a lot of stuff too intricate to articulate through words. The rigidity of the piece, and the soul’s instinct to push against that force, immediately connected itself to a familial old struggle and my life’s current pull towards freedom, purity and truth. The silences and still moments in the piece beaconed the spirits within me to whisper in my ears, and gently acknowledge all that I was feeling and experiencing in that moment, without judgment or denial.

At the end of the piece, I found myself seeking a corner to weep. To release. To shake it off. Overcome with emotions. Immersed in a trance, a passageway, a channel of sorts. Cracked open. A feeling of linking to a pathway of healing. A remembering of a deeply seeded truth that is often forgotten: We are all human, everything else is a construct. “Ah… transcendence”.

[1] See for example Nigel Thrift, ‘Entanglements of Power: Shadows?’ in Joanne P. Sharp, Paul Routledge, Chris Philo and Ronan Paddison (eds.), Entanglements of Power: Geographies of Domination/Resistance (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 269-278, p. 269.

[2] Karen Barad, ‘Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 28, no. 3 (2003), pp. 801-831

Materiality is discursive (i.e., material phenomena are inseparable from the apparatuses of bodily production: matter emerges out of and includes as part of its being the ongoing reconfiguring of boundaries), just as discursive practices are always already material (i.e., they are ongoing material (re)configurings of the world). p. 822

[3] Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, p.162.

[4] Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976, Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana (eds.), David Macey (trans.) (New York: Picador, 2003), pp. 29-30.

[5]Dr. Dr. KL Tshabalala “They are here to kill you” YouTube, upload by Thando “Moziah” Sipuye 14 June 2018

[6] The Modjadji: South Africa’s Rain queen.

[7] Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon: published in 1986 by Pluto Press. Originally published in France as Peau Noire, Masques Blanc Copyright © 1952

Fearghus Ó Conchúir is a choreographer and dance artist. He makes film and live performances that create frameworks for audiences and artists to build communities together. His multi-platform work, The Casement Project, was one of the Arts Council’s National Projects for Ireland 2016. He’s co-leading a dance programme with Micro Rainbow International as part of The Casement Project to support LGBT refugees and asylum seekers. From 2018-2020, he was Artistic Director of National Dance Company Wales. He was appointed to the Arts Council of Ireland in 2018 and became Deputy Chair in 2019. He is Chair of the UK Dance Network.

Paul Modjadji is a multi-disciplinary artist and community organizer from South Africa. He uses dance, theater and filmmaking as a form of both art and activism. He is the founder of production house Imvula Pula and the Chair of non-for-profit organization Leaders Who Dare To Dream Foundation. Modjadji is a current Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health with the Global Brain Health Institute, at Trinity College, University of Dublin, in Ireland.

This article appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of In Dance.