BALLINASLOE NATIVE Michelle Cahill presents her first solo dance theatre work, Thirteen Steps To The Attic, at next week’s Galway Theatre Festival, a work inspired by her discovery of a box of letters, hidden away for more than 20 years.
Thirteen Steps To The Attic draws from Michelle’s experience of leaving home at 15 to study dance at the Dorothy Stevens School of Ballet, West Yorkshire. The show is a beautiful, multi-layered montage of movement and text set to a live sound-score and recorded tracks from the band Thieves Of Silence.
Currently based in Dublin, Michelle is an accomplished performer and producer. She was then awarded an Arts Council bursary and a scholarship to study Dance-Theatre at the prestigious Trinity LABAN Conservatoire, London. Her performance work over the past 15 years spans theatre, dance, and film and includes the multi award-winning dance film The Area. As a producer she has worked multi award-winning physical theatre company Junk Ensemble; produced TURF by the Rowan Tolley Company for Galway Theatre Festival 2016; and since 2012 has worked as programme coordinator, at the Shawbrook dance centre in Longford.
With such a long and impressive CV already to her credit, why did it take her until now to do her first solo work? "I had wanted to make a solo piece for a while and this year circumstances finally allowed me to make it,” she replies. “I’m a mother and the performing side of making my own work was put on hold for some time but this felt like the right time to make the piece.
“In 2016 I returned to Hipperholme, just outside Halifax, where I’d attended the Dorothy Stevens ballet school. I hadn’t been there for 15 years so when I went back it evoked a lot of memories and I met a lot of people I had trained with. I discovered this box of letters I had kept from my time when I lived in Yorkshire, which was from the age 15 to 17. Between the trip back there and reading through the letters brought up a lot of memories of that time and all of those things; the letter writing, the living there, the training, fed into Thirteen Steps In The Attic.”
'The title refers to an actual place with 13 steps leading to the attic. In the design you see the attic and the action takes place there'
How did she cope with leaving home at such a young age? “It was initially for one transition year,” Michelle explains. “I found I did really well in that environment of daily immersive training, so it was very exciting to get the opportunity to do what I loved. I missed home obviously. I discovered things about myself in that time away and that informs the show also.”
Thirteen Steps To The Attic is directed by Rowan Tolley, widely regarded as one of Britain’s most brilliant and imaginative mimes. “Rowan and I know each other from Yorkshire, where he is still based," she says. "We worked together previously on his show TURF. He is a very experienced solo performer so that was the attraction to work with him in creating this work, and to have him alongside me in that process. I also wanted to bring a theatrical element into my dance practice. I’ve been working in different forms of dance for so long, mostly socially engaged community dance, and group performances that were largely contemporary dance based. I was determined to bring in theatre and text so that’s why I chose Rowan. Also there is a familiarity of working with him because of where I trained and lived in that time and he would know people I refer to in the work. So it had to be him.”
The other collaborators are Yorkshire-based band Thieves of Silence. “They are people I know and they have recorded a couple of tracks especially for the show,” Michelle relates. “The music is percussive, sometimes a bit jazzy and there is a bit of unscripted interplay toward the end where it’s live and improvised.”
How did Thirteen Steps To The Attic come by its title? “The title refers to a real place, there is an actual place with 13 steps leading to the attic,” Michelle reveals. “It features heavily in the piece and we use the attic space to anchor the work. So in the design you see the attic and the action takes place there.”