THE OPENING show of this year’s Galway International Arts Festival is the Irish National Opera and GIAF co-production of Least Like The Other, which explores the tragic life of JFK’s eldest sister Rosemary Kennedy.
Created by Irish composer Brian Irvine and virtuoso director Netia Jones, the show evokes the privileged Kennedy world of Rosemary’s upbringing and how her life was blighted by the disastrous lobotomy she was subjected to at the age of 23.
Least Like The Other’s cast features Galway's Stephanie Dufresne, alongside Ronan Leahy and soprano Naomi Louisa O’Connell. During a break in rehearsal, Dusfresne spoke with me about the thrill of being part of this show and bringing it to GIAF.
'I consider myself a Galwegian artist'
A highly-regarded rising star of dance, theatre making, and choreography, Dusfresne has worked for companies and choreographers in Ireland, the Netherlands, and Britain, including high profile parts like the lead role in the Gate Theatre’s staging of classic ballet drama, The Red Shoes.
While her much-in-demand talents have often brought her far from the west, Dusfresne still considers herself a Galwegian first and foremost and always relishes performing here. Her Galway credits even include twice being, literally, the poster girl for GIAF.
“My father is American and my mother is Irish but we came to Kinvara in 1998 when I was eight years old and my family are still there so I consider myself a Galwegian,” she asserts. “I’ve been very lucky in that this is the second show I’ve been in [following INO’s Orfeo ed Euridice] that has come to GIAF. I grew up seeing shows in the festival and I was on the poster for the last two years which was lovely. When I make work choreographically I make an effort to do it in Galway as I consider myself a Galwegian artist and if I am going to build a practice and a legacy anywhere I’d like for it to be in Galway.”
I ask Stephanie had she heard of Rosemary Kennedy’s story prior to getting involved with Least Like The Other? “I hadn’t,” she admits, “but my grandparents are from Wexford and they loved the Kennedys. I was with my grandmother recently and asked her had she heard of Rosemary and she answered ‘Oh sure she was mad’ and I had to say to her ‘No she wasn’t!’
"Rosemary’s story was so hidden for so long and there was very little about her in the public domain. Until her father, Joe Kennedy, died nobody spoke about it so there were about 30/40 years of ‘radio silence’ around what happened to her with the lobotomy. I hadn’t heard about it and it was a deeply distressing story to read.”
“The thing that really drew me to the show is that Rosemary’s story is still incredibly relevant,” Stephanie continues. “She was a woman, in the 1940s, who didn’t fit in and then she underwent this horrible lobotomy. Thematically that would be close to my heart because it echoes the other big shows I have done in the last few years; Changeling, my first choreographic work, was based on the story of Bridget Cleary who was burnt as a witch in Clonmel, and in The Red Shoes I also played a young girl who didn’t quite fit in and was ultimately violently punished for it. So there are a lot of elements of Rosemary’s story that are still important and pressing in terms of how we treat people who are different.”
'We are trying to give Rosemary Kennedy a voice'
Stephanie outlines the approach Least Like The Other takes to its subject matter. “The opera is not a chronological narrative of Rosemary’s life because there is so little information, and the information we do have has been censored and redacted," she says. "The opera, in a lot of ways, is about the process of Netia and Brian trying to tell this story.
"A lot of the social context around the time Rosemary lived in is there; Ronan Leahy and myself play researchers sifting through material to piece together Rosemary’s story. Naomi O’Connell, our soprano, put it well when she said ‘We are not playing Rosemary Kennedy, we are playing the world around her in an attempt to get a better grasp of who she was.' We don’t know anything about Rosemary’s voice; we have very few first-hand accounts from her because so much of it was destroyed. So in a lot of ways she does not have a voice and we are trying to give her one.”
The opera draws on transcripts of conversations, family letters, statements, excerpts from Rosemary Kennedy’s diary, TV footage, testimonies, and scholarly articles, while Brian Irvine’s adventurous score features both composed music and a trio of improvising musicians. How does Stephanie find working within that daring musical dynamic?
“It is amazing,” she declares. “We brought the improvisational musicians in last week to rehearsals and I really love it because of its madness. Even before the improvisation the music is very complex, Naomi and her understudy have put in a lot of time getting it right, there are some very quick changes in time signature. It is complex dance music but I am really into it. I like that there are these elements of the performance that are different every time we perform it because it keeps everything alive; there is no resting on your laurels.”
One particular scene in Least Like The Other calls on Stephanie’s prowess as a dancer. “Because the Kennedys were such an illustrious family, they would have attended a lot of balls and formal high society dances," she says. "Rosemary was a big fan of fashion and dressing up and when her father Joseph was US ambassador in Britain she was being presented to the king and queen of England as part of her debutante season.
"At that point she was trained with military precision in these social dances. What we are doing is a sort of beautiful, deconstructed, charleston that Brian has devised. For me, the dance scene is an expression of the rest of Rosemary’s life and how difficult it was for her to fit in with this high achieving driven and political world and all the trappings that came with that.”
Stephanie also relishes working with much-acclaimed director, Netia Jones. “I am big fan of her work," she says. "Netia has done a lot of film and she has a layered multi-disciplinary practice and I like that a lot. I also like that she is not a traditional opera director, she is pretty radical and that is something that was very important to Brian, that she subverts what you might expect from an opera. She describes the show as an experimental music theatre piece and I am enjoying that.”
Least Like The Other - Searching For Rosemary Kennedy is at the Black Box Theatre from Monday July 15 to Saturday 20 at 7pm (except July 17 ). Tickets are €40/30. On Tuesday 16, there will be a post-show talk with the company moderated by NUIG’s Adrian Thomson. For tickets see www.giaf.ie