As the Rugby World Cup gets underway in Japan, the National Dance Company Wales is going the extra mile to support its national team: simultaneously touring its rugby-inspired work around Japan
With Wales’ rugby union team until recently ranked number one in the world, the nation’s obsession with the sport has reached fever pitch as the Rugby World Cup begins in Japan today (September 20).
But it won’t only be the rugby players in the spotlight, as National Dance Company Wales also travels to Japan as part of a Welsh cultural delegation, touring its new contemporary work Rygbi: Annwyl i Mi/Dear to Me to three cities. It is a piece that explores the unique connection between the game and Wales’ identity.
“When I first came to the company in 2018, I immediately thought about the physical culture of Wales,” artistic director Fearghus Ó Conchúir says. “And one of the most identifiable physical identities here is rugby… not just the bodies of the players of every level – kids through to the elite international players – but also the physicality of the supporters, and the physicality of the landscape when you see sloping pitches on the side of the hills here.”
Rygbi is an outdoor site-specific piece, designed to be danced on all surfaces, including on muddy pitches. It premiered last month in a field at the National Eisteddfod – a Welsh celebration of culture and language – a conscious choice by Ó Conchúir.
“If we, as a national company, want to genuinely engage with many different people, then rugby is a great way to start that conversation. We wanted to show up on this shared ground, on the grass, but that meant thinking about the conditions in which rugby is played and what kind of movement is possible for our dancers. We had to think about how the conditions and the climate shape our bodies and movement.”
The company worked with the Swansea-based Ospreys (one of Wales’ four professional rugby teams competing in the Pro14 league) during the development process, inviting its academy players to work with the dancers. “There were many parallels between the dancers and the players, not only in the athleticism and the physicality of what we all do. We’re all ‘movement experts’ and so when we focused on a specific physical principle like pushing – such a key characteristic in rugby – the players really understood that.”
And would he define the choreographer’s role as similar to that of the coach? “There’s a choreography in rugby in the structures and the set-pieces, but there’s also plenty of improvisation. Like dance, it’s a combination of a repetition of exercises and a continuous creative availability. The coach’s role is to set up situations, but you also need to know when to withdraw and trust the performers or players to do the work they’re trained to do. We devised this piece as a company so the dancers will improvise and try different things, and things aren’t supposed to happen in the same order each performance, just like they wouldn’t in a rugby match.”
NDCWales will perform Rygbi at three venues in Japan during the World Cup, beginning in Tokyo as part of a Welsh delegation, before performances in Oita and Yokohama.
Paul Kaynes, the company’s chief executive, worked on the Cultural Olympiad for London 2012, and is keen to grasp this international opportunity. “It’s important that world-class artistic endeavour is presented alongside major sporting events and with this opportunity Wales can showcase the range of its cultural offer beyond sport. We need to show that the nation is not only about rugby but about a contemporary cultural expression that people globally won’t necessarily expect.”
‘We need to show that Wales is not only about rugby but about a contemporary cultural expression people globally won’t necessarily expect’
NDCWales regularly performs internationally, especially across Europe, but will the Japanese tour lead to further opportunities? “We continue to make strong links in East Asia,” says Kaynes. “We’re in Hong Kong before Japan, we’ve previously performed across China and we’re developing a possible project in Korea.”
Rygbi will continue to have a life closer to home. “We see this as a long-term project beyond the Rugby World Cup, something that will infuse the company for many years,” says Kaynes. “The outdoor version going to Japan will stay in the company’s repertoire but there will also be a smaller scale theatrical version touring Wales in the autumn (as part of the Roots tour) and then a mid-scale theatre version touring next spring.”
“The outdoor and theatrical pieces will be different, of course,” Ó Conchúir says. “The theatre version that will tour here [in Wales] will be like watching a match on television with the production and the lighting, but the principles and the excitement will remain exactly the same. We wanted to use rugby as a way of bringing people together, of engaging with people who might not usually see our work.”
And will success in Japan further raise the company’s profile back home? “Because of the rugby connection, our supporters in Wales, as well as people who don’t know us, will hear about us and recognise the value of NDCWales,” Ó Conchúir hopes.
And what values will Rygbi: Annwyl i Mi/Dear to Me demonstrate? “That it’s a privilege but also a responsibility to be a national company,” says Ó Conchúir. “We need to be part of a conversation about what the nation is. It’s an evolving thing and our job as artists is to reimagine what Wales could be – what it can be. We hope (in Japan) that what we present will look dynamic and engaging, exciting and diverse – but also fun.”
And does Ó Conchúir expect a successful tour of Japan to be emulated by the Wales rugby team in the World Cup? “Hopefully the Welsh team will do its job too – that would be a real win-win situation for all of us”.
Rygbi: Annwyl i mi/Dear to Me, performances in Japan will be between 21 and 29 September, in Tokyo, Yokohama and Oita. The company’s Roots tour Wales, starting in November 2019. Go to ndcwales.co.uk for more