Dance Against Destruction
Tucson Choreographer Annie Bunker Does Her Part For Peace In Northern Ireland.
By Margaret Regan
SEPTEMBER 8, 1998: WHEN ANNIE BUNKER walked to work in Northern Ireland this summer, her daily route yielded some unusual sights. Up the street from her house was a fortified police station, barricaded behind fences and bulletproof glass. A security camera kept an eye on all passersby. Troops regularly swept streets and fields for bombs, or charged down the roads in armed vehicles, sirens blaring. Soldiers armed with automatic weapons patrolled ordinary neighborhoods; and one evening, when a lonely young soldier fell into step beside Bunker, his machine gun was between them, hanging casually from his shoulder.
"It was unnerving, having a machine gun right there," said Bunker, a dancer, choreographer and artistic director of Tucson's Orts Theatre of Dance.
The look of a country under military occupation may have been disquieting to Bunker, but it's common to the townsfolk of Dungannon. It was here, in the heart contested Northern Ireland, patrolled by British troops for 29 years, that Bunker had accepted a residency to teach dance to the disabled--to elderly blind ladies, to developmentally disabled young adults, to stroke the patients. Why?
"My ancestry is Scottish and Northern Irish," Bunker said calmly in her warehouse district studio last week. "I've always wanted to go there...And my family is interested in the prehistoric ruins there...It's old, old, old. And (because of) my love of working with people in different populations."
For five years, Bunker has taught dance to Tucson's Third Street Kids, a performing troupe of youngsters of assorted abilities and disabilities. And she has long taught the disabled through her classroom work sponsored by the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Her voice grows passionate--and a little impatient--when she talks of typical attitudes toward disability.
"We don't focus on disability. We focus on what is there. If you focus on disability you further isolate the person, and the emphasis is no longer on creating and doing...I do not approach (dance) as therapy. I approach it as art."
So when Bunker won the Americans for the Arts residency in Ireland, one of just four American artists to be accepted into the Irish exchange program, she didn't hesitate. It helped that in May voters had approved the new peace accord, which guarantees the Catholics of Northern Ireland a voice in their own government, in exchange for the Republic dropping its historic political claims on Ulster.
"It was the eye of the hurricane," Bunker said. "We were there right in this pocket, following the Good Friday peace agreement and the election in May (that ratified the peace treaty) and before the marching season."
And, indeed, deadly trouble erupted the next month, with Dungannon at the geographic center of the atrocities. Twenty minutes to the east is Portadown, where three young Catholic brothers were burned to death in their home in July. Forty miles west lies Omagh, the market town where, on August 15, a bomb killed 28 shoppers, mostly women and children, both Protestant and Catholic, and wounded over 300. President Clinton is to arrive in Ireland on September 3, and will travel to Omagh for conciliatory meetings in hopes of saving the U.S.-brokered peace treaty.
Dungannon may have been calm in June, but on the streets "you could feel it, a tension," Bunker said. One Friday afternoon, for instance, she was strolling along the lanes. The crowds were out in force, for their weekend shopping, she supposed, until she turned and saw Gerry Adams, head of Sinn Fein, political branch of the Irish Republican Army. It wasn't surprising that Adams would be out pumping the flesh, campaigning to win doubters over to the new peace accords. But when Bunker got home and told her landlady about the celebrity sighting, the woman's face turned red with anger. She had once come dangerously close to being blown up by a bomb. Ironically both a Catholic and a stout Unionist, she wants Northern Ireland to remain part of Britain.
Surprised by the woman's tightly controlled rage, by the clash between past and future, Bunker thought, "I'm witnessing history."
Bunker's husband, Chuck Koesters, and their two boys joined her for the last part of the residency. And while the family saw ruins of 20th-century vintage--bombed houses without roofs in Dungannon--they also explored the ancient sites of Northern Ireland and Scotland, the tombs and cairns and stone circles of prehistory, and the ruined castles and abbeys of the middle ages.
Koesters was inspired to make videos of the stone circles for a forthcoming performance piece, and Bunker, entranced by the windows and doors of castles, said "There are several pieces I want to do...I'm thinking of three women and a dagger and a spiral staircase." Since the trip, she and UA dance prof Melissa Lowe have already completed a Scottish-inspired duet, to be premiered at the Orts October concert.
Koesters said he was struck by the fact that the architectural evidence of English brutality is all around: old abbeys leveled by Oliver Cromwell on his punitive sweep across Ireland centuries ago, the castles of Englishman "planted" in Ireland--on stolen lands--to dilute Irish resistance to English rule.
"There were horrible atrocities that the Protestants laid on the Catholics," he said. "The county (Tyrone) is covered in blood. I have a lot of sympathy for those who wanted a united Ireland...Part of it is ancient history, part of it is a (contemporary) social problem." But, he adds, he believes that ordinary people long to lay the problems to rest.
"I thought I'd run into more opinionated people...It's like the bombings in Africa, there are little radical pockets. Most people just want to have a life, raise their families without conflicts...Women are sick of having their children killed. The zeal is not as strong as the desire to get this done with."
Can the arts--or a disability dance program--do anything about it?
Bunker said there's a movement afoot to alter the character of the parades, so essential a part of traditional Protestant Ulster culture. Staged every July, the parades celebrate the decisive defeat of Catholic Ireland in 1690.
"In Belfast, they do a lot of parades that are nonpartisan. These art parades counteract the political parades. They are finding ways to offset the focus on traditional parades."
And in the dance studios of Northern Ireland, where Bunker had the blind women cheerfully shaking out parachute cloth and telling tales of their young womanhood, and paralyzed stroke patients gyrating in their chairs, and Down's Syndrome adults making the whole room into a human sculpture, no one knew whether someone was Protestant or Catholic.
"In our classes," said Koesters, "it never even was discussed."
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