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Tom Clonan: My dance debut tonight will bring me back to conflict's heart of darkness

‘My tour of duty as an Irish peacekeeper was brutal, violent and profoundly shocking. It changed me. I never came back.’

Tom Clonan

I WENT TO Dublin Airport with 200 other Irish soldiers on a dark, rainy night in October 1995.  We flew to Beirut.  From there, I drove the Mediterranean coastal highway to Al Yatun, near the border with Israel.  I never came home.

My tour of duty as an Irish peacekeeper was brutal, violent and profoundly shocking.  The escalating violence between Hizbollah and the Israelis led to an Israeli offensive in April 1996 called ‘Operation Grapes of Wrath’ which culminated in the massacre of hundreds of innocent Lebanese men, women and children.

In conflict zones, some people die.  Some survive.  But nobody remains the same.  The young man that I was 22 years ago disappeared into the mayhem and slaughter that took place in South Lebanon in the spring of 1996.

On my last night in Lebanon, I burned my dirty combats in a barrel with some diesel and burned all of the letters my mother had sent me from Ireland, along with all of the St Christopher medals and the little laminated prayers she had sent me.  The violence I had witnessed changed me.  I never came back.

This is the theme of renowned dance theatre company Junk Ensemble’s production ‘Soldier Still’.  It premieres tonight in this year’s Dublin Fringe Festival – at the Project Arts Centre at 8.30pm.

Soldier Still (Junk Ensemble) backs - Fionn McCann high res Tom Clonan, centre, in a still from the Soldier Still performance. Source: Fionn McCann via Junk Ensemble

Soldier Still is a journey through dance, movement and sound into the heart of darkness that is conflict, trauma, truth and identity.

In preparation for this work, Megan and Jessica Kennedy – founders and directors of Junk Ensemble - interviewed dozens of participants in conflict around the world. Soldiers and civilians alike.  These included members of the British Army and soldiers from the international military along with men and women from the Irish Defence Forces.

They also included interviews with civilians such as Zlata Filipovic who experienced the war in Bosnia as a young girl and now lives in Ireland.

I met with Megan and Jessica – originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – in Dublin in April 2016, exactly 20 years after my own epiphany in the Middle East.  We had an immediate connection and they invited me to engage with them, to collaborate artistically in order to further explore the themes of violence, trauma and identity.

As Junk Ensemble is a dance company, from the outset, I was very careful to explain to them that I cannot dance.  Two left feet.  In turn, they reassured me that I would not be dancing ‘as such’ and that I might have some ‘minimal movements’ and perhaps ‘some reading’.  One year later, and I am about to write a sentence that I never thought I would utter, ‘I have a dance solo at the end of the performance’.

Soldier Still combines movement, text and exquisite dance sequences that explore the experiences of violence in war as articulated by the soldiers, civilians and children who participated in the creative process.  Common themes emerge around loss of innocence, loss of identity and the centrifugal forces of de-personalisation, militarisation, hatred and killing.  It is a dark, disturbing and provocative piece.

Soldier Still (Junk Ensemble) climb - Fionn McCann high res Source: Fionn McCann via Junk Ensemble

So, tonight is my dancing debut.  I’ve had the privilege of working in rehearsals for the last month with Junk Ensemble and four professional dancers – Lucia Kickham, Julie Koenig, Geir Hytten and Fernando Balsera Pita.  At 51, it has been an amazing experience.  I’ve lost 5 kilos in four weeks and have met an incredible team of stage designers, stage managers and award-winning composers such as Denis Clohessy.  What has struck me most about the experience, is the absolute authenticity and connection this international team of artists have with the dark subject matter of the performance.

In Soldier Still, Junk Ensemble have created a unique and eerily beautiful space, where, in the words of one former soldier in the war in Bosnia, ‘You meet your “Other You” – the one that kills’.

In exploring this duality, Soldier Still reveal that no individual survives the experience of war and conflict. Those who are pulled into the vortex of war and conflict can never come back.  For this old soldier, it has been a therapeutic journey.

During a period of unprecedented violence in the Middle East, appalling terror attacks across Europe and looming conflict in the Korean Peninsula, this is a very timely production.

Dr Tom Clonan is a security analyst and former captain in the Irish Defence Forces.

Source: Luca Truffarelli/YouTube

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