Rialto Twirlers Essay by Lucy Reynolds

Commissioned by The LAB, Foley Street, Dublin. Design by Clare Lynch.

Living in Rialto, an area of South Dublin undergoing a regeneration process after many years of urban neglect, the artist Anne Maree Barry had observed a group of young people rehearsing choreographed routines in the streets. Intrigued, she discovered they were the Rialto Twirlers, a local majorette group who performed in competitions at local sports venues such as the Tallaght basketball arena. Barry began to document their activities and applied for a residency at Studio 468 in order to explore the possibility of making a film around them. Building on an earlier fascination with the resonances of abandoned or deserted urban and rural space, apparent in films such as Crag Hill (2009), Barry wished to extend the notion of (dis)location which is central to her practice into questions of socially and politically engaged space. Her film could be seen as a culmination of the relationship that she built with the Twirlers, and part of a wider project of workshops that she also initiated with them.

It should further be stressed that the tradition of cheerleading in Ireland is not a recent American export associated solely with the sports field, but, as the title Rialto Twirlers denotes, has its origins in the twirling batons of the majorettes and marching bands who lead the parades through the city streets on days of both religious and secular festival. Indeed, Barry alludes to this heritage, beginning her film on a close up of the Twirlers’ marching feet and the deft whirr of a baton, which is cast aside as the performers begin their routine. As they manipulate their sparkling batons and pompoms, The Rialto Twirlers could be seen to synthesise the national connotations, and religious overtones, of Irish parade culture with the transatlantic influences of American teen culture, and its cinematic manifestations. Barry’s film draws upon this complex amalgam of national and cultural signifiers, finding at its heart more ambiguous questions concerning location and identity.

Thus, instead of documenting her subject against the narrative momentum of sporting events and competitions, where moments of winning highs and lows are played out beside the pitch, Barry removes the cheerleaders to the anonymous space of a cavernous and empty interior, the Old Easons Building in Crumlin. Barry’s choice of setting was not an arbitrary one determined only by practical considerations. Far from the neutral space it first appears, the deserted warehouse reverberates with the connotations of Dublin’s political past, due to the vital role which it played as a storehouse and distributor for books and information during the nineteenth century . By her act of displacement Barry refers to an older social context embedded in the Twirlers choreographed movements, introduces another layer of resonant meaning to their dance display. And now separated from the stadium clamour with which their act is most generally associated, the Twirlers’ movements become imbued with a minimalist poetry, their crowd rousing acrobatics rendered strange and out of step as they perform their routine without an audience, in the sombre environment of this industrial interior.

Counter to the conventions of the sporting documentary genre epitomised by films such as Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994), Barry does not offer any back stage narratives of locker room confessional and practice routines in order to bring a personal dimension to individual performers. Her short film is concerned with capturing the intricacies of the Twirlers shifting poses and positions. Rather than the hand held graininess of documentary footage, with its significations of verité authenticity, Barry chooses the high production values associated with cinematic fiction to frame the performers movements. In this regard The Rialto Twirlers holds echoes of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 1 (1995), which links the sporting acrobatics of cheerleading to the cinematic synchronisations associated with a golden era of the Hollywood musical, where chorus girls in costumes redolent of Busby Berkeley’s 1930s Golddiggers series perform on the blue Astroturf of Bronco Stadium in his hometown of Boise, Idaho.

Seen from above, Barney’s performers transform an allusion to the ingenious configurations of Busby Berkeley into the arcane language of his Cremaster series. Barry likewise utilises swooping aerial shots to reveal the patterns and forms of the Twirlers’ routines, but here divorced from a sporting context and stark against the backdrop of the deserted interior. The Twirlers movements are described through a spatial grammar of fast paced montage, the cuts from shot to shot echoing the changing rhythm of their routine as they cut from overhead views to close-ups and travelling tracking shots. Like Barney and Berkeley, the experience of spectacle associated with cheerleading, where their routine must compete with the intensity and distractions of the sporting event, is now given the close attention of the camera’s sharp focus, isolating the textural detail of the Twirlers costumes, bringing those aspects of cheerleader costume designed to be viewed from a distance into intimate focus for the viewer: the textural glimmer of their silver shoes, the metallic swirl of pompoms and yellow costumes. And when the camera does frame the Twirlers from further away, the backdrop of industrial walls, divorced from the mise en scéne of the sporting arena’s colour and crowds, only serves to heighten their isolation from their expected context. As if they have wandered into the wrong stage set and decided to perform anyway.

Thus the references to film in The Rialto Twirlers issue not only from Barry’s cinematic lexicon of camera movement, but from the insinuation of narrative fictions raised by Barry’s dislocated mise en scene. Viewed against an industrial backdrop divested of audience and sporting context, the Rialto Twirlers non-fiction performances are given the resonance of a screenplay, opening a potent avenue of possible readings, and inviting the viewer to ruminate on the imaginary scenarios which may have brought them here. The soundtrack which accompanies the film’s images also derives an allusive, narrative intensity from a non-fiction source. Working with the composer Duncan Murphy, Barry shaped sound samples accumulated from successive Rialto Twirler performances into an suggestive orchestration of echo and reverberation, where subtle shifts of tone reflect the on-screen movements of the Twirlers, and the crystalline sounds of Murphy’s samples hold a glittered, metallic quality that mirrors the Twirlers quick-silver pompoms and sequinned shoes. Like the film’s location, the sound track is far removed from the chant of the cheerleader or the brass band of the parade, yet the refrains of both resonate within its sonic patterns. And along with the unlikely setting for their performance, the disjuncture between the celebratory movement of the Twirlers and the restrained modulations of the soundtrack pose questions of the viewer, evoking the narratives of imaginary cinematic fictions, of thrillers yet to be made. In this sense, Barry’s film offers a transcendent role for its five performers, its allusions to the possible narratives of cinema casting the Rialto Twirlers beyond their acrobatic achievements in Dublin into other yet to be imagined arenas and triumphs.

Lucy Reynolds. 2010.

Lucy Reynolds is a lecturer, artist and film curator. Her area of research focuses on expanded cinema and British avant-garde film of the 1970s. She teaches the history and theory of cinema and artists’ moving image at the University of Westminster, Goldsmiths College and Bristol University in association with Picture This and the Arnolfini. She presents talks on artists’ film and video at arts venues across the UK, including the CCA, Glasgow and the Serpentine Gallery, London and her recent articles appear in Afterall and Millenium Film Journal.

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