Róisín Whelan is a multi-award-winning choreographer and owner of Róisín Whelan Dance/R.W.D. Here she shares what her most formative work experience was, the career achievement she’s proudest of and why a walk can be just as important as a big phrase of movement.
Did you always want to be a dancer/choreographer?
I definitely always had a real interest in being a dancer – although my initial plan was to study chemical engineering. I loved dance and my family were really behind me, so after my leaving cert I went abroad to study dance and it was there that I began choreographing and decided to make it my career. After I started making dance pieces in university I was hooked on choreography and it became a real passion of mine and one I knew I would pursue.
In college I studied… a Bachelor of Performing Arts in Contemporary Dance and then went on to complete a Masters in Performance, both at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds, UK. During my masters I also worked in Denmark as an apprentice with Holstebro Dance Company for a year so this was a part of my master’s degree.
My most formative work experience was… Holstebro Dance Company was a huge learning experience for me. It was the first time I toured and worked in a professional setting. We were doing four different shows and regularly learning new parts and roles to perform all over the world. I was definitely thrown into the deep end and it was a sink or swim situation – but the team was always there for me, so I was thrilled to be in a place where I was being nurtured and treated as a professional. I think the first job is always difficult but you learn quickly and it’s so exciting when everything is new.
I recently choreographed a television show for AMC+ called Moonhaven, which has just been released in the U.S. and hopefully will be show here in Ireland too soon. It was amazing to share my creativity in such a fast-paced world – film is a very exciting and new experience for me. Working with scripts, producers, editors, video effects and VR was a whole new challenge and as a choreographer, I was pushed to not just create one show or performance, but to make a language and a world of movement that could exist within the show and would be loved by audiences worldwide.
My first real job was… after my apprenticeship. I worked with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures on their UK tour and World Premiere of Romeo & Juliet. New Adventures is one of the largest companies in the UK and it was incredible to get to work with Matt. The show toured for 10 months and we got to spend time in incredible venues, performing for thousands of people, seven times a week. We also got to film for Sky Arts as well as for cinema. It was exciting to go to the cinema and see myself perform on the big screen – although I never want to see myself that large in HD ever again!
The most invaluable thing I learned early on in my career was… you’re auditioning them as much as they’re auditioning you. As a dancer, you are always auditioning for companies and different pieces of work and it can be tough to be constantly doing job interviews, but what I have realised is that you are also interviewing them. Ask yourself, is this the place for me? Do I like the energy? The people in the room? Do I feel comfortable? I think these are all really important questions and allow you to take control of your career which can often feel like it’s in the hands of others.
A common misconception about what I do is… when I am choreographing, people often ask me if there was a director involved or someone who came up with the ideas and concepts; they don’t realise that that’s all me. My job is not just to make movement but to create the stories and narratives and to structure all of the relationships in the story. A walk can be just as important as a big phrase of movement, even a glance across the stage can often tell much more within the movement than you would realise. I think people think we only craft the movement but in fact, if it’s your own choreographic work, then every essence of it, every decision, comes from you. People don’t realise that you have to work incredibly hard to not only get money to make the work but to then put it all together from start to end.
My main responsibility in work is to… create a story that people will understand, relate to and be connected with. Through movement, I am responsible for finding the red thread that connects everyone in the story together. I feel this is my main purpose as a choreographer, although I am sure everyone is different. In my opinion, we make dance for audiences to enjoy and feel a part of, so I want to make sure that I keep this on the top of my list of responsibilities, because there are many.
Do you have a career mentor or someone you seek advice from?
Last year I received an award called the Propel Award from The Strollers Network which is Ireland’s largest consortium of Arts venues. It includes 10 venues around the country who all support me financially, strategically and artistically for three years, from 2021 to 2024. They are an enormous help in my career, especially strategically, I can go to them for advice on strategic decisions or funding that I am applying for and can reach out to them at any time which is incredible.
Artistically, I love to bring in mentors from different places to be an outside eye on different works. I worked with Etta Murfitt, associate artistic director at New Adventures for my latest research of a new work called Hidden Figures and I will be working with Ben Wright on another new work, An Fear Bréige. I also worked with Irish choreographer Laura Macken on my last show, Man Down, as an outside eye to help with the choreography and the storyline.
The biggest risk I have taken in my career so far is… moving into choreography in the middle of a pandemic was definitely a big risk. I was really stepping out on my own and jumping head first into something that was completely new. I decided to start my own company called Róisin Whelan Dance (R.W.D.) in the height of lockdown, so I knew it was risky. I wanted an outlet for my choreographic and creative work and so I just jumped head first and thought, Why not? … In hindsight, it was a bit of a crazy decision but it’s still the best one I have ever made too. It has led to a really fruitful choreographic career of commissions, funding from multiple organisations such as the Arts Council of Ireland, Bank of Ireland/Business to Arts, Dance Ireland and Shawbrook Dance just to name a few. It has allowed me to win many awards which have propelled my career forward very rapidly and it gave me the vessel to be creative and show the world what I can make and what I want to share.
I wake up at… well, I’m a bit of a night owl. I could work until one or two in the morning, especially if I am working on ideas and concepts that really excite me. So, if I’m working I’ll wake up at 8:30am. If I’m not, it might be closer to 10am. I work on about six hours sleep, eight whenever I can of course.
The first thing I do every morning is… it’s probably not the best thing to do first thing, but I check my emails. I make sure to set one alarm and I get up straight away (this took time to be able to do!). I check my emails just to see if anything urgent has come in before I start work as once I am in the studio I don’t look at my phone or laptop all day – I’m too engrossed in the creative process – so I try and get the admin done first thing when I wake up or later on in the evening time.
My morning routine is… emails first, followed by breakfast and always a glass of orange juice (smooth!). I have a coffee out once a week and try and head to a coffee shop or go for a quick walk while I am doing this, just to clear my head and get away from work because choreographing can be all-consuming. I then get into the studio around 9:30am and, depending on the job, I will teach a dance class or one of the company members or rehearsal directors will do this and I will go into creative meetings with the composer, lighting designer, set and costume designers or the production team.
I can’t go to work without… music. It’s a huge part of what goes into making a piece of work. I have loads of playlists to inspire the shows I am making and I listen to them very repetitively just so I can get into the swing of things before we start. I also think it’s a huge help to the dancers to understand the rhythm, pace and emotion of what kind of movement we’re working on. Aside from how it helps my work, I love listening to music on my commute in too. If I am driving, it’s RTÉ 2FM Breakfast that gets me through or my “recommended for you” playlist on Spotify if I’m travelling on public transport or cycling.
I travel to work by… it completely depends, I get to work in some amazing places and they’re all so different. I am currently performing on a stage that floats on a lake in the Bregenz Opera Festival in Austria so I cycle to work every day. When I was making The Glasshouse, a new show for Ballet Ireland, I took the bus every day and then when I am making my own choreographic work I get to work in beautiful places such as Shawbrook Residential in Longford. I drive there and then we live and work on-site in an amazing forest location or in Tigh Roy in the Glen of Aherlow where we do the same. I love working in different spaces so every job is different. If I am doing TV or film jobs, I drive to set and shoot locations. So, it’s very varied.
On an average workday I… wake up around 8:30am and then head to the studio for 9:30am or 10. I teach company class or do creative meetings, usually over zoom now as everything seems to be done that way! Then we rehearse from 11:15 to 1:30pm, take an hour lunch and then head back into the studio until 6pm. The day can be really varied, I usually work with all the dancers in the room and we will do some creative tasks, learn some movement I have prepared, talk about the themes and ideas for the show and get their input. I really value the artists’ opinions who I work with so we have a really open discussion about the work and their thoughts. We often work with ideas that we’re all dealing with, such as grief or loss, for example. These are two key themes in my new show An Fear Bréige. Then we head back to our accommodation and usually make dinner altogether. I then either try and work a bit more, reviewing videos of material for the day or prepping for the next day. We also love to play games, chat and have a laugh together as a company so that’s always on the cards too.
I start my workday at… oh, it completely depends, in Austria, we start at 6pm and we finish at midnight, which is a challenge but as the shows are outdoor on the lake and we need it to be dark so the show doesn’t go up until 9pm and we only go into hair, make up and wigs around 7:15pm , just after our warm-up sessions.
When I am leading my own company rehearsals at R.W.D. or working with Ballet Ireland, I start work at 10am and finish at 6pm. I then do my own work for two more hours or so in the evenings and sometimes teach in different schools or studios around the country as well. I love going back to where I trained in Carlow, a place called The Ballet Barn, run by Aedeen O’Hagan. It was an amazing school that is a huge part of who I am today so I try and go back there when I can to teach the students.
The first thing I do at work is… say hello to everyone and have a quick chat with the group about how they’re feeling physically and mentally. The job can be so hard on your body that it’s really important to read the room and see what people need at the start of the day. Some days they need to start off at a more relaxed pace and work their way up, other times the group has lots of energy and we can jump right in. We’re not machines so it’s important that the first thing I do is check in with the team.
I usually spend the first portion of the day… trying out all my big ideas from the night or day before in the studio. After class, we usually jump straight into creating and trying new things. If we’re doing heavy lifting work, which there is a lot of in The Glasshouse my new show for Ballet Ireland, we try and do this first as at the end of the day the body is tired and it’s easier to pick up injuries or small niggles. I also try and use this time to be super physical because after warm-up class the body is energised and ready to go. You want to avoid the after-lunch slump, so before lunch seems the most productive time for me and the team in the studio.
I break for lunch… between 1pm and 1:30pm. Sometimes you just get too hungry to wait! I usually have a salad box or a roll. I am a real culprit for working through lunch so something easy that’s already made or will only take a minute to make is what I opt for. The dancers I work with are great and sometimes if they’re cooking eggs or something warm they’ll throw me on something, I’m not picky.
The most useful business tool I use every day is… excel spreadsheets. I hate to say it, but I love them! Not only do we use them for budgets in the R.W.D. company but also I use them for choreography, to-do lists for the day, scheduling the week’s work ahead and creating documents for the stage crew with entrances and exits/where things come and go from. It also really helps when I work with composers. I currently work with a composer called Aoife Kavanagh across a lot of my work and we use excel sheets to keep up to date with latest versions of music and ideas or descriptions of what’s happening in each scene in the show.
I save time by… preparation, preparation and more preparation. I usually do a week of work and research on my own before starting a new show. I love researching topics through imagery, poetry, books, films, documentaries, podcasts; anything you can think of. After I’ve done this, I create ideas of tasks in my head which I will give the dancers and work through with them when we’re in the studio. Without this, it would be a very slow process and harder to get to the depth of the work so quickly. As I said, excel spreadsheets also helps and allows me to give the day a more structured approach.
I rarely get through my work day without… having a few moments of not knowing what to do, or what I’m doing. I think we’re all programmed to think that we should know what we’re doing all the time and be assured that the decisions we are making are the right ones. I definitely have some points in the day where I just ask the dancers to take 10 minutes as this gives me some time to think. It can be hard to have six pairs of eyes staring back at you, waiting for you to make decisions sometimes and I feel having time to just be on your own and think can be the best medicine in these moments.
I am also a chocolate lover so I couldn’t get through the day without that either I don’t think!
The best part of my day is… the people. I am so fortunate I get to see my wild ideas and imagination come to life, and that I have a room full of people who are on board in making that happen. It’s incredible to imagine something in your head and then see it materialise in front of your own eyes. I have to say, they bring me so much joy that I couldn’t do it without them. A strong team inside and outside of the studio just makes the day so enjoyable. I love seeing people succeed and realise how super-human they are to be able to do all of these incredible things. So, celebrating that every day through my job is one of my favourite things about my day.
The most challenging part of my day… often choreographing can feel like a very lonely place. While the room is full of people, you are making all of the decisions – some of them small, some of them major. At times, I do feel like I am going through a lot of it alone and can doubt myself, but I have learned to trust that the right decision will come along eventually, it might just take a few wrong decisions to get there. I also really struggle to switch off, so this is a part of me that I’ve been working on because otherwise, the workaholic in me would definitely just keep pushing through… and that just leads to burnout.
I know it’s been a good day if… it’s filled with laughter. Often work can be such a serious place with little room for letting loose and being silly. I love when the room is filled with joy and people can be themselves. Our artform is all about connecting with our colleagues and with the audience, so I think it’s really important that as a company we work on this connection in the creation process. So long as the whole team has laughed at least once in the day then we’re on the right track. There are always low points and things that come in that are difficult but they’re also part and parcel of life and we can’t ignore them either.
I usually end my day at… 6pm in the studio, but will often work for another few hours after dinner. Sometimes I work really late into the night researching and reviewing footage and videos from the day to see what we can bring forward to the next day. It’s all part of that preparation to make things run a bit smoother and it’s totally worth it.
I switch off work by… watching a film or a series that’s totally unrelated to my work. I am loving re-watching Grey’s Anatomy at the moment and find series like that or The Bodyguard and Stranger Things a great way to get away from my thoughts. I have also recently gotten back into reading and that also helps. Although, I do fall asleep pretty instantly so it takes a lot of time to get through a book.
Before I go to bed I… set an alarm for the next day and read or watch a series. Once my head hits the pillow I am pretty much out for the night.
After a long work week, I de-stress by… going for my Saturday or Sunday morning coffee and sitting in a café to enjoy it. I find this so relaxing and it allows me to just unwind and take a step back from the week of work. It’s important for me to be in a different surrounding so I can feel a bit more separated from my work. I also love the Suduko on the Irish Times and will sit and do them all until I’m finished … so that’s a great end to a long week!
The accomplishment I’m most proud of is… I started my own company during Covid called Róisín Whelan Dance (R.W.D.) and I have been funded by the Arts Council and many organisations around the country and internationally to create choreographic work. It was an enormous step and has led to so many things I am proud of such as receiving a commission from Ballet Ireland to make The Glasshouse (premiering this October), receiving a commission from Dublin City Council and Tipperary Dance to make a new kid’s show which is touring in autumn called The Galaxy of Occupations and presenting my first full-length work at VISUAL Carlow in February 2022 titled Man Down. This has all happened in the space of only 18 months and I am so proud I took that first step to make this all happen. It’s a rollercoaster but a very exciting one!
Another proud moment was being asked to choreograph a television show for AMC. They are a huge film company and I felt that them having the trust in me to create a new world of movement for Moonhaven was a real breakthrough and something I am immensely proud of.
If you want to get into my line of work, my advice is… don’t believe when people say you have to start young. Some of the most creative and beautifully talented people I have seen started when they were older, some when they were eighteen, for example. They loved the artform and that’s why they have succeeded, not because they were in classes from the age of three.
Find what it is you like about it; is it making things or performing? Is it facilitating other people’s work and helping them achieve? Or is it seeing your own work hanging on the walls? I think what’s important is trying different things and seeing what you like. There are so many jobs I didn’t know about, such as arts administration, producing, curating, being a creative learning coordinator. If you want to get into it, find what makes you tick and then see where you can ask for help. Can you shadow someone in that role? Do a short course to see if it’s for you, volunteer at a festival such as Dublin Dance Festival or Galway Arts Festival. Send that email, because I promise you someone will respond and throw you a lifeline which could change your life’s trajectory for the better. Artists are not made, they are born.
I’ve just finished working on… my newest commission with Ballet Ireland called The Glasshouse and we will be going into production to light the show and put it on stage (as I’ve only seen it in the studio) in September. The show will then tour to a few venues around Ireland including Solstice Arts Centre Navan, Draíocht in Blanchardstown and Baboró Children’s festival in Galway in 2022. It’s then in the company repertoire for the next three years so it might tour more from then on.
Through my company R.W.D. I will also be making a show for young audiences called The Galaxy of Occupations which will tour libraries, schools and venues around Dublin, Tipperary, VISUAL Carlow, Glór Ennis and Watergate Kilkenny this autumn. I am then heading back into research for a new show An Fear Bréige and a show called Hidden Figures which is about the hidden strength of women and has a stellar cast of five female dancers. Next year I will be going back to the world of TV to work on season 2 of Moonhaven with AMC+ and creating more movement for the cast of the show. It’s a busy year but a lot of exciting things to look forward to.