Whenever Lucia Joyce’s name is mentioned, the words “daughter of James Joyce” are never far away. A talented dancer, writer and musician, Lucia’s career was cut short after suffering a nervous breakdown and was – some say wrongly – diagnosed with schizophrenia. She spent the rest of her life in institutions where she was subjected to experimental treatments.
According to dance historian Deirdre Mulrooney, many accounts of her life are Mills & Boon-style narratives, where the real protagonists are famous male writers, including her father and Samuel Beckett, with whom Lucia had a relationship. Writing in the Joyce Studies Annual, Mulrooney asserts: “This misunderstood artist has been reduced to a ‘mad girl’, synonymous with mental illness, viewed primarily in relation to her father, and filed under ‘miscellaneous’ in James’ coveted special collections. Joyce. the world.”
This two-dimensional caricature would be different had it realized its artistic potential. In 1928, the Paris Times stated that “when she has reached her full capacity for rhythmic dancing, James Joyce might still be known as the father of her daughter”.
Choreographer Áine Stapleton has spent the past eight years at the forefront of Lucia Joyce’s artistry and will premiere a dance film installation, Somewhere in the Body, at this year’s Dublin Dance Festival.
“In 2014, I was working with friends in a group that created musical renditions of Joyce’s major works for Bloomsday,” she says. “During rehearsals, they told me a bit about Lucia and her career as a dancer. That same week, I managed to find letters written by Lucia during her last years in psychiatric care. I could instantly see a clear divide between the cliched accounts of Lucia in the press and media, versus the kind, intelligent, loving person that shines through in her letters. These writings inspired me to do my first work on Lucia and I have been immersed in her story ever since. Stapleton would agree with Mulrooney’s disdain for superficial accounts of Lucia’s life.
“I try to avoid the clichés that are so often associated with her story, so it’s always important to me to research as thoroughly as possible. But finding information about Lucia is very difficult, in part because Stephen Joyce, James Joyce’s grandson and longtime estate administrator, is known to have destroyed some of Lucia’s correspondence with his father and Samuel Beckett after his death. “Poems and an unpublished novel were also lost or destroyed.
Stapleton has created two previous dance films. Medicated Milk was based on a time Lucia spent in Bray, Co Wicklow (“near where I grew up, which Lucia described as a beautiful place, full of flowers”), and Horrible Creature, based on his life in Switzerland between 1915 and the end of the 1930s.
“Somewhere in the Body takes a different approach to my previous work on Lucia, which relied heavily on her biographical details,” she says. “For this film installation, I examine the psychic spaces Lucia inhabited in her father’s mind and how she appears in his writings, with a particular focus on Finnegans Wake.”
Lucia appears throughout the book under different names and at different times. “Sometimes she is a mythical figure, like Queen Maedhbh, or like the ephemeral character Nuvoletta or even like a little cloud. At other times it multiplies into seven or even 29 colors or dancers. Somewhere in the Body also explores, to a lesser extent, how the medium of dance may have influenced the creation of the book.
“The film takes us into the dream world and ‘native language’ of Finnegans Wake, in which Lucia appears in various forms.” What Joyce calls “nat language” has been postulated to mean “no language” or “night language”, but either interpretation finds resonance in the unspoken language of dance.
Stapleton makes no claim as an expert on Finnegans Wake and worked with Joycean researcher Finn Fordham as an advisor in the later phase of his research. Another collaborator is German artist Pat Kramer, who created neon light sculptures as part of the installation.
“The theme of light is important in Somewhere in the Body. Lucia described her name to a family friend as meaning “light, like the city of light”. Lucia means “giver of light” and is named after Saint Lucia, the patron saint of the blind. We filmed the dancers along the Costa de la Luz, which had beautiful natural light and unique locations that relate parts of the book. Additionally, this filming took place at magic hour and at night in order to create a dreamscape worthy of Finnegans Wake, which Joyce described as “a book of the night”.
Creating a dance film differs from a live performance in the amount of pre-planning required. In performance, a choreographer may whisper a last-minute change into a dancer’s ear seconds before they take the stage. In film, most artistic decisions are finalized before filming and rolled out in the post-production booth. This process is easy with Stapleton, who has always preferred to create choreographic scores, like instructions or suggestions created before rehearsals to be interpreted by the dancers.
For Somewhere in the Body, she worked with dancers Katie Vickers and Colin Dunne. “We physically worked on the language related to the book in a dance studio for a few weeks, before taking the different choreographic structures we had created on location for the shoot.
Stapleton’s next project, which is already in the preliminary research phase, is based on Lucia’s childhood in Trieste, Italy. It will explore his early years, from his birth in 1907 until the family left Italy for Switzerland during the First World War. All these projects merge into a complete incarnation of Lucia and her dance.
“My hope is to reveal more about the person that Lucia was, in all her complexity, and to shed light on her suffering and the experiences that may have led to mental strain. I also want to focus on creativity and the freedom she seemed to experience during her years of dancing, as well as how dancing may have been a source of healing for her. Ultimately, I want to create a connection between Lucia’s story and modern times, and provide an opportunity to shed light on what we can learn from Lucia’s complex and tragic story.
somewhere in the body, Project Arts Centre, from May 18 to June 6 as part of the Dublin Dance Festival.