Logical movements and predictable poise are tokens of human frailty. But amazing gracefulness and sudden, inspired flights from the routine are choreographic gifts: Call them dancing lessons from the deity.
“Dancing On Dangerous Ground”, a new dance production by Jean Butler and Colin Dunne with music by Seamus Egan and based on the epic Celtic legend “The Pursuit Of Diarmuid And Grainne”, will start it’s first North American tour April 25th in Toronto, and the rising praise attending it is a blessed relief for two Irish dance artistes who dared to look beyond the previous limits of their chosen craft.
“To be honest, it wasn’t really thought through to throw all the rules out the window,” says the slender, flame-haired Butler, a former headliner with Dunne of the Irish dance sensation “Riverdance-The Show.” But she adds that “what we didn’t want to do was the basic presentation people were used to see in Irish dance, where it was fumulaic lines and straight-forward, almost mathematical-type choreography. Instead, Colin and I wanted this wave of dramatic movement, where at times you couldn’t see the form of each new element until the last second-and then you’d go, ‘Wow, there’s a shape to everything!’”
The tale of Diarmuid and Grainne is the romantic tragedy of two saints of circumstance, victimised by warrior noble, Finn Mac Cumail’s resolve to wed Grainne, daughter of an Irish King. The warrior domineering insistence leads to an ill-starred courtship-cum-sorcery in which Grainne’s search among Finn’s own troops for a rescuer compels her to acknowledge her secret ardor for Diarmuid. Destiny draws the fearful soldier and forlorn bride into an initially supple but soon desperate pirouette of mutual self-discovery they could never have contemplated.
The show had a parallel gestation. “We had a long rehearsal period of 14 weeks in Dublin that began last August,” says Butler, who was born March 14th, 1971, in Mineola on New York’s Long Island and immigrated to Ireland at 17. “We depend on the company to go away and start some material after we’d said, ‘OK, guys, this is the next scene,’ so when Colin and I came in with the choreography they’d be ready. We spent a lot of time experimenting. In many ways, those rehearsals at the Factory studio space on Barrow Street were the first Irish dance think-tank.”
After a two-month limited engagement at London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the fruits of that think-tank reached American shores March 8th at New York’s Radio City Music Hall (the same venue this writer witnessed the US debut of “Riverdance” in 1996), and they were as spectacularly creative as they were artistically ground breaking. Gone were the rigid arms-to-the-sides carriage, strict timing, and hidebound hornpipe, reel and ladies-only slip-jig figures of the generic Irish step dancing that “Riverdance” celebrated. Instead, Butler and Dunne’s solo, duet, and ensemble work in “Dancing On Dangerous Ground” fused ballet, modern dance, flamenco, and blue-hot jazz tap in a historic emotional crucible destined to forever alter the conventions of Irish dancing’s 18th –Century feis (festival), tradition.
Watching Butler and Dunne’s percussive lyricism merge with Egan’s crisply pulsative score (often played troubadour-style onstage by Egan’s group, Solas), was akin to seeing Agnes De Mille hoof with Duke Ellington at the ceill equivelent of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”
The New York Times pronounced the narrative dance musical “one terrific show, filled with a consistent integrity,” but Radio City’s packed house f veteran Irish dance devotees was occasionally stunned by the rare sight and sound of something more; the ripening of a folkloric form that had finally escaped the bounds of it’s cultural identity and competitive customs to enter a realm of great theatrical expression. Whether it was “Dangerous Ground’s” dynamic “Prologue” section which intercut Dunne’s and Butler’s solos with full ensemble’s ethereal flourishes, or the dazzling “Training” (in which intricate calisthenices by Mac Curmail’s army included toe-tapping push-ups) and “Bar Scene” numbers (where terpsichorean flirtations with girlfriends were traded from sitting positions on stools), the sure invention of the show steadily built to Act Two’s impeccably subtle “Wedding” and “Seduction” scenes, which sealed the fates of the co-stars’ lead characters.
“The intriguing aspect of it for me was that they were trying to look at the show as telling a story through dace and music rather than just turning on the power and banging it out as in regular Irish dance shows,” says the Philadelphia-born (July 1 1969), and Ireland-reared Egan, also known for his work on the score of the 1995 film “The Brothers McCullen,” including the music for Sarah McLachlan’s hit theme song, “I Will Remember You.” Egan recalls that Butler and Dunne, who first conceived “Dangerous Ground” 18 moths ago, kept emphasising that “The production was not a variety show but rather an entirely different approach to the whole Irish dance phenomenon that required a strong narrative build. In that sense it became for me more like a soundtrack, and it also involved the development of a musical language to help convey the requirements. The bar scene was designed to be like a jam session-as opposed to a polished, gleaming piece with an element of spontaneity, where the music had a sort of sexy ‘pickup’ quality.”
“Seamus writes tunes and melodies that have a lot of rhythmic elements, and the percussive aspects of the dances were important to Jean and me,” says Dunne, the offspring (born May 8, 1968) of Irish natives transplanted to Birmingham, England. “As a choreographer you can go with that rhythmic structure, or against it, or even over it. Besides our work in shows, Jean and I have both danced as the percussive element on musicians’ albums. Jean appearing on Chieftains records with The Rolling Stones and me on albums by Mary Black and Eileen Ivers. We’ve also danced on the radio,” he adds with a laugh. “So we treat variations of sound and tonality between a ‘stamp’ movement, or a step where you put your heel to the floor, just the same as a drummer with a drum kit would. Since I first put on a pair of those heavy shoes at the age of 5, I have loved to make noise and jam in the dance studio! So these are things we bore in mind for parts of “Dangerous Ground” like the bar scene. Musicality is was we were after.”
After Toronto, the North American trek of “Dancing on Dangerous Ground” moves to Cincinnati; Detroit; Boston; Milwaukee; Chicago; Buffalo, NY; and other cities yet to be announced. A video (shot in London for NVC Arts/Time Warner), and a soundtrack record are planned. In the meantime, Butler and Dunne are touched by stateside acceptance of their achievement. “Some dance critics say Irish dance cannot be expressive,” says Dunne, “but what’s more expressive that two characters in love and moving in harmony and counter-melody? It’s encouraging to have anyone recognise Jean and my language as dancers.”
“We didn’t know exactly how it was going to turn out,” Butler shyly admits, “but we were looking at extending the boundaries of what Irish dance can do. That people in America actually noticed and said, ‘My God, look what they’ve done’ is the best reward.”
(By Timothy White)