For Colin Dunne – one-time Riverdance performer, Fabulous Beast in-joker, reality-TV show judge and now experimental solo performer – tradition is something to be carefully maintained and zealously preserved. But that doesn’t mean he can’t deconstruct step dancing and put it together again in his own inimitable fashion, writes Peter Crawley
THE COFFEE IN Colin Dunne’s takeaway cup barely ripples, held level in his hand as he casually, almost unthinkingly, taps out a dexterous rhythm with his hard shoes on the floor. His attention is elsewhere, his gaze fixed on a projection of another dancer on a film from long ago.
With his head covered by a snug knit cap, it looks for a moment as though the top half of his body has not fully woken up yet, and his legs are using the opportunity to take control.
The black-and-white projection is of Áine Ní Thuathaigh, filmed in 1953, whose elegant traditional dance now appears still more spectral as the footage is gradually decelerated on a computer programme. “What’s she at now?” Dunne asks, as his sound designer and technical guru, Fionán de Barra, taps at the keys of a laptop computer, roughly in pace with Dunne’s steps.
“Just coming down to 75 per cent,” de Barra replies. Dunne, still dancing, abandons the coffee cup, and cradles his chin like a maths professor frowning at an equation.
For a moment he seems surprised. “Did she do something different with her toe?” Now this seems deeply unlikely, although it would be wholly appropriate to Dunne’s daring solo show, Out of Time , if Ní Thuathaigh chose to alter her steps with a ghostly flicker. A performance that brings Irish dance into sharp alignment with experimental, contemporary practice, its entire agenda is to take a tradition largely viewed as inflexible and encourage it to try something new.
Although the show, directed by the former Irish dancer Sinéad Rushe, feels sparing, almost austere, Out of Time is so heavily reliant on multimedia – blending film montages, roving projections and digital sound effects that play games with the reverberations of Dunne’s steps – that it takes the compact and energetic Dunne a while to disentangle himself from the radio microphones, wires and transmitters when he gets a break from rehearsals.
The elements of the performance, first staged last February, revived for the Dublin Dance Festival, and now returning to Project Arts Centre before an engagement at London’s Barbican, are equally difficult to take apart.
Indeed, it’s tempting to see the show as his life story; it incorporates glimpses of the past, be they recorded reels or inherited set routines (“Would you like to see my hornpipe?” asks Dunne during the show, with knowing coyness), together with the accumulated experience of a child prodigy, former Riverdance lead, and searching practitioner.
“A lot of people thought it was a biographical show,” says Dunne. “That wasn’t the point of origin at all.” Rather, it was an experiment in soldering four things together: a new approach to movement fostered by his masters in contemporary dance at the University of Limerick; the archival films screened on RTÉ’s Come West Along The Road; newfound possibilities in sound technology; and the theatricality discovered via his performance in Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre’s The Bull. “It was really by trying to put those elements together, that I suppose my relationship with this thing – this traditional dance – kind of came out.”
Born in Birmingham to Irish parents, Dunne began attending Irish dance classes at the age of three. “It’s a pretty standard story,” he says and begins to reel off the details, step by step: “Irish parents living in Birmingham, very close-knit community, local Catholic church, local Catholic school, Irish expat church hall on a Saturday afternoon.”
He concedes that as a toddler his commitment was not exactly voluntary, trailing his older sisters into lessons, but soon his participation became more urgent. “I don’t know why, but certainly as I got older it would have been hugely wrapped up in a sense of identity, of Irishness. It was a real stamp.”
Following the Birmingham pub bombings, in 1974, that identity became more entrenched. “Living or growing up in 1970s Birmingham, second-generation Irish, you had to make a choice,” he says. “It was impossible to have an English-Irish identity. You made a choice one way or the other.”
When the Irish Press is delivered to your Birmingham home daily, everyone who visits the house is Irish, and your dancing belongs to a tradition largely unchanged since the 18th century, tradition is something to be carefully maintained and zealously preserved. And Dunne excelled at it. By the age of nine he had won his first World Championship, together with the All Ireland and All England titles. By the time he retired from competition, at 22, he had won dozens more.
IT’S UNCLEAR EXACTLY when the strictures of traditional dance had begun to chafe with Dunne, a man who can now perform the steps drinking coffee. Before he famously stepped into the hard shoes deserted by Michael Flatley, when the oleaginous male lead left Riverdance in London in 1995, Dunne was working with the show as choreographer of Trading Taps , a sort of trad-tap dance off.
Flamenco and tap had always been part of his personal repertoire. “They’re so related to what we do,” he says. “Their approach to rhythm is much more curved than ours. The rhythm of traditional dance is very babada bopada babada bopada , like any nursery rhyme. But anything that I tried to incorporate was incorporated back into this quite restrictive physicality.”
Dunne followed his tenure at Riverdance with Dancing on Dangerous Ground , an ambitious but ill-advised production created with his long-time collaborator Jean Butler, which flopped on London’s West End.
An unhappy experience all round, it nonetheless saw the beginnings of Dunne probing the form, seeming both restless and self-aware – one sequence for instance, involved characters waking to discover that their arms had been pinned to their sides. “That show was the beginning of me really kind of questioning the form and trying to break the form apart. I just don’t think I had the skills or the know-how to make it work. It wasn’t until I did the masters that I was really able to access that. Something was going on, but I didn’t have the vocabulary or the language.”
If Dancing on Dangerous Ground was a humbling experience – “It was a big turn away from the commercial world and that brand,” he says – his performance in Fabulous Beast’s overheated satire The Bull , as the open-shirt and leather-trouser-wearing, exhausted, “knee-fucked” dancer of the world-conquering Celtic Bitch show, seemed like aggressive self-parody.
“Some people thought I was taking the piss out of Riverdance . Some people thought I was taking the piss out of Lord of The Dance .” He shrugs. “The world does not revolve around just those two shows. It was a reflection of the aesthetic that had grown up around them. It just seemed that this was all that there is now. This is what [the tradition] had become.”
Out of Time represents another way – a solo show stripping away the gloss and cliché from Irish step dancing, shearing away its music, fracturing its components then reassembling them within the rubric of contemporary practice – but Dunne downplays any such agenda. He could never be entirely remade as a contemporary dancer, he tells me, because “traditional dance is part of my DNA. Without feeling any responsibility to it, I was just trying to play with it.” Is it the beginning of an ongoing exploration of the form? “I’m constantly at a crossroads,” Dunne considers. “This seems to be another one. When I was making the show, I didn’t know if it was the end or if it would lead on to something else. I feel now that it’s leading on to a new phase.”
Dunne has just received a bursary to work with musicians for his next project, something deliberately restrained in Out of Time , “which is more to do with myself and the form”. Although he is still slow to see the show as biographical – “It’s personal, but not biographic” – one of its most memorable sequences reveals the 10-year-old Dunne on Blue Peter.
On stage, Dunne is disinclined to look at it. “It’s a weird one,” he allows. “Obviously it’s very cute. It’s kind of sweet and funny to see the 10-year-old version of me there. But I always saw that as quite a dark piece of footage. Just because of the ridiculousness of a 10-year-old being in the position of a world champion. Where do you go after that?” The question sounds sincere, as though it has dogged him all along: “I see that time as a turning point, where dance became quite serious. Before that you just sort of did it without questioning.”
Dunne turned 40 last year and, in part, making Out of Time has won back the ability to play. “This whole process of making a show is quite difficult but I was very free and open in a way that I’ve never been before. Now that may just be an age thing. But those early years were so formative and it is such a judgmental form: it’s all about, did you do it right? And therefore are you going to win? It takes a long time to get out of it.”
Indeed, he grimly recalls a post-show discussion last year when a punter wished Dunne had done a bit more “proper dancing” in the show. But Dunne doesn’t see his new methods as a distraction from his heritage. Rather, they’re a new way of approaching his life’s work. “It’s really about shedding all that stuff,” he says, “and trying to find out what’s the essential thing that I like about it.”
The next question is obvious: what is that essential thing? Dunne drums his heels on the ground and searches for an answer. “I don’t know,” he says finally. “Call me in a few days.” I don’t, though. I suspect he’s still searching.
Out of Time is at Project Arts Centre, Dublin Feb 3rd-7th and the Barbican, London Feb 17th-28th