When Colin Dunne first appears onstage, slowly swishing his bare feet along the tracks and pathways they would trace if he were dancing traditional Irish dance in hard shoes, one has the sinking feeling that the tone is thus set for his whole show. However, this sparse beginning comprises just one of the many ingredients which produces Dunne’s curious, provocative and refreshing blend of Irish dance. Out of Time is essentially a choreographic journey which explores an art-form, embedded within a rich catalogue of tradition and history. Whilst Dunne has been keen to emphasise that it is not an auto-biographical work, it is nonetheless intriguing to watch an artist test and play with the form which has shaped his life so much.
Born in Birmingham to Irish parents, Dunne began dancing at the age of three, winning his first World Championship title at the age of nine. In 1995 he famously stepped into the iconic shoes of Michael Flatley when the Riverdance lead left the show. In recent times, he has begun journeying down a different path, moving away from his experiences as a competitive child star, and of commercial smash-hit works. He has danced with smaller Irish companies such as Daghda Dance, and garnered praise for his role in the experimental satirical work The Bull (Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre), in which he played a kitsch leather-trouser wearing Irish dancing star. It was, he says, doing a Masters Degree in contemporary dance which finally allowed him to truly begin dissecting his art and his relationship with it. The influence of contemporary dance is certainly evident in Out of Time, as is an ease of movement; a looseness which saturates his body, banishing firmly any hint of the rigidity which is sometimes associated with Irish dance.
The traces of Dunne’s history, as well as the history of the dance form, can be clearly marked in this solo work. The technical skill which earned him so many trophies, not to mention Riverdance’s coveted lead role, shines throughout the rhythms and blurry speed which propel his feet. This showmanship is combined with a provocative wit, seen for example in the way he introduces a dance section with the coy question ‘would you like to see my hornpipe?’ He goes on to unleash a verbal rhythmic tirade on the hornpipe ‘fabulous…brutal…that’s not a hornpipe…’ which rattles in time with the shuffles of his bare feet. When he finally dons hard shoes, the transformation is almost shocking – the first resounding stamp echoing through the cramped auditorium. This effect is heightened by the fact that Dunne has microphones strapped to both shoes giving rise to a whole range of technical tricks, produced by sound engineer Fionán de Barra. At times the sounds are given a booming hollow quality, and at times the rhythms of Dunne’s feet are recorded in real time and played back in loops, providing him with an imaginary partner with whom to converse rhythmically.
What is most pleasing about Out of Time is the way in which Dunne manages to take the raw elements of the Irish dance form and its history, and present them as they are, without recourse to the gloss and cliché of more commercial Irish dance productions. During the performance, archive film footage of dancers from the 1930s onwards is projected onto the stage. It seems at these moments that Dunne is not alone, but surrounded by a host of characters who inhabit not only history, but the steps which emanate from his body. Viewed thus, it is also remarkable to note the virtuosity and flair which these portly old gentlemen exhibit, flickering onscreen in their buttoned-up suits and battered shoes. A wonderful highlight of the work comes when Dunne, with his back to the audience, faces the screen of dance footage and at breakneck speed, copies the steps which the dancers on film are performing, thus providing a live soundscape for performances which took place so long ago.
As the work draws to a close, Dunne once more removes his shoes and recording paraphernalia, and returns to the state in which he began his journey. The final dance which takes place however, has an altogether different feel. Freed from the shackles of shoes and one cannot help feeling, the ghosts of the past too, Dunne leaps, strides, shuffles, jerks, stamps and whirs around the stage. It is at this moment that each disparate element of past and present merges as one, held in a body constantly in flux, testing, measuring, and free.
Review by Mary Kate Connolly