How to dance the undanceable music of Tommy Potts

Former Riverdancer Colin Dunne takes on challenge of ‘The Liffey Banks’ album

 

Deviant, playful, melancholic, and at times symphonic, the music of the late Dublin fiddle player Tommy Potts has been a keen influence on many musicians from Martin Hayes to Liam O’Connor. Potts’s only commercial recording, The Liffey Banks (released in 1972) is an iconic album, populated with his tongue twisting tunes shot through with a swathe of influences from the river itself to Chopin and Rachmaninov. 

Traditional music is steeped in dance, but Potts’s music was long deemed undanceable.  So what better challenge for a dancer than to interrogate this presumption?

Colin Dunne is a Riverdance veteran and his 2008 solo work, Out Of Time, received an Olivier award nomination. He first encountered Potts’s music in 2001, when he did a Masters in Contemporary Dance at the University of Limerick. He had made his Irish step dance his life’s work, but at the time, post-Riverdance, he felt that his own work was out of line with the direction Irish step dance had taken. As he began an exploratory journey of stepping and of sound technology, Potts’s music hovered around the periphery – until 18 months ago.

“When I started listening to The Liffey Banks again, I just felt connected to it,” Dunne says while on a break from rehearsals for a new work, Concert, which will premiere at Dublin Dance Festival on May 18th. Much as the Aboriginal Songlines “sing” the landscape into existence, Dunne is beguiled by the prospect of dancing this rhythmically obtuse and melodically resplendent album into another existence.

“I found it to be very kinetic music,” he says. “It does make you move. There’s a lot of gesture and quirkiness in the music, and I felt that there was a possibility of trying to meet Potts. The concept of dancing an album seemed like a very nice one, particularly as it’s an album that is generally recognised as not suitable for dance in the traditional way that we would think.”

Complex man

Tommy Potts was a complex man who wrestled with traditional music much as Dunne does with dance. Neither artist would be content with simply “‘performance”. It’s the underbelly that seems to intrigue them both.  

“There’s a sense of lonesomeness, of the melancholic, a sense of complexity,” Dunne says. “He really thought about what he was doing. And I suppose I was slightly seduced by that. But something resonated about his journey and my own too. Something about inner turmoil and battle: with the form, with the community around it, with the sense of being on the outside of something, while at the same time, being really in it.”

Colin Dunne: “I have a sense of wanting to strip back all the palaver that’s been added to step dance, and go back to the source, which is music, stepping and gesture.”
Colin Dunne: “I have a sense of wanting to strip back all the palaver that’s been added to step dance, and go back to the source, which is music, stepping and gesture.”

Most dancers’ careers are long over by the time they reach Dunne’s age. “I’m 49 this year. I didn’t think that I’d still be dancing, but I am,” he says with a wry smile. “I want to somehow keep myself stimulated and alive in it by doing work that is of interest. If I just had to get up and dance a hornpipe, then I would have no interest in that.

“I have a sense of wanting to strip back all the palaver that’s been added to step dance, and go back to the source, which is music, stepping and gesture. Allowing myself that space to go back to the source and start again with a broader frame of mind.”

To get under the skin of Potts’s music and to bridge that 45-year gap, Dunne has been working with director Sinéad Rushe (who also directed Out of Time) and composer Mel Mercier. As the son of the late Peadar Mercier, bodhrán player with The Chieftains, Mercier came to the party with an already rich familiarity with Potts’s music.

 “I still remember The Liffey Banks LP and the image [of Potts playing his fiddle on the Ha’penny Bridge], and it was always iconic in our house, even before I knew the meaning of the word.”

Interview excerpts

Concert melds the music of The Liffey Banks with archive interview excerpts of Potts. Watching the trioduring rehearsals in Limerick, it’s clear that their interest is in the subtlety of this music, and how Dunne’s dance can illuminate the darker reaches of Potts.

“For me what’s really stimulating is to hear Potts’s voice,” Mercier says, “and the grain of that voice. It’s a search for a relationship between Colin and Tommy Potts, but Colin is here fully in the room, and Potts is not. But we have these traces of him. We have his music, his voice, his thoughts and ideas and I would say, his spirit: to the extent that that’s captured in his recordings and in his interviews.”

By way of explanation for the show’s trajectory, Sinéad Rushe says: “In the first part of the performance, Colin is navigating his way. In the second part, he’s inside the music. In the coda, Colin moves beyond pure Potts. Having tried to meet and understand Potts, where does that leave Colin? How is he changed or altered? And for us, the audience too. I think there’s a desire to answer Potts’ own desire for ‘otherness’ or for taking flight, in the sense of the symphonic . . . it’s not a big orchestra and a trumpet. It’s just one person and it’s a modest, humble gesture towards flight.”

Does Colin Dunne feel he’s had to wrestle to come to grips with this reputedly “‘undanceable” music of Potts? “I’m not looking for a wrestle,” he says. “I think I really underestimated it though. Out of Time was a really personal digging into myself. Eighteen months ago, I thought that engaging with the album would be easy, I thought it would be lighter, and not so ‘of myself’, but it has brought up all sorts of challenges for me as a dancer. It’s kept me awake since January.”

Colin Dunne’s Concert is at Project Arts Centre, Dublin on May 18th-20th as part of Dublin Dance Festival. dublindancefestival.ie

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