Learning to dance for ourselves

WATCHING CoisCeim's recent dance show, Hit And Run at the Project, I was struck by how unusual a vibrant, self confident, joyous…

WATCHING CoisCeim's recent dance show, Hit And Run at the Project, I was struck by how unusual a vibrant, self confident, joyous dance company still seems in contemporary Irish culture. Dance is supposed to be about pleasure, of course, but for us it has long been tinged with despair.

Even Riverdance, for all its razzmatazz, had an undercurrent of loss, the wild rhythms tapped out on the shifting ground of a history of emigration and displacement. And it came shortly after another huge international theatrical success from Ireland that also depended crucially on a poignant conjunction of dancing and despair, Brian Friel's Dancing At Lughnasa.

In that play's central moment, the pain of the three sisters bursts forth in a wild dance to the music of a ceili band playing The Mason's Apron on the radio, a dance whose rhythm, as Friel's stage directions make clear, is too frantic for pure joy: "But the movements seem caricatured; and the sound is too loud; and the beat is too fast ... With this too loud music, this shouting - calling - singing, this parodic reel, there is a sense of order being consciously subverted, of the women consciously and crudely caricaturing themselves, indeed of near hysteria being induced."

In Riverdance's too loud music and too fast beat there was an element of hysteria and self caricature as well, the shadow both of Catholic puritanism at home and of stage Irish display abroad. Both were present, not on stage, but in the wings, as alternative possibilities of failure, the monster and the whirlpool between which Riverdance had to trip the light fantastic. Its grace was that of an elegant swerve away from dangerous traps. The feeling of release was in direct proportion to the repression from which it sprang.


In most cultures, dancing is an expression of the community, a ritual of togetherness. To go to a dance is to participate in a place. Through dancing, the private - sexual desire, courtship, family relationships - is played out as a public display. The gap between the personal and the social is narrowed. But in Ireland, for most of the 20th century at least, dancing was often about avoiding the community, even of avoiding communication. It became a private activity, an act, not of communication or expression, but of escape.

In his Limerick Rural Survey of 1962, the most detailed and brilliant description of the Irish countryside before the radical changes brought by multinational industry and membership of the EC, Patrick McNabb notes that, even those young people who stayed at home preferred to dance outside their own townland or parish:

"Most young people preferred to dance outside their own immediate neighbourhood. Whenever possible they did not support the local halls. Boys in particular, who have a car at their disposal, think nothing of travelling long distances to dances, and of visiting three or four different halls in one night ... Since for the most part those people are well behaved at dances, letting down one's hair does not mean rowdiness but simply escaping the observation of the home community ... Dancing is as anonymous in rural areas as it is in cities. Conversation is pared down to laconic statements about the floor, the band or the weather."

WHILE English culture had Moira Shearer and The Red Shoes, we had John Kavanagh and The Ballroom Of Romance. Is it any wonder that professional dance in Ireland has been so weak, or that a great dancer and choreographer like Ninette de Valois, after her early work with Yeats at the Abbey, ended up in London?

Yet, after the virtual collapse of professional dance in Ireland in the 1980s, the emergence of a company with as much class as CoisCeim suggests that there has been an important change in Irish culture as a whole. I don't have the competence to analyse in any coherent way how CoisCeim's work relates to modern dance in general, but it is easy enough to see what the company is not doing. It is not burdened with any inferiority complex, not trying to develop some kind of explicitly Irish dance form. And neither is it trying to imitate the big international companies whose visits were, before Riverdance, most of what Irish dance amounted to.

What you get with CoisCeim is, rather, evidence of the confident expansion of theatrical forms that has been taking place in Ireland in the last few years as the borders between drama, opera and dance have become ever thinner. On the one hand, in plays like Dancing At Lughnasa and Sebastian Barry's The Only True History Of Lizzie Finn, dance has invaded even mainstream drama, while companies like Barabbas have brought a new rigour to physical theatre. On the other, forms like opera (especially in the work of Opera Theatre Company) and dance have been rediscovering their theatrical roots.

Thus, with CoisCeim, technical abstraction is suppressed in favour of a kind of physical drama that avoids both the twee narratives of so much classical dance and the pure formalism of so much modern dance. Rigour and precision of form are not sacrificed, but neither do they seem to be an end in themselves. The end, rather, is something that still has the force of a revelation in Irish culture: a pure and unabashed celebration of the body. Step by step, brick by brick, the ballroom of romance is being demolished.

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes a weekly opinion column