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Repression and liberation: a coming-out for gay men and Irish step dance

Former Riverdancer Breandán de Gallaí examines identity, sexuality and ageing in his show Linger

In Linger, Breandán de Gallaí dances with Nick O’Connell

Gay male identity isn’t a subject normally explored in Irish step dance. But for choreographer Breandán de Gallaí, step dance isn’t about the exterior showmanship of steps but a visceral form with the aesthetic heft to tackle any issue.

In Linger he examines identity, sexuality and ageing with fellow dancer Nick O’Connell and various collaborators working in music, film, photography and life-drawing.

The title of the Dance Ireland-commissioned show reflects an overarching sense of enjoying the moment, taking one’s time, and how in life and art the journey is more important than the destination.

It’s a perspective usually born from backward-looking experience than forward-jumping youthfulness. At 46, de Gallaí says he is at the end of a dancing career has that included nine years in Riverdance, with seven as a principal dancer. O’Connell (30) is at the peak of his physical prowess.

“I chose Nick because I saw myself in him,” de Gallaí says. “He moves like I used to move and he’s very athletic, with a great sense of ballon, that ability to appear to hover in the air.”

The two perform the same material in unison for most of the piece and so appear to be one person at different stages of their life. “I wanted his interpretation to be rash and Bambi-like and mine to be more considered.”

O’Connell danced in de Gallaí’s Nochtú and as the Chosen Victim in The Rite of Spring. He also appeared alongside actor John Ruddy in Rising, directed by Joe O’Byrne and choreographed by de Gallaí. “I like to author everything, but now Nick is fluent enough in what I’m doing to make suggestions or even predict what movement comes next.”

Deeper investigation

De Gallaí is one of a growing number of ex- Riverdance stars who are embarking on a deeper investigation of step dance and contemporary dance.

Brooklyn-based Jean Butler’s latest work, This Is an Irish Dance, had its premiere at New York’s Danspace in December. Her Riverdance costar Colin Dunne has danced with many contemporary companies, including Fabulous Beast’s hit The Bull, and last year featured in 20 Dancers for the XX Century at the Tate Modern in London. (In contrast, these days Michael Flatley is making “guest appearances” on his Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games show.)

The Irish Academy for World Music and Dance in Limerick is the common denominator: Butler and Dunne both received a master’s degree in contemporary dance, whereas de Gallaí earned an master’s in ethnochoreography and a PhD.

This academic research has filtered into their performances, but a lingering question remains constant: how can they reconcile their traditional dance roots with being a contemporary dance practitioner?

Recurring themes of repression and liberation are discernible in works such as Dunne’s mixed-media solo Out of Time (2008) or Butler’s Does She Take Sugar? (2007), where the codified conformity of step dance rubs against the relative freedom of contemporary dance. According to choreographer and academic Jools Gilson Ellis, a similar tension is evident in Linger: “The percussive virtuosity of Irish traditional dance is haunted with the taste of repression [while] the breath and ache of contemporary dance becomes an affective counterpoint.”

Coming out

This physical expression of repression and liberation reflects the lingering pressures of coming out as a gay man. “I didn’t come out until I was in my late 20s,” says de Gallaí. “I’m a fighter, but I question how I could have left it so long. A generation later and those pressures are still there.”

In Linger, live drawing is used to depict how identities are created and how perceptions can be difficult to change. De Gallaí seems to be constantly up against these stubborn stereotypes in his life and art.

“There are still a lot of political and cultural issues around step dance,” he says. “First of all, traditional arts aren’t embraced to the same degree as other forms. You find negativity and a lot of false claims, particularly about the process.”

These are most frustrating when they come from other artists. “I’ve been told that I only repeat repertoire and have a stockpile of moves that I just rearrange to make a new piece. In reality, I work the same way as any contemporary choreographer. I use improvisation in generating material, I deal with concepts in creating dance and I certainly don’t follow some pre-ordained route.”

Within step-dance tradition, the vocabulary is constantly evolving. “Even in competitions you can see new moves and clever ways of doing rhythmic patterns. Over time these new things are absorbed into the tradition and the unforgivable becomes accepted.”

Creating Linger and juxtaposing himself with a younger dancer has reminded him of his own youthful efforts at pushing boundaries.

“I always wanted to have a wow factor and make heads turn, but not be penalised for it.” Channelling today’s youthful irreverence and rebelliousness is challenging, especially with the constant lure of the Irish dance spectacle. “There are great opportunities for reflective practice at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, but it seems that many young dancers want to have a show and become a star. I can understand that, I suppose.”

These days he is less interested in the wow factor, but finds artistic empathy in Pina Bausch’s simple credo: “I’m not so interested in how people move, but what moves them.”

“Movement must have a true intention,” he says. “If it’s authentic, created with honesty and integrity, then it will communicate clearly to the audience.”

  • Linger is at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, January 20th-23rd; Firkin Crane, Cork, January 29th; and Dance Limerick, February 4th