Holding a mirrorball up to the past

 

A classic story in its original setting, professional actors, men and women in period costume on opposite sides of a dance hall - a vanished Ireland is beginning to appear, writes Arminta Wallace.

The dance hall . . . was miles from anywhere, a lone building by the roadside with treeless boglands all around and a gravel expanse in front of it. On pink pebbled cement its title was painted on an azure blue that matched the depth of the background shade yet stood out well, unfussily proclaiming "The Ballroom of Romance" . . .

WILLIAM TREVOR'S beautiful, evocative short story of that name is justly celebrated throughout Ireland, and beyond, for its portrait of the buttoned-up rural Ireland of the bad old days - and especially its image of men and women lined up on opposite sides of the dance hall.

What's not so well known is that Trevor based his story on a real ballroom - and that it's still there. Much has changed in the townland of Brockagh Lower (in Glenfarne, Co Leitrim) over the past half-century. On a summer Sunday afternoon in 2008, this modest stretch of road is thronged with bank holiday day trippers heading from Enniskillen to Bundoran at dizzying speed. If the heroine of Trevor's story were to be cycling to a dance these days, she'd want to be wearing a reflective jacket over her coat. She would, however, be delighted to find a dozen or so cars parked outside the Rainbow Ballroom - and the unmistakable sound of a waltz issuing from within.

In the cool, dark interior of the dance hall, a dozen or so Glenfarne couples are making their way around the floor to the strains of One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus. . . But although they're clearly having a ball, this isn't a dance. It's a piece of theatre.

Dancing at the Ballroom of Romance, a new piece directed by Michael Scott, features both professional actors and a local community cast. It was, of course, inspired by Trevor's story; but as Scott points out in his programme note, there's more than one story to be told about this ballroom.

"The opportunity to make the work in the very Ballroom of Romance itself brought me back into contact with the material at a level of experience far more powerful than a novella or a film," he writes.

Scott aims to translate that experience into a piece of site-specific theatre by inviting the audience to come in period costume - and to dance.

"Men should wear a shirt, tie and jacket," proclaims the flyer for the show. "Women's dresses should be below the knee. No trainers or Wellington boots allowed. Refreshments (tea, orange and biscuits) will be available."

As people arrive, they'll check in their coats in the cloakroom, then take their places on chairs arranged down the sides of the hall. Men on one side, women on the other, naturally. There'll be a compere, and a live band, and plenty of dancing; three sets of nine minutes each, to be precise. But, at certain points, the lights will dim and the story within the story will take over.

"It's a story based on loneliness and the fear of rejection," says Scott. It also, he points out, works on the level of an almost primal evolutionary drive to find mates in a situation where emigration has decimated the local community - the selfish gene at its most ruthless. The dance hall was one of the few places where men and women could meet, the dance itself virtually the only situation in which they could actually touch each other.

"They were separated at Mass; they were separated at school," he says. "Even in the dance hall they're separated, as you can see here, by some 50ft. They can only meet when they're dancing - and maybe at the lemonade table."

As the rehearsal progresses it becomes clear that the community actors are playing a major role in the creation of the work itself. As they go through Scott's script, they suggest changes in syntax to take account of local expressions and accents. They also add authentic local detail. The name of the field where people used to go for a bit of - well, you know what - is changed to Clancy's Field, which will raise a laugh with older audience members. A character called Michael McCarthy becomes Mick.

"What, like the football manager?" one of the younger cast members offers. Mick McCarthy is hastily discarded.

How about Mick McGovern, somebody suggests. But isn't there a real Mick McGovern in the area? "No," comes the reply, quick as a whip. "He's Mickey - and he won't mind."

Scott, who's based at the City Theatre in Dublin, has worked on a number of projects with performers from outside the immediate world of theatre, from storytellers to seanchaí. He's aware of the challenges of using inexperienced actors - just trying to persuade some of the shyer cast members to speak slowly and clearly enough to make themselves heard in a performance situation is a challenge in itself. But the rewards, he says, are immense. "For me, what's exciting is that people aren't afraid to come up with very physical and quite innovative ideas; and their ownership of the material is extraordinary."

For the actor Mary McEvoy, working alongside local people has been - both personally and professionally - a joy.

"I love the whole idea of theatre that's actually rooted in the community - where professionals can come along and just assist people to tell their story," she says.

THIS PARTICULAR SHOW has, she says gone way beyond Trevor's short story. Unlike the television film by Pat O'Connor - which was actually shot in Mayo - it's not an adaptation but the creation of something completely new.

"This really has become the story of Glenfarne. People have had such ownership of the idea - and of that short story springing from their place - that they've taken it and run with it. And do you know what?" adds McEvoy. "For me, as a country person, for the first time in my life I don't feel like an oddity at rehearsals. The things I talk about over a cup of tea are the same as what everyone here talks about. Usually people look at me and say, 'You've got sheep? That's bizarre.' Here, they don't think it's bizarre, because they look at sheep every day of the week."

Out on the dance floor, it's a real-life generation game. The young folk are gorgeous in their old-fashioned attire, but clearly can't tell a quickstep from a quick pick. What they lack in elegance, of course, they make up for in sheer long-limbed energy. Several of the girls - Treasa Needlam, for one - are still at school. Paul Fox is an engineering student at UCD. When it comes to the strictly ballroom bit they can't compete with their elders, who mosey around the floor in discreet and understated circles. One such is John McCloskey, who retired to Rossinver from Belfast two years ago. "Braces," he says, lifting his jacket to show them off. "I haven't worn braces since the '60s."

Breedge Golden also lives just down the road. Has she done anything like this before?

"Never in my life," she says. "On the first night of rehearsals I went over and innocently said to Michael, 'I'll give you a hand out if you want anything doing'. And it has just evolved. So last week he said. 'Now - you say that line'. I know this place. I danced here. And the thing that I love is that there's such a mix of ages here. It's fascinating to listen to the younger people talking about what's happening on their social scene, with those of us who are just a little bit older talking about what it was like back in the '60s and '70s."

On the floor, giving it loads, is John Flynn from Leitrim.

"Ah, I'm just a sort of a prop," he says. He, too, spent many a weekend in this dance hall. "The walls, now," he says when he finally sits down - and he runs his hand wistfully down the cold concrete as he speaks - "they used to be blue from here down to the floor. Blue painted wood."

He hopes to bring his neighbour, Peter Reynolds - known locally as Fonzie - to one of the shows.

"He and his wife are both over 90. They danced here in 1956; they used to hire a car from Leitrim because it was too far to cycle. The driver would wait and bring them home again. And if they could find another couple to share the cost of the car, so much the better."

On the other side of the hall the handsome hero of the story - aka Leaving Cert student Conor Bredin - is resplendent in a tight, and horrendously bright, brown suit.

"It used to belong to Michael, and it fits me, so this is my costume - shirt and all. I can't wait to get out of it," he admits. The only dancing he ever did before was céilí dancing at the Gaeltacht. Is he appalled by the world of the old-time dance hall?

"No. I think it's brilliant," he says. "If I heard there was something like this going on - this kind of dancing, I mean - I'd definitely do it. Definitely." Chances are, he won't be the only one.

...

Dancing at the Ballroom of Romance is at the Rainbow Ballroom, Glenfarne, Co Leitrim, on Sun, July 27, Mon, July 28, Tues, July 29, Wed, July 30 and Fri, Aug 1 at 8pm. Booking: 071-9855833 or www.theglenscentre.com  

RAINBOW REVIVAL

The Rainbow Ballroom in Glenfarne, Co Leitrim was built by a local businessman, John McGivern, in 1934. Though it was extensively renovated before it finally closed in the 1980s, some original features - an enormous landscape painting behind the stage, and a distinctive "Mineral Bar" sign - remain. It's a medium-sized ballroom; nevertheless, at one time up to 800 people would come from miles around to pack its dancefloor to capacity. Dancing was big business in those days: the advertisement pages of a yellow and venerable edition of the Fermanagh Herald from June 1965 list some 18 dance halls in the immediate area.

The Glenfarne dance hall was famous for the "romantic interludes" instigated by McGivern, who would dim the lights, take to the stage himself for a suitably smoochy number - Jim Reeves was among his favourites - and insist that people who had never met should shake hands and say hello. This set many fledgling romances a-fluttering and inspired the sobriquet "the ballroom of romance", which was added to the sign on the wall outside in large capitals. Driving around the country in the 1970s, William Trevor spotted the name and wrote his short story.

Dancing at the Ballroom of Romance will see the hall dressed up to the nines to emulate the decor of its heyday, when many of the biggest names of the showband scene graced its stage; the Clipper Carlton band from Strabane, Dickie Rock and the Miami Showband, Brian Coll and the Buckeroos. There'll be spot prizes - a large bottle of Lucozade, a box of chocolates, a bag of Clarinda meal. And, yes, there'll be a mirrorball.