THE Irish word for selfie, féinphic, was added to the official online Forás na Gaeilge Irish dictionary in 2014.
For a language, the ability to adapt its vocabulary to technological change is crucial to its survival.
If dance is the language of the body, then, it must do the same. Choreographer Breandán de Gallaí’s new contemporary Irish dance piece, Aon, explores the lonely, occasionally alienating and thoroughly modern world of online dating… but he needed to devise a whole set of new movements to do so.
“My version of Irish dance involves a lot more of the body than those more recognisable motifs,” de Gallaí says. “I don’t see Irish dance as a limiting genre. I explored movement patterns that have come about from the use of devices: the stoop forward, the hand up to take a selfie. These are our signature gestures, that we’ve deconstructed to come up with a vocabulary for our production.”
Fusing Irish dance with other genres to expand its expressive capabilities for a modern era isn’t a unique concept. De Gallaí wants to add something new.
“Many choreographers want to do the Riverdance kind of show, which is all about self-aggrandising feats of skill, and that’s all fine,” de Gallaí says. “But to say that the Irish dancing body can’t evoke other emotions, I would say that that’s not true; that’s my experience.”
De Gallaí, the Gaoth Dobhair native and Gaeilgeoir who was principal dancer with Riverdance for seven years, is quite open about it; his time with the production still influences his work, but only in that it’s everything he doesn’t want his own work to be.
“I was very proud of my time there, and I enjoyed it, even though I wish it had moved with the times a little bit more,” de Gallaí says. “I was very fortunate to be a part of it, but as I left and moved on, I wanted to not do that.”
An MA in ethnochoreology and a performance-based PhD followed de Gallaí’s time with Riverdance; critically acclaimed pieces such as his Irish dance version of Stravinsky’s ballet Rites of Spring, and 2011’s Noctú followed, and he founded his own dance company, Eiriú.
Now 48, last year de Gallaí danced his putative swansong in Linger, a duet that took on the rare challenge of exploring gay male identity within Irish dance. “But there was something else coming out of that work that I needed to resolve,” he says, “and it was a sense of constructed identity, or wearing an identity to suit other people, rather than who you actually are.”
The resulting show, Aon, is a fusion of Irish dance with contemporary dance, combining many of the breath-taking elements of Irish dance with a deeper and at times more challenging approach. It goes to some quiet places, and puts a demand on its dancers for emotional intelligence and personal progression that is more commonly seen in contemporary dance.
Aon also draws on many elements more familiar from the Tanztheater tradition: the use of props, song, characterisation and dancers’ voices. Theatrical devices include sequences where the dancers recite dating website profiles before taking to a tight-rope.
Originally devised for nine dancers, this number can reach twelve when their professional commitments to Riverdance and other commercial shows permit, but there’s no Lord of the Dance here; the troupe works as a corps and pays respect to the strengths and personality of each individual body.
Sequences sensitively split between dancing in hard shoes, soft shoes and in bare feet, the variance in sound, rather than an incessant hard shoe tapping, drives home more deeply how much of Irish dance is actually percussion of the body.
The bare foot sequences are the most beautiful of all, accentuating the duality between the vulnerability on the one hand, and incredible strength and speed on the other, of the dancers. Rhythms in bassier thuds and slaps produced by bare feet weave, an instrument in their own right, through composer Paddy Mulcahy’s original score.