Someday, we will be able to talk about Irish dance without the words Riverdance or “Michael Flatley” entering the conversation. I will be able to tell you, for instance, about a new work by an Irish dancer, without having to convey how vastly different it is from the globe-trotting extravaganza, which—whether you’ve seen it live, or on PBS, or on a billboard, or parodied on YouTube, or recycled into one of its many offshoots—is probably flashing before your mind’s eye right now.
We’re not there yet. But Colin Dunne is bringing us closer. His Out of Time, a milestone in the artistic progress of Irish dance, draws its inspiration from a pre-Riverdance era, reminding us that such an era even existed. In the 2008 piece, which had its New York premiere at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in October, Dunne reflects on the history of a tradition and his personal history in relation to it, creating something both startlingly original and deeply resonant of the past.
Since Riverdance—since before Riverdance, really—Irish dance has been yearning for an artist like Dunne to bring the strangeness of its form (no arms, lots of legs) and the richness of its history into a contemporary context. By thrusting the tradition into the limelight, Riverdance, in some ways, stunted its growth. Suddenly, a centuries-old style became synonymous with something akin to the Rockettes, or the image of an alpha-male soloist darting pompously across the stage through puffs of dry ice. (Dunne filled those alpha shoes from 1995 to 1998, after inheriting the leading role from Michael Flatley.) The aesthetic was considered “contemporary,” even “sexy.” It succeeded wildly, so other productions followed suit. There were Flatley’s increasingly tacky, Vegas-ready spin-offs: Lord of the Dance, Feet of Flames, Celtic Tiger. (Riverdance looked subdued in comparison.) There was Dancing on Dangerous Ground, Dunne’s collaboration with fellow Riverdance star Jean Butler, which had a critically acclaimed but short-lived run at Radio City Music Hall following a difficult London opening. There were dozens of smaller imitations. There were less directly related experiments in creating “modern” takes on a folk tradition.
Out of Time, which is directed by Sinéad Rush, is a different creature altogether: an understated and unsentimental investigation of the body in space, it is effortlessly funny and rhythmically dazzling. The solo grew out of Dunne’s journey away from Riverdance stardom and toward a different kind of artistry. Shortly after Dangerous Ground closed in 2000, he went on to earn his master’s in contemporary dance from the University of Limerick, studying with the likes of Yoshiko Chuma and Yvonne Rainer. He encountered new ways of moving and thinking about movement; he also took Chuma’s advice to not stray too far from his Irish dancing roots.
He did, however, abandon the bigness of Riverdance. Dunne designed Out of Time for a small black box theater, a setting that he inhabits comfortably, treating it almost like a rehearsal space. He dances, he wanders around, he playfully riffs on such themes as “what the hell is a hornpipe?” and “rashers and sausages,” infusing these activities with a sense of continual discovery. He takes breaks, stopping to change his clothes or rearrange the spare scenery—two white platforms, which double as dance floor and movie screen.
Out of this deceptively casual demeanor arises some exquisite movement. Combining his famed fleet-footedness with principles from release technique and shades of an older, unkempt strain of step dancing, Dunne has honed an inimitable style: strikingly relaxed yet in control; precise, yet open to whatever impulses may arise. His intricate footwork causes small aftershocks: the sideways flick of an arm, a subtle head-bobble. At times, he dances without shoes, bringing our attention to the visual calligraphy of his legs, rather than the noise they’re capable of making.
Noise is paramount in Out of Time, which could be described as a duet between Dunne and his sound designer, Fionán de Barra. Enhanced by delicate microphones, Dunne’s shoes generate the raw material that de Barra digitally manipulates into a percussive score. The space fills up with echoes of rhythms we’ve just heard, or distorted electronic variations, interspersed with the periodic “whoosh” of a foot swiping the air. Patterns overlap and repeat, often adding up to the sound of two, or three, or many people dancing.
And indeed, Dunne is not the sole performer in Out of Time. Thanks to video designer Sean Westgate, he is joined by dancers of generations past and, in some cases, their cheering audiences. Arriving by way of black-and-white footage projected onto two white platforms, these grainy figures, dating back to the 1930s, populate Dunne’s world like sprightly ghosts. He channels their homespun style through his own body: feet side-by-side instead of crossed, close to the floor rather than pulled up on the toes. When he pushes aside the black backdrop to reveal a large projection screen, his anonymous predecessors reappear there in quick flashes: the woman in the stiff white dress, the quartet of men in tweed suits. Dunne stands at a distance, facing them and dancing to their beat, almost reverential, as if to say, “I want to know you.”
But Dunne does not idealize the past. We get the feeling that he’s inherited some customs he could do without—for instance, the “virtuoso affair” of “the solo dance tradition in Ireland,” which he calls, “in a word, exhibitionistic.” Along the same lines, he pokes fun at the harsh judgment and lavish praise that surrounds this culture of one-upmanship (“brutal hornpipe,” “excellent hornpipe”). One film clip shows a 10-year-old Dunne performing on BBC after winning the world championships. When he finishes, the TV show host applauds not just his talents but the “magnificent belt” and three silver trophies that he’s garnered in his short career.
When Dunne, at the end of Out of Time, puts on a clean shirt, removes his shoes, and strips off his microphones for one last breathless, freewheeling reel, the freedom we witness is more than physical. He has shaken greater constraints. In its intimacy and vulnerability, Out of Time runs counter to the spirit of competition and showmanship that drove the first part of Dunne’s career—and the careers of most Irish dancers. The very force that motivates a competitor—the desire to succeed, to take home more trophies and more praise—can hamstring an artist charting unfamiliar territory, who must necessarily take risks and, most likely, fail a few times.
In light of all this, to proclaim that Dunne has “succeeded” with Out of Time feels too simplistic. Instead I’ll just say: Keep going.
SIOBHAN BURKE is a writer and dancer based in Brooklyn. She contributes regularly to the New York Times and Dance Magazine.