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Colin Dunne: deconstructing Irish dance.

Colin Dunne, the world champion Irish dancer who saved the day for Riverdance in 1995 when he jumped into the shoes of an abdicating Michael Flatley hours before curtain-up, has a bee in his bonnet. The dark-haired virtuoso who subsequently enjoyed a three-year stint starring in the show, which catapulted traditional Irish dancing onto an international platform, speaks like an artist in the middle of some risky and as yet unspecified work-in-progress.

"I think we owe [Irish dance] and what we got out of Riverdance to investigate it further," he pronounced in July 2002, while he was revisiting the "Trading Taps" segment of the program in Radio City Music Hall for the first time in four years.

"It's gotten more aggressive, more uptight, more just about what you do from the ankles down. in terms of musicality or style," he despaired. Like prodigious ballet dissident Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose mastery of his craft brought with it a productive aesthetic restlessness, Dunne has been on an aesthetic journey since he choreographed this exhilarating number with Tarik Winston for Riverdance in 1995.

Disenchanted by the competitive, showy nature of virtuoso Irish dancing, and by what be calls "Irish dance fundamentalists," he laments that "it is now about more and bigger and better and faster and louder," instead of about the art. In reaction, Birmingham-born Dunne, who began dancing at the age of 3, has been taking his technique-driven art form apart in search of its soul.

His mission became tangible in 1999 with his sylphlike costar, Jean Butler, who co-produced and choreographed the evening-length production of an Irish epic retold in Dancing on Dangerous Ground. The duo flanked their portrayal of Diarmuid and Grainne in the ancient Irish legend of the same name with a cast of approximately thirty accomplished, traditional Irish dancers and actor Tony Kemp, as Butler's betrayed, non-dancer husband. Their ambitious undertaking provided drama with a narrating voiceover and a generous dollop of parody and humor. Deconstructing Irish dance technique and rhythm, the two, choreographers invented horizontal step-dancing (done in a push-up position) and include "a whole scene of waking up and coming to terms with the fact that your arms are pinned by your side," says Dunne.

"I suppose it was quite a political comment about the dance and where it was at," admits Dunne, who is a master of this dance form that is based more on how people move than on, as contemporary choreographer Pina Bausch says, "what moves them." He grew up in a world where girls at Irish dancing competitions would literally sew the arms of their Irish dancing costume onto the bodice to prevent their arms from flailing about involuntarily. Dunne recalls a pad being put on his own left shoulder to balance out an apparent unevenness that emerged as a result of one piece of intricate footwork, Typically, all focus was on virtuoso feats of the feet, to the detriment of gnarled, neglected shoulders. A tense, rigid upper torso, disconnected from what was going on in the feet, was part and parcel of Irish dancing, according to Dunne.

Although, the innovative Dancing on Dangerous Ground, which put Irish dance to the new service of narrative, closed prematurely in New York (with enthusiastic reviews from the likes of Anna Kisselgoff and Tobbi Tobias), never to reopen. Dunne did not deviate from his path. Asking, "What is at the root of Irish dance?" and whether it "can be used as a dance language beyond its cultural context," he has explored other forms of percussive dance like tap and flamenco and, more recently, capoeira.

"Irish rhythm traditionally is so straight; whether you're in 4/4, or 6/8, there isn't an awful lot of groove in there," he explains.

In 2001 Dunne moved to Ireland, where he signed up for the contemporary stream of the master of arts program in dance performance at the University of Limerick. He thus immersed himself in contemporary dance, which, dance, which, in its exploratory nature and broad principles of music and movement is so unlike the Irish dancing that he describes as "either taught by severe imposition of the rules upon you or by just copying."

Doing Cunningham, Limon, and release techniques for the first time, Dunne recalls how he discovered his tailbone and his spine "vertebra by vertebra." Encountering modern dancers such as Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton. Sean Curran, and Mark Baldwin, he began to move as Bausch decrees, "from the inside out." Yet he found a way to do so without abandoning the virtuoso steps for which he is so acclaimed.

In the laboratory-like atmosphere of his residency at the University of Limerick's Irish World Music Centre, Dunne says he developed "a new way to create material other than ... just putting some steps together'" to a set piece of music. He says he feels that he is breaking free from the tyranny of hurtling music.

In Piano One, his early 2002 solo, Dunne tried a new choreographic approach, saying, "If Irish dance is a description of the music, then I'm going to take it really literally." So he used his feet spatially in a way that echoed the manner in which the acclaimed composer, musician, and director of the university's Music Centre, Micheal O'Suilleabhain, moved his fingers across the keys of the piano.

Dunne's graduate studies yielded a new opportunity when Yoshiko Chuma, former artistic director of the University of Limerick-based Daghdha Dance Company, commissioned him to create a piece for her May 2002 "Reverse Psychology" production. Dunne had been introduced to Chuma as a traditional Irish dancer, triggering her professional curiosity.

"Think[ing] about the steps and rhythms of traditional dance gave me the impulse to bring this dance form to the twelve dancers in my piece," says Chuma. "My impression was that since Colin came from a totally different background in dance, it might be a challenge for him to work with contemporary dancers." Dunne received credit toward his degree for the work. Chuma later collaborated with Dunne in the creation and choreography of The Yellow Room, which, premiered in January.

Dunne admits that choreographing for contemporary dancers was a challenge since they were not used to the precision involved in percussive Irish dance. "Percussive dance is scientific. It's left foot, right foot, and counts from one to eight," he elaborates. "There's not a lot off room in error in between."

With his newly acquired principles, Dunne created a duel for himself and Irish dancer Colleen Farrell for the August 2002 Vail [Colorado] International Dance Festival.

For another work, he steered clear of traditional Irish music, turning to Rimsky-Korsakov's The Flight of the Bumble Bee. "[I wanted to] highlight the virtuoso nature of the dance by using such a virtuoso piece of music," he says. The result was a witty one-minute-and-twenty-two-second solo at Charleston, West Virginia, in October 2002, where Dunne was teaching master classes in Irish dance at the Charleston Ballet.

Rick Justice, music critic of the Charleston Daily Mail, was intrigued "to see how he, like all great artists of all times, has stolen a little here and a little there and then added just a little of his own." Dunne's performance left justice pondering whether "the bee in question fell prey to the flying feet that seemed intent on stomping it to its end."

In November, Dunne created a duet with Mary Nunan, director of the Performance Stream of the masters program at UL (which runs side-by-side with an Irish Traditional Dance Performance Stream). Nunan, who performed with Dunne in The Yellow Room, describes his aesthetic as "an exciting work-in-progress."

Dunne says he would like to entice more contemporary choreographers to work with what he terms "open-minded Irish dancers," like himself. "Instead of this rather strange, clinical technique, which I had never questioned," he explains, "for the last six years I really have questioned it, and now I feel more truthful to myself. It feels more natural and like human movement now."

If Dunne develops a new dance language in this meticulous process of self-interrogation, all the better for the development of the art form, muses Nunan. The evidence will lie in the many adventurous projects this artist has underway.

Deirdre Mulrooney, Ph.D., is a journalist and dance critic based in Ireland. She is the author of Orientalism, Orientation, and the Nomadic Work of Pina Bausch.
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Title Annotation:Biography
Author:Mulrooney, Deirdre R.
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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