It’s no accident that dance was at the centre of Nietzsche’s metaphysics, nor that it holds such importance for other philosophers and thinkers, from Badiou to Valéry. It is one of those rare forms of expression, of living, where evenness of emotion is hard to maintain in its company. One can’t help but be changed through its practice.
Nietzsche used dance as a metaphor for thought, opposing it to what he described as the ‘spirit of gravity’, a deleterious force for Nietzsche. Badiou suggests that dance is, first and foremost, ‘the image of a thought subtracted from every form of heaviness’. He also suggests that it does not present the body liberated, but instead the body in disobedience as regards its impulses. Dance thus understood is a marking out of the struggle with gravity and form imposed on us moment-to-moment in our lives.
These may seem somewhat grand and perhaps over-general notions of the dance, but they get at something vivid at its heart, a vibrant conception of space, movement and feeling which the dance also shares with musical performance, particularly broadly spontaneous, participatory musical performance.
This vibrancy, no less than this crossover of the dance and of music, is also at the heart of Fabulous Beast and Liam Ó Maonlaí’s stunning Rian. Fresh from a rapturous reception at the Dublin Theatre Festival, Rian just completed two night’s at Sadler’s Wells, the second of which I attended. These two nights, by the by, are surely a test run for a much longer stint, at least if the jubilant reaction of the crowd on the night I attended is anything to go by.
Rian takes its name and perhaps its cultural starting point from Liam Ó Maonlaí’s 2005 eponymous album of traditional and original Irish songs, written partly in tribute to Seán Ó Riada, Irish composer and the leading figure of the Irish traditional music revival. Ó Maonlaí, the lead singer of Irish rock band the Hothouse Flowers and also a respected traditional musician in his own right, has collaborated closely with the director of Fabulous Beast, Michael Keegan-Dolan, to put together the show, although the process was very much a group collaboration. The eight dancers involved, for example, came up with a repertoire of 108 named ‘natural movements’ in response to the music of the five musicians, which came to form the basis of the dance elements of Rian.
The music, meanwhile, is largely the responsibility of Ó Maonlaí, with original compositions, arrangements of traditional music, and some pieces from Rian mainly comprising the score.
Similarly, Ó Maonlaí takes the lead on stage, moving seamlessly between piano, bodhrán, harp, guitar, and tin whistle, most of the while singing meditatively to his own accompaniments. And yet even if Ó Maonlaí can be said to be musically key, the contributions of his four band mates are indispensable. They each achieve at moments a beauty that is easily comparable to anything realised by Ó Maonlaí. Special mention must go in this regard to the sweetly chaste but expressively rich voice of Eithne Ní Chatháin, who sings ‘Lough Erne’s Shore’ so romantically, and the colourful and exciting pipering of Maitiú Ó Casaide, whose own arrangement and solo performance of three famous traditional tunes, to the accompaniment of writhing-in-mid-air (on chairs) dancers and musicians (whose shadows created wonderful effects on the back wall), proved a highlight of this highlight-heavy show.
Both music and dance move deftly in and out of each other, and across their own internal movements, in Rian. The show does not concern itself with a narrative as such, apart from a well-managed emotional and dynamic rise and fall, but prefers to gain its coherence through the rhyming of its two core elements.
But what does it mean to say that, in this production, dance and music fuse and emerge out of each other? At the heart of the group performance of Irish traditional music, as with so many folk traditions from around the world, is a direct simplicity of material and gesture, and a cyclical and building sense of form. A dance melody is heard for eight bars, and then a second, again for eight bars. These melodies then simply repeat, with musicians joining and varying the melodies slightly as things go on. If the musicians are performing a set, then the original dance will shift after a short time to another, with the same formal principle holding for the new melodies.
This simple but exciting process of repetition and variation is the exact form the Keegan-Dolan gives to the dance in Rian. Just as the musicians play games with each other, joining in a duet or teasing in separation, or coming together as a total ensemble, the dancers likewise make each short section (which run for as long as the musical piece runs) a game of teasing interaction and joyous coming together.
Another simple touch that works to elide the music and dance in Rian is that, throughout the show, the musicians find themselves dancing, naturally, and why shouldn’t they? Likewise, the dancers often sing out a harmony or a holler, or bang a drum along enthusiastically with the music. Like a great opera, Rian is internally cohesive and totally integrated (!)
And, just as the material of the music is quotidian, simple, but capable of great expression, the rhythms and shapes of Rian‘s dancers evoke normal everyday attitudes, shaken up and exalted by illumination. A routine will often start, for instance, with each dancer entering by mimicking the entrance of their partners, where in one memorable instance this entrance comprised the dancer shaking themselves into movement as if trying to warm up. The effect of the imitation is to draw the audience into a sense of something being gradually worked out, a collective coming together articulated through both dance and music. Often routines will evoke a gradual falling into place of the whole ensemble, or a full working out of the game-like shapes a dancing couple throw around each other.
The dancing is often less cohesive or mannered as this may make it sound – for example the dancers often simply jump up and down or run out of steam happily and trail away seemingly spontaneously. And though this looseness, as with the seemingly conventional or habitual actual movements of many of the dances, might suggest a bunch of happy amateurs, this company is filled with anything but. The technique and confidence of expression displayed on stage is often breathtaking.
So here’s hoping the show makes a quick return. It’s far from perfect, of course, and there are it has to be said a few moments of lost focus and comparably mundane activity. However, generally speaking the momentum and the achievement is largely sustained for the whole 110 minutes.
This could then be a new Riverdance, a Riverdance with a modern imagination, a Riverdance infused with the spirit of the fragment, the beauty of the accident, and the astounding absence of cynicism you so rarely find in great art.