Irish Bodies: The Rise of Dance Theatre

Claudia Kinahan argues that within the Irish context, dance offers theatre makers a universal language through which to reinterpret difficult stories about our past and the contested political status of our bodies.

The Irish Body is a constantly changing entity; it is a product of its history, and a site of ongoing cultural and societal change. The repression of the body is ingrained in our society, resulting largely from its deep-rooted Catholic ideology. Irish bodies have often occupied uncertain, liminal territory, in regards to attitudes, healthcare and the law. Certain public events crystallise this notion of the body as a site of conflict in the national psyche – the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993, and the many individual milestones in the ongoing fight for abortion rights.

It could be argued that in the past, efforts have been made by leading social and political institutions like the Catholic Church to enforce their ideology by de-sexualising and repressing the Irish Body. The term ‘Irish Dance’ has connotations of Céilí gatherings; ‘The Siege of Ennis’ brings to mind reserved images of tightly closed legs, arms clinging to the body, and limited freedom within a set of repeated movements.

However, like music, the language of the body is universal. It travels with us through time and space, and we rely on it to communicate no matter where we are or what time we find ourselves in. In this way, many contemporary Irish theatre companies are turning to the body, to dance, and physical theatre as a way to interrogate the stories of our past and pave the way for those of our future.

The Circus Animals’ Desertion - courtesy Brokentalkers - Photograph Keith Dixon
The Circus Animals’ Desertion – Photograph Keith Dixon

Brokentalkers are one of Ireland’s leading theatre companies. Formed by Gary Keegan and Feidhlim Cannon in 2001, the company have enjoyed national and international success with productions such as The Blue Boy and The Circus Animals Desertion (2016). They frequently collaborate with Irish dance theatre company Junk Ensemble, founded by identical twins Megan and Jessica Kennedy, to create live work which examines stories that resonate on a macro scale, through the micro lens of Irish society.

Brokentalkers’ The Blue Boy is one such production that has toured nationally and internationally for several years. The Blue Boy interrogates the effects of the clerical abuse of children in Ireland. The piece centres around the Artane Industrial School, where impoverished young boys were fostered under the care of the Christian Brothers. The piece is performed by an ensemble of physical performers, and the company use movement motifs, and physical sequences to interrogate the trauma suffered by the inhabitants of the institution. Through movement, sound and documentary material the audience are given a glimpse into the patterns of abuse suffered by the victims who inspired the piece. There is a haunting quality to the work, as we see the fragile bodies of the performers undergo strenuous physical tasks and punishments; a distilled offering of the real historical abuse in question.

he Blue Boy - Photograph Dan Keane
The Blue Boy – Photograph Dan Keane

Brokentalkers is not the only company who uses physical theatre as a way to interrogate the stories of our past. Last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival (DTF) saw highly acclaimed Anú Productions partner with CoisCéim dance company for These Rooms. The production explored the lives of civilians whose homes on North King Street were upturned by the 1916 Rising. The piece focused primarily on the experience of women, an often marginalised community in Irish theatre. This focus was particularly resonant in the wake of the 1916 Commemorations, which inspired the Waking The Feminists movement (WTF). WTF was a reaction to the lack of female representation in the Irish theatre industry, epitomised by The Abbey Theatre’s 2016 programme, which included only one play with a female author. Through female representation in These Rooms, Anú Productions gave those on the periphery not only voice, but physical presence. These Rooms was an immersive live performance, where audience members were invited to dance with the ensemble, their bodies implicated in the ongoing negotiation of our history. In this way Irish dance theatre has been an effective tool for enlightening audiences about our nation’s past, the untold stories of our history, and the experiences of our ancestors.

These Rooms
These Rooms

Michael Keegan-Dolan, a key presence in Irish dance theatre, also participated in last year’s theatre festival, bringing the critically acclaimed Swan Lake / Loch na hEala to the O’Reilly theatre. Not unlike The Blue Boy, Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake also touched on themes of clerical abuse in Ireland, alongside those of mental health. This is a worthy theme that has been undergoing increased representation on Irish stages, with thanks in no small part to the highly successful and illuminating First Fortnight festival, which aims to “challenge mental health stigma through the creative arts.” The production was highly visceral, representing the deep complexities of the mind through fluctuating choreography which ranged from simple and fragile movements, to celebratory ecstasy capturing the joy of release from societal constraints.

Perhaps what is most exciting about the dance theatre scene in Ireland is that it is sweeping the country. Rural theatres are often the victims of what is arguably conservative programming; popular comedy acts, pantomimes and school productions. However, there seems to have been a shift in these patterns, and more theatres outside of Dublin are offering programmes which include dance theatre. Liz Roche Company’s Bastard Amber recently transferred to Limerick’s The Lime Tree Theatre, while Brokentalkers’ The Circus Animal’s Desertion showcased at The Everyman in Cork, after its run at DTF.

Irish dance theatre is definitely on the rise, and for good reason. Dance offers theatre makers a universal language to renegotiate and interrogate the stories of our past, stories which are often difficult or impossible to tell through words alone. This May will see the Dublin Dance Festival return, and on numerous stages, in close partnership with The Abbey. This recognition of the art by Ireland’s National Theatre is an excellent indication of the ascent of Irish dance theatre, and of the emerging conception of the Irish Body as an agent of its own fate.

Illustration by Choy-Ping Clarke-Ng
Illustration by Choy-Ping Clarke-Ng

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