Dance is ephemeral, but it is not invisible.
Dance is ephemeral, but it is not invisible. There is no theatre without dance. But regrettably in the Irish Times Theatre Awards, dance is overlooked as a valid category for acknowledgment.
To think of theatre with words alone, orientated only by a series of static actions misses the great developments in theatre over the past 100 years. It forgets the origins of modern Irish theatre at the beginning of the 20th century. Then, Yeats established the Abbey Theatre School of Ballet, published his Plays for Dancers and the playboy first leaped on stage.
The absence of dance from the Irish Times Theatre Awards recreates the stasis and straightjacket Irish theatre was constricted within after Independence and for most of the 20th century. Dance is not simply part of theatre, it underlays it, because movement is always implicit.
And more than being intrinsic to performance, dance is the most primordial theatrical spectacle in its own right. How many recent theatre productions have benefited from the involvement of dance, whether the credit is choreography or movement direction, I immediately think of the recent production of Anna Karenina at the Abbey Theatre. Dance is a language that allows us to move beyond the limits of words. As an artform it is a way of expression which like music (and opera) cannot be contained on the page. It passes rational understanding. It requires cognition by the soul. Unlike the theatre of words, it cannot be limited by how far the human voice can carry the word, or by the capacity of words alone to articulate.
It is interesting to note that opera is a named category in the Irish Times Theatre Awards, and has being for many years. Dance in Ireland, if ignored by Irish Times Theatre Awards, is vibrantly alive.
In 2016, dance creations played a central role, in that centenary year. I think of the impact of Embodied, a GPO: Witness History Public Art Commission, when six female dancer choreographers occupied the GPO at Easter 2016.
Other works, as part of the 2016 celebrations, widely praised in The Irish Times and elsewhere: The Casement Project (Fearghus Ó Conchuir) and These Rooms (Anú Productions/CoisCeim Dance Theatre) earned multiple star reviews, profiles and full-houses. The Casement Project engaged audiences across multiple platforms, and in locations ranging from Dublin to Kilkenny, Maynooth, London and Banna Strand in County Kerry.
Choreographer Liz Roche, premiered the first full-length contemporary dance work on the mainstage of the national theatre to great acclaim in 2015. Bastard Amber, marked a seminal moment for dance in Ireland, co-commissioned by the Abbey Theatre and Dublin Dance Festival. Touring in 2016, this landmark production beguiled audiences, combining references to our theatrical and visual histories to present a contemporary choreographers vision of a new Ireland.
Equally striking, Michael Keegan Dolan’s thrilling contemporary re-imagining of Swan Lake, captivated audiences, during the Dublin Theatre Festival last October. It was later presented to acclaim at Sadler’s Wells Theatre London. Selling out, and generating many words of praise, nationally and internationally and most notably singled out for particular mention within the pages of The Irish Times, the irony is not lost on me, that MKD’s Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, the backbone of classical dance’s repertoire, could speak so cogently to contemporary Irish audiences, and as part of a theatre festival.
I have no doubt, Swan Lake/Loch na hEala will be well recognised at this year’s ceremony on Sunday evening. Regardless of whom walks away with statues; I wish everyone well on the night. Because it is an important night for celebration, and The Irish Times is to be praised for its commitment to the arts in Ireland.
Nominated in four categories, including Best Production and Best Director, yet there is no separate dance category within this annual theatrical celebration. It is an anomaly. Now entering its 21st year, it is time for redress. It is time that The Irish Times, acknowledges the relevance and importance of dance to Irish cultural life. It is not enough to have profiles, interviews and reviews. Dance has come of age in Ireland, and we are determined to dance on the mainstage.
Currently on the mainstage of the national theatre, Arlington by Enda Walsh centrally features dance not only to progress the story but through the powerful embodied performance of Oona Doherty (choreography by Emma Martin). Arlington demonstrates the power of dance as text, the perfect embodiment and compliment to the spoken words.
For Irish audiences the marginalisation of dance as an art form is over. It paralleled in our society, an unhealthy shrouding of the body, and a shaming associated with its exposure. The diminution of dance once deprived audiences of an essential, foundational art form. Historically the specialisation of dance as a dedicated form of theatre in the seventeenth century, found little patronage here. In the last century, the emergence of modern dance confronted an intense agenda to control the physical body, and a wider ethos of public prudery.
But movement is both innate and irrepressible. Over decades, first a few and then many more practitioners trained, rehearsed and performed. Audiences came first out of curiosity, but returned again and again. Ireland now boasts a dense, sophisticated dance culture and a widespread audience to appreciate it. It deserves acknowledgement; and it demands it.
Regrettably, acknowledgement as an art form will not happen at the Irish Times Theatre Awards on Sunday night. But dancers and choreographers will attend. We will happily acknowledge the interest of The Irish Times in the arts generally. We look forward to applauding our colleagues and friends who are recognised and awarded. But movement is irrepressible; it cannot be absented from the Irish Times Theatre Awards. We will be there, dancing in the aisles.
Paul Johnson is Chief Executive of Dance Ireland.