Summer Reading: Colin Dunne
A note from Jean: For this latest Dialogue installment, I was able to lure my great friend, colleague, and fellow dance artist Colin Dunne with a prompt inspired by my favorite BBC radio program “Desert Island Discs” — but instead of music, this is about books. I asked Colin to choose 3-5 books on his bookshelf that are meaningful to him, and to reflect on how these have affected his life/thinking/creative work. Dancers are among the smartest, most passionate and well-read people I know, and I hope to make this a recurring series, inviting others to explore how the books they love are in dialogue with their dancing. —Jean Butler
An actor cannot wait a second too long before opening a door. A flaw of this sort has a deplorable effect. It is as though, when one was interpreting a symphony, the melody or some other musical effect were to come in at the wrong time. The hardest thing to achieve in the theatre is to have the work begin, develop and end in accordance with an established rhythm. Lorca
My scribble on the inside cover of The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca, tells me that I bought the book in June 2011. I don’t remember any particular reason or logic for buying it. I don’t really read plays unless I’m working on one: I find them a little dry as a pure reading experience. If I did read Lorca’s classic, I wouldn’t be able to tell you how it ends. The book lay idle on my bookshelf for years.
In June 2021, I was preparing to work as movement director on a literary production in Dublin, and I was cruising my bookshelf for some inspiration and renewal around approaches to the body and movement in theatre: Laban, Chekhov (Michael, not Anton) are always worth reconnecting with. But my Lorca book was also looking at me, and I finally read the introduction. And when I came across that quote above, I chuckled at his near neurotic sensitivity to time and timing, and I loved him for it. I loved him for articulating so explicitly something that I already knew without realizing: that the timing of any act is as critical as the act itself.
His profound statement of the obvious made me reflect on the sticky situations that can arise when movement directors, with their embodied rhythmical intelligences, overstep their job spec and offer an observation about the pace of a stage exit or, more criminally, the timing of a spoken line. It is too simple to say that actors work with feeling and emotion, and dancers work with time and space, but there is some truth to it, and the ways in which both parties speak with the body remain quite foreign to each other. As I headed for Dublin, I wondered if by embedding some specific timing and rhythmical tasks into the daily warm-up, I might gain extra access and trust with the actors beyond just giving them some movement. An acute awareness of timing, for all its potential neurosis, seemed worth fighting for. Lorca felt like an ally, and a book that had sat unread on the shelf for ten years finally found its purpose.
If this book was playing the long game, other books have been more immediate in their impact. The first time I read The Story of Irish Dance by Helen Brennan, on the day she gave me a copy in 2004, I devoured it from front to back. If you’re an Irish dancer of any description and you haven’t read it, you should. It’s brilliantly written, and we can all find something of our own story within it.
I had always explained away the stock questions about the origins of why Irish dancers danced the way we did with the usual talking points: 800 years of British rule and a heavy dose of policing by the Catholic Church. Sure, they both played a substantial role, and I’m always happy to blame the English and the Church for anything I can. But it was Helen’s account of the internal culture war in the 1920s within the dance community itself that incited me to rethink this almost too convenient blame game. The idea that a bunch of Irish men wearing suits sat in a room and came to an executive decision about what was and wasn’t acceptable as traditional dance, was new to me. That they sought to control how the Irish dancing body would be seen and felt by cherry-picking the most obedient, polite, and, yes, hands-down-by-the-side version, while rejecting and marginalizing other types of traditional dancing bodies, provoked me into rethinking my angsty questions about where to go with dance in my thirties. These institutional interventions into the natural flow and evolution of dance in Ireland had serious implications for the future of the tradition, but ultimately it was the accounts of the rows, the debates, the dogma, and the general cute-hoor-ish hullabaloo — so ridiculously farcical and bureaucratic in tone — that actually released a weight off my shoulders. It was time for me to curate my own body.
Then there was this from Brennan’s chapter on solo dancing:
The solo dance tradition in Ireland is essentially a virtuoso affair. The purpose is to amaze, to intrigue, to invite wonder and respect. In a word it is exhibitionistic. Even in informal situations, there is an underlying element of competition, of rivalry, of the throwing down of a choreographic gauntlet.
I don’t know if Helen meant to be so audacious when she committed these words to paper and put forward a definition of what the tradition actually is, but I found this statement outrageous when I first read it. Not because I disagreed with it, but because it was so disappointingly true. Had I been over-estimating and over-thinking the tradition in looking for some meaning deeper than a kind of one-upmanship? Her accounts of the half-folkloric feats of past dancers — dancing on a plate, dancing on a height, dancing with an egg strapped to the boot, etc. — whilst full of charm, made the tradition sound gimmicky and a little vacuous from the outset. Was there really nothing else? Her proposition was so brilliantly crafted, a virtuosic piece of rhythmical rhetoric in its own right, that I used it as the opening lines of a section of my 2008 solo show Out of Time, where I walked and talked my way through my own existential “where am I going and what am I doing” gauntlet.
Maybe I needed to lighten up a bit. But I know I’m not the first or last dancer to come from the tradition who has questioned, at some point, what it’s all been about and for. We learn such a particular set of skills that are so, so tightly honed and exhibited in peculiarly constructed realities, that when we finally get out into the real world, we can be left feeling bound up and wound up by the specificity of it all. What can these highly trained bodies say now? And what do we do with all those idiosyncratic patterns of movement set to minute units of time? Limited is a word that often comes up. But these days I like to remind students (and myself) that every dance or art form has its limitations, and that one form is not necessarily more expressive than another. Forms are not expressive in themselves. People are expressive. The job of work is to dig among the limitations to find the potential spaces to crack open and carry on.
Do traditional musicians and singers go through a similar phase of questioning the integrity and usefulness of their traditions? I don’t know. But I was always struck by the absence of any personal dilemma in Ciaran Carson’s book Last Night’s Fun. Carson was a poet and traditional flute player, and his literary music memoir is a one-of-a-kind read: a perspective on the tradition from the inside out, written with all the deftness and sensory awareness that brilliant poets possess. He can riff philosophically on anything from the ergonomics of playing the flute, to the hunt for the perfect session on a wet night in Miltown Malbay during Willie Clancy week. The music and its whole scenography became fully alive in new ways for me when I read the book in 2009. But no criticism. No “baggage.” No feeling limited by the form of the music, or frustrations with its evolution. The book is a love letter.
His almost romantic take on the tradition surprised me. How could a poet (and he’s not a Romantic poet in my reading of him), whose work involves looking at the world in such critically attuned ways, constantly destructing and reconstructing words and parts of words and their collective sounds and meanings, be so at ease with the conventions of this tradition?
I think he may have found his ease and creative space in the improvisational nature of the music. We might all have a different take on what the practice of improvisation actually means, but the notion that a tune is never played the same way twice is fundamental to the music tradition. It’s a recurring theme in Last Night’s Fun that a tune is played situationally in its own unique time and space, where conscious and subconscious memories of all the previously heard and played versions fall out in ever-evolving variations and permutations. The particular memories and patterns that might be recalled on any given day are subject to the environment: the size and acoustics of the room, who else is playing, the length of the session, and the general vibe and mood. There is a kind of extemporization happening here among all these variables, and Carson seems to find his pleasure in the possibilities that lie within them. But it also points to a major difference between the two traditions, in that so few traditional Irish dance styles encourage or allow for any spontaneity at all. I can only imagine that this is some kind of hangover from the men in suits’ desire to control the body a century ago. It’s a pity. In my own experience as an improviser for the past 20 years, and as someone who now teaches it, the practice of improvisation provides an opportunity for the body to play and reorganize itself around its learned patterns, to make new sense of them, and to crack open pathways into creativity. I see it as an act of autonomy. Carson sees it as a way of “renegotiating lost time,” and although he’s being poetic and I’m not exactly sure what he means by it, I’m all for that too!
Time and space. Tunes and improvisation: Carson brings them all together with the sport of hurling in a section of the book which I found quite hallucinogenic when I first read it. After reckoning that a hurling player needs to learn some eighty separate skills to play the game, he reminds us that each time we “play,” there is the potential to discover new possibilities from the patterns, rhythms, and forms we already know:
…in hurling, as in most games, time is crucial; it is what you have to find or make, for time will give you space in which to act…
...A situation will present itself which you recall subconsciously: you recognise its shape as if it were a tune in three dimensions – no, in four – and you fit it up against whatever combination was deployed the last time round, and tinker instantaneously, making necessary readjustments in the light of that split second. The chink you waltz through opens up a gap. You find another version of the move, and an almost-florid run of notes comes out unflurried in a tune you thought you knew, but realise, now how one-dimensional your musicology has been: it is as if there were a new slant to the autumn sunshine of your new neighbourhood, and your feet scuffle through the crisp fallen leaves in dance-step patterns.
Federico García Lorca, The House of Bernarda Alba and Other Plays. Introduction by Christopher Maurer. Penguin Books, 2001.
Helen Brennan, The Story of Irish Dance. Brandon / Mount Eagle Publications Ltd., 1999.
Ciaran Carson, Last Night’s Fun: In and Out of Time with Irish Music. North Point Press, 1997.
Out of Time by Colin Dunne. Directed by Sinéad Rushe. Premiered at Glór, Ennis, 2008.
Thank you to:
Siobhan Burke for editing.
Nic Gareiss for reading at the halfway mark and telling me to carry on.
Helen Brennan for the book and for allowing me to quote it so liberally in my work.
Ciaran Carson (1948-2019) for your poetry and long lines.
Jean Butler for inviting me to write my first essay in twenty years.
Colin Dunne was born in Birmingham, England. A nine times world champion on the competitive Irish dance scene, he went on to become principal male dancer in Riverdance from 1996 to 1998. Since 2001 he has worked as an independent artist. He collaborates across dance, music, and theatre performance platforms in Ireland and internationally.
His first solo show, Out of Time (2008) was nominated for a 2010 Olivier Award for outstanding achievement in dance, and toured internationally until 2016 including performances at Biennale de Lyon, Barbican, London, and Baryshnikov Arts Center, NY. His 2017 solo CONCERT was based on the music of Irish fiddle player Tommie Potts, and received the 2018 TG4 Gradam Ceoil Award for Music Collaboration in 2018, and a Bessie Award Nomination in 2020.
He currently lives in Limerick, Ireland.