Review: Rian

Written for Exeunt

It’s always thrilling to see the contemporary and the traditional wedded together so successfully. With Rian, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director Michael Keegan-Dolan has shown himself to be a vibrant and original choreographer. The piece is a collaboration with folk rock musician Liam Ó Maonlaí, in which eight dancers and five musicians fuse movement and music together in a modern piece that is thick with historical overtones. Playful, mischievous and poetic, Rian is both reverential and revelatory and but perhaps the strongest element in this vital work is the inherent sense of joy which filters through to the audience.

Using Ó Maonlaí’s titular 2005 solo album as its musical backbone, this is Keegan-Dolan’s jubilant repost to a world in the throws of a bleak economic climate. As such whilst Rian – which means ‘mark’ or ‘trace’ in Irish – is full of echoes of the past, it also feels terribly relevant; the voices of history speaking to the people of the present. This is an audience longing to be reminded of something good and true, and the readiness with which they engage with the piece, whooping throughout and leaping up at the end in rapturous applause, reveals this particular need. The Irish are, ostensibly, always up for a bit of the ‘craic’ but this wilful sense of communal festivity seems necessary now more than ever.

With its sharp, clean set and quirky, pounding choreography, the piece is never sentimental, and avoids the easy emotional currency that can come with nostalgia. Keegan-Dolan’s movements respond fully to the different textures that flow through the music. The creaking and cracking of stomping leather brogues whips up the crowd into an atmosphere reminiscent of a ceilidh, as leaps are landed and thighs are slapped, the dancers sporting cocky grins. Spirits are evoked as a girl’s voice hauntingly fills the theatre and four women respond with the simplest of repeated movements, it is hypnotic watching their bare feet sweep the floor and their arms rise and fall with balletic, silent grace.

The resulting piece feels timeless. By creating a score firmly rooted in Irish folk but also infused with elements of world music Ó Maonlaí is acknowledging Ireland’s multicultural present. In doing so the richness of these other cultures bleeds into an already potent tradition to create something distinctly Irish but also universal. He is a compelling musician and from the moment he places his harp centre stage and lights a lone candle on his piano, it feels as though he is offering something up to his ancestors. But for all the holiness inherent in this commanding music, performed with a hypnotic stillness by his band of musicians, Ó Maonlaí  is not afraid to laugh at himself, throwing the kind of shapes that would make any dad at a disco proud.

Rian is a barn-stormer of a production, in which the dancers sometimes sing and the singers sometimes dance. It is touching to see artists take on something which is so out of their comfort zone, so comfortably. This is a company that clearly know and trust each other and in the midst of their mastery, by letting go of themselves in such a way, they invite us to do the same.

Rian will be at Sadler’s Wells, London, from 24th-25th October 2011. For tickets and information visit the Sadler’s Wells website.

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