‘Aon’ – an exhilarating dance performance that teases out meanings

by Sean Hillen

Speaking during the interval of the world premiere dance performance of ‘Aon’ at Amharclann Ghaoth Dobhair recently, Donegal Arts Officer Traolach O’Fionnan and I exchanged views on the interpretation of the word ‘interpretation’ – a discussion stimulated by the incisive direction of choreographer Breandán de Gallaí that evening.

Aon, Breandán de Gallaí

Photo by Declan English

Our short discussion melded into a single question: is it a compliment or an insult for an onlooker, an audience member in this case, to interpret an artistic production – whether that be a novel, a painting, a sculpture or a live performance – in an entirely different way to the one the writer/artist/choreographer/ intended?

Further, can an artist (used as a generic term to cover all of the above) know fully what thoughts or ideas funnel through his/her sub-conscious when they produce a work of art?

And thus, by projection, can a viewer’s opinion not sometimes shake the artist into a sense of remembrance of a thought or an idea they had sublimated into the depths of their own subconscious?

Irish dancing, contemporary dance

Photo by Declan English

At the end of his wonderful, multi-layered show at the Earagail Arts Festival, I asked Breandán. His answer: “I’m delighted when someone emerges from one of my shows with a meaning I don’t remember meaning. Artistry by its very nature means teasing out emotions and all emotions have their context to each and every single individual. The more emotions unleashed, the better.”

As for the show itself.

Half-expecting a classic Irish dance performance, I and my companions were left stunned by the intense creative spirit that brought this fine work of art to fruition (In other words, don’t miss it if it comes to a place near you, Cork next). de Gallaí, artistic director and choreographer of Ériu, caresses, shapes and anchors the Irish dance motif in an exhilarating universal language of music and movement.

Amharclann Ghaoth Dobhair

Photo by Declan English

“Dance itself is not linear, it is a complexity, a combination, a mixing bowl of ingredients,” he said in an interview. “I don’t embark on any dance project with a set vocabulary. I try to let it evolve naturally. In fact, that’s one of the biggest challenges that faces me: trying to stay calm and letting the arc reveal itself. Sometimes that can be a very lonely experience. You stand in an empty studio, almost listless, thinking of ideas, as a writer looks at a blank page, or a painter at an easel. Then I create three or four minutes of dance material and I’m delighted with the achievement.”

Former principal with the Irish global sensation, ‘Riverdance,’ de Gallaí’s views on Irish dance are nothing less than passionate. “It’s not considered an art form by many, merely classified as folk, but I couldn’t disagree more. While Irish dance is seen primarily as uplifting one’s spirit, it can also reflect so many other emotions including sadness and fear, and it is that wide range of emotions I try to awaken.”

Riverdance, Breandán de Gallaí

Photo by Declan English

Suffice it to say, anyone who can create choreography by which talented dancers perform hard-shoe Irish dance steps to the complex melody of Antonio Vivaldi’s ‘Vedrò con mio diletto’ is half-way between genius and madness. “I see that phase in the production as a thing of absolute beauty, it’s so delicious to watch, enhanced even more by the dancers’ singing. I didn’t want perfectly-trained voices. I wanted it to be raw and natural. And that’s where the beauty lies.”

Not only but later in the show his excellent dance group perform an intricate movement across the stage based on a hybrid slip-jig and single jig. Such is its complexity, one thinks they must ultimately collide, but, miraculously, they don’t. “Yes, that was a difficult floor plan to formulate,” acknowledges de Gallaí. “It seems so unpredictable that collision must seem inevitable.”

Earagail Arts Festival, Breandán de Gallaí

Photo by Declan English

All of the 12 performers are trained in traditional Irish dance, none in contemporary movement. It is a tribute to the highly-developed directional skill of de Gallaí, who says he is inspired by well-known German choreographer, Philippina ‘Pina’ Bausch, that this information comes as a complete shock. A double tribute to the Gaoth Dobhair man’s direction is that while some lines are spoken as Gaeilge, ignorance of the native language is no hindrance to appreciation of this distinct art form.

In many ways, ‘Aon’ incorporates so many nuances, it’s hard to know where to begin to describe it.

Paddy Mulcahy, Irish dancing

Photo by Declan English

Using a multi-media platform including a back-wall screen upon which fast-moving images enhance the mood board, a central stage ‘sculpture’ comprising a tangle of classroom chairs and several ‘washing lines’ with bronze autumn leaves hanging from them, de Gallaí teases his audience into an angst-filled modern world inhabited by zombie-like people squeezed by society’s severe restrictions, where a sense of meaning is lost, a world where even finding companionship seems impossible. To such an extent, the dancers twitch with forlorn frustration.

The overarching theme could be described as ‘the silence of loneliness in the midst of a cacophony of sound in an anonymous world where texting has replaced the simple act of conversation.’

Lines from the poem, ‘Bluebird,’ by Charles Bukowski not only reflects the overall tone of ‘Aon’ and the dancers’ personifications on stage, but also perhaps de Gallaí’s own internal struggles regarding his sexuality, especially growing up in a conservative rural region of Ireland.

‘there’s a bluebird in my heart that / wants to get out / but I’m too tough for him, / I say, stay in there, I’m not going/ to let anybody see

Declan English, Amharclann Ghaoth Dobhair

Photo by Declan English

Ultimately, hope emerges triumphant, in the form of blind-folded dancers touching each other’s skin, reaching out and finding that elusive essence of humanity, a spirited, free-flowing, uplifting, heart-palpitating movement.

Full credit goes to composer Paddy Mulcahy, and de Gallaí’s partner, Declan English, for choosing the impressive range of music, from popular songs such as ‘Everybody Hurts’ by REM, ‘Mr. Lonely’ by Bobby Vinton, ‘Crazy’ and ‘One Is The Loneliest Number’ to Henry Purcell’s ‘Dido’s Lament’ and ‘April the 3rd’ by Donal Lunny, Irish folk musician and producer.

Donegal entertainment

Photo by Declan English

Finally, a word about Amharclann Ghaoth Dobhair itself.

After many attempts and setbacks, this recently-opened, renovated arts center in the heart of Bunbeg in the Donegal Gaeltacht, is a cozy venue. Not only do its plush, closely-aligned red seats create a warm sense of community spirit, it also provides one of the most panoramic views of any theater in Ireland, and perhaps beyond these shores. Sitting on comfy armchairs in the foyer sipping a glass of crisps Chardonnay while gazing below at the basket of islands nestled in the Atlantic is hypnotically surreal.

As for interpreting ‘interpretation.’ With each of us having unique experiences from which our responses emerge, ‘Aon’ provides multi-faceted platform upon which our imagination runs free, each in its own context. Awakening these responses is what makes this performance so stimulating and enjoyable.


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