Rian, musical direction by Liam Ó Maonlaí, direction and choreography by Michael Keegan Dolan (Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre).
@ The Gaiety Theatre, 6-8 October 2011 (Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival)
Musician Liam Ó Maonlaí (formerly of Hothouse Flowers) released his solo album Rian in 2005, inspired by the extraordinary recording of Irish folk legend Sean O’Riada’s 1969 performance at the Gaiety theatre with his band Ceoltóirí Chualann. (This recording was later issued as Ó Riada Sa Gaiety.) Ó Maonlaí wears his influences on his sleeve, and the word rian, meaning ‘trace’, remains a very apt title for this evocative, beautiful show.
Weaving threads of other musical styles through traditional Irish folk (at one point there’s a gorgeous bluesy interlude), Ó Maonlaí rambles between instruments, coaxing beautifully layered sounds out of a range of absurd and disparate objects, including what looks like some kind of tiny bronze bodhrán. His company of musicians constantly create new relationships – with each other, with the dancers and with the audience, as they switch instruments, swap positions on the stage, face the back of the theatre or huddle in a circle like druids conducting some arcane ceremony.
The dancers find ever new ways to respond to and explore the music, the pulse and twists of their bodies punctuating the sound in ways that open the experience up to the viewer, adding a new dimension to the music. The texture of a melody differs depending on where your eye lands, although sometimes it’s tempting to close your eyes completely and paint your own pictures in your mind. Then again, at certain points the visual spectacle is so arresting it is almost possible to forget you can hear music at all. One particularly memorable sequence has the entire ensemble seated on chairs to the front of the stage, illuminated only by footlights. Rich black shadows pour down their limbs as they slowly sway to the sound of a lone piper’s song. The lights cast a maelstrom of shadows on the green-tinged back wall, so that outlines of writhing figures appear to be drowning in green waters, like the aftermath of the wreck of the Medusa.
Though the crowd are enraptured, they’re not very involved. Once or twice, after spine-tingling down-tempo performances, several long silent seconds pass where no one dares applaud for fear of breaking the spell. The usual foot-stamping, thigh-slapping and giddy shrieks that accompany a trad session in a sweaty pub anywhere up and down the country are curiously absent. Perhaps it’s the formality of the setting. Perhaps it’s the presence of the dancers, through whom we move vicariously, as they leap and twist til their skins glisten. Perhaps tonight was just a nervous crowd. This show feels like something precious, something fleeting and unique as a kiss or a summer. Catch it while you can.