Reclaiming the Body

At its formation in 1922 the Irish Free State (later to become the Irish Republic) had to re-imagine its culture, a culture that would reflect a new independent nation. This nation owed as much to its poets as its politicians, for it was the imagination of the bards and their vision for an independent Irish nation that had helped fuel the political beliefs. A rich Celtic heritage was constantly raided for images of heroism and proof of cultural superiority over the “barbaric” English invaders.

A literary movement known as the Celtic Twilight emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century, as writers such as William Butler Yeats sought to display their passion for Irish nationalism. In 1899 Yeats helped to found a group that would lead to the formation of the Abbey Theatre, a chief symbol of the literary revival. Yeat’s poems and plays are fine literary achievements yet even such a master of words was all too aware of the limitations of language. The shortcomings of words are articulated in his 1889 poem, The Song of the Happy Shepherd, when he says, “Words alone are certain good”. Yeats was a Symbolist and sought to create “total-art” as opposed to the word-heavy plays of, for example, Ibsen. Movement played a major part in this vision and Yeats strove to attend as many dance performances as possible on his visits to England in order to help inform this vision.

Charles Ricketts, a friend of Yeats and keen ballotomane, invited him to see many performances in London and they saw many influential artists such as Loïe Fuller, Isadora Duncan, and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. He was also introduced to Japanese Noh drama by Ezra Pound and the effect of this exposure to dance was both immediate and far-reaching. Immediately after seeing a performance by Les Ballets Russes he rewrote the second act of The Countess Cathleen and inserted a small “dance-drama”. More importantly dance became a significant part in Yeats’ plays, culminating in the four Plays for Dancers written in 1921.

By the mid 1920’s the Abbey was at the height of its international fame and Yeats invited Ninette de Valois to form a school of ballet and produce and perform in his Plays for Dancers. De Valois was born and spent much of her early life in Co. Wicklow about 20 miles from Dublin, had danced in Les Ballets Russes and set up ballet schools in England. On 30th of January 1928, a few months after its opening, the first programme of dancing was performed – three works with music by Respighi, Beethoven and songs from the Scottish Hebrides. A second performance took place later in September and the final work in the programme, a ballet called Faun, received the most attention. The Irish Times of 25th September 1928 praised it, claiming it as the first Irish Ballet: “Mr. White’s music is built on Irish airs, and the choreography is the work of an Irish woman for all her French name; the dancers are Irish; the orchestra is Irish…There could be no mistaking the verdict of the audience who saw the first Irish Ballet.”

Laying claim to the “Irishness” of certain dance forms is a constant thread through much of the century. The rich heritage of traditional Irish dance was taken for granted but it seemed that stamping other dance forms such as ballet with an “Irishness” – in theme, music or style – helped to make them relevant to the Irish nation. This completely goes against Yeats’ symbolist vision, which would have echoed Mallarmé’s assertion that the dancer was a metaphor.

The Irish Times writer’s justification of ballet as part of Irish culture probably reflects the uneasy role that dancing had in the new – strongly Catholic – nation. In this moral climate gatherings of people could give occasion to sin and young people travelling long distances to dances were a particular threat. Distinguishing Irish dancing from other dancing became a crucial issue. Cardinal Logue wrote in a pastoral letter in 1924 that “while it is not our business to condemn any dance, Irish dances…[should not be excluded from] any educational establishment under our care…Irish dances do not make degenerates.” In other words Irish dancing under the eyes of the church was acceptable, but the practise of unsupervised dances in private houses or other meeting places was a threat to morality and had the power to corrupt.

The Taoiseach [Prime Minister] Eamon DeValera, in an effort to assuage the church’s anxieties, introduced the Public Halls Act of 1935 which required that all dances be licensed and to operate under strict supervision. The police and priests used the act to break up dances at crossroads and in houses, and those found guilty of organising such dances (frequently the owner of the house) were fined. Ballet was regarded as morally dubious and previously in 1929 one of the first ballet companies to visit Ireland, an offshoot of Anna Pavlova’s company, was denounced by several priests when it visited Cork. The nightly attendance in the Cork Opera House was little more than a few dozen people and the company had to write to London for money in order to return to England.

The important link between Yeats and dance was broken when De Valois’ left the Abbey in 1934. Her ability to transform his ideas into realities was important in maintaining the credibility of dance in this climate. Before long, ballet’s prominence in the theatre had diminished, although the school continued operating until the 1940’s.

Soon after, in 1947 Joan Denise Moriarty formed the Cork City Ballet, an amateur company that performed annually with the Cork Symphony Orchestra. It’s repertoire ranged from short dances to single acts (such as Peter Darrell’s Act 2 from Swan Lake in 1958) to original works. These usually featured music by Irish composers and were based on Irish themes and helped establish ballets legitimacy within Irish culture. Moriarty also gained respectability for her work through her guest artists, such as Anton Dolin and Marina Svetlova. Moriarty was adept at harnessing the talents and co-operation of those around her and the company’s success led to the creation of the professional Irish Theatre Ballet.

Launched in 1959, Irish Theatre Ballet was funded by state and private sources. Eight of the twelve dancers came from the amateur Cork City Ballet and following a successful opening in Cork the company set about touring the country. The repertoire mixed new works with reproductions of the classics, but as before, Moriarty wished to marry Irish traditional dance with ballet. Collaborating with composer Sean O’Riada who was pioneering the use of traditional music within classical musical forms, she created West Cork Ballet in 1961. This work was the first of three short ballets set to music by O’Riada, all of which were formative in forging Moriarty’s use of traditional and ballet steps together. Extensive touring around Ireland soon drained finances, which were still derived from private sponsorship and a small grant from the Arts Council of Ireland. In 1963 financial difficulties forced it to merge with the amateur National Ballet of Dublin, but the new company lasted only a few months.

In spite of the occupational poverty experienced by dancers at this time, ballet was gaining a profile in the newly emerging television station. Telefis Eireann was launched on January 1st 1960 and Norman Maen was employed as resident choreographer. Of Irish descent, but trained in the United States his first work was a dance for the new station’s opening ceremony, which he set in the airport in front of a new Boeing plane. Three days later one of the dancers Ester O’Brolcháin was one of the first three women interviewed on the station, dancing Swanhilda’s variation from Coppelia. Irish Theatre Ballet appeared on the station on three occasions and twice with Ulster Television in Northern Ireland. Later in 1966 Cork City Ballet recorded thirteen dance programmes called An Damhsa (The Dance).

More interestingly Eamon DeValera is believed to have outlined his vision for Ireland as including “comely maidens dancing at the crossroads”. This celebrated quote entered common parlance and evoked nostalgia with unbounded physical expression.  In spite of the fact that DeValera he never actually said this, (The St. Patrick’s Day speech mentions “athletic youth” and “comely maidens”, but never refers to dance) the phrase was quickly attributed to him and he did little to correct this. He recognised the power of the image and it became part of popular consciousness.

Moriarty continued to create works for Cork City Ballet all through the 1960’s and 1970’s and by 1973 had garnered enough political support to a new professional company based in Cork. With support from the Arts Council the new Irish Ballet Company continued where Moriarty’s Irish Theatre Ballet had left off, touring throughout the country while she remained committed to forging traditional steps with ballet.

Billy the Music, the second O’Riada/Moriarty collaboration, was premiered in the Irish Ballet Theatre’s inaugural performance in January 1974 and continued the tradition of integrating traditional and Irish dance that culminated in the 1977 production of The Playboy of the Western World. Set to music by the traditional Irish group The Chieftains, the ballet was based on the play by John Millington Synge, which told of an outsider who is accepted unconditionally into a community but eventually becomes ostracised. The theme was familiar to Billy the Music, but whereas the former was steeped in fantasy and included magic music that put a spell on people, Synge’s realistic, gritty and at times violent play provided a more immediate framework for Moriarty’s choreography. The work became Moriarty’s most celebrated work, touring the United States and Britain, albeit to mixed reviews. On the basis of this success she managed to gain national status for the company change the name to Irish National Ballet.

Dublin Contemporary Dance Theatre emerged in 1979 as a new voice within dance. Emerging under the direction of Joan Davies it worked with international choreographers as well producing works choreographed from within the company. These works, by artists such as Jerry Pearson, Yoshiko Chuma and Nina Martin, were hugely influential in developing interest in contemporary dance. Many Irish dancers and choreographers emerged around this time, a few working with the company but many others becoming involved in the classes and workshops that were beginning to spring up around Dublin city.

Financially living under the shadow of Irish National Ballet, the company could never mount more than one new production per year and it’s important role as a repertory company was never fully realised. Moreover both it and INB were both refused funding by the Arts Council in 1989. In a bizarre and unprecedented decision the council claimed that neither company fell in line with its view of dance development, a view that was coloured by a report The Dancer and the Dance by Peter Brinson. The council said that it needed to invest in “grassroots” development in education and infrastructure, however this did not occur. However Barefoot Dance Company in Wexford, who for years had pioneered this type of dance development at local community level and within education, received no sizeable increase. And although the education-based Daghdha Dance Company in Limerick and the Dance Council of Ireland – an umbrella body for dance – received a moderate increase, the overall level of funding was not maintained and soon the dance budget was subsumed into other art forms.

The decision to cease funding the two main companies had a far-reaching effect on the dance community. There was deep distrust of the Arts Council, a distrust that still exists today, but at the same time there was possibility of funding for those not directly involved with either INB or DCDT. An annual residential course in choreography, initiated by the Dance Council of Ireland, had helped develop several young choreographers and many of these were now in a position to apply for project grants. Critic Diana Theodores suggested that it was now time for dance to go underground and the necessary shoestring aesthetic coupled with politicised dancers did suggest an underground culture. The first New Music / New Dance Festival, featuring collaborations between choreographers and composers, was held in the Project Arts Centre. (At the time a ramshackle black box space, complete with a leaking roof and a concrete floor in Temple Bar, then a seedy part of Dublin.) Featuring almost every working choreographer the annual festival became a focus for dance practises and offered a snapshot of the Irish dance scene, albeit with a heavy Dublin bias.

Americans Robert Connor and Loretta Yurick, former dancers with Dublin Contemporary Dance Theatre, formed Dance Theatre of Ireland and produced Beaute des Fleurs by French choreographers Pierre Doussaint and Isabelle Duboulez for the Dublin Theatre Festival later in 1989. Daghdha Dance Company and Barefoot continued their programmes in education and community dance, along with theatre dance productions. And in Cork the indefatigable Joan Denise Moriarty mounted Coppelia with the Cork Ballet Company.

The effects of the Arts Council’s new policy became evident the following year. Young companies such as Rubato Ballet, New Balance Dance Theatre, City Dance Company, and Icontact received awards to mount productions. In total 11 companies received funding, but the overall dance budget had been decimated and was back to 1980 levels. The Dance Council of Ireland, who produced New Music / New Dance and annual productions by the Irish Youth Dance Company, seemed reluctant to act as a lobbyist for dance and the strain of the uncertain funding climate began to show as its eclectic board showing signs of division. By 1995 the Arts Council had lost patience with the lack of leadership at board level and ceased funding the organisation.

The diversity of dancemaking through the 1990’s was certainly enriching. Icontact, the brainchild of choreographer Snaggy O’Sullivan and composer Roger Doyle, used emerging digital technology in Zero Crossing and Babel. Bold and confident, both works eschewed movement in favour of sounds and images with dancers and actors mingling in various tableaux. English choreographer Janet Smith choreographed Touching the Moon for Dance Theatre of Ireland, a work that had a lasting effect on artistic directors Connor and Yurick. Influenced by the writings of Joseph Campbell it investigated the role of myth in modern society and the loss of spirituality. These concerns, with a certain new age slant re-appeared in Connor and Yurick’s own choreography in works such as Tombs, Dances in Dreams, Fuchsia, Bone Fire and Like Water Flowing East.

Irish Modern Dance Theatre under choreographer John Scott accepted a mish-mash of influences and its sprawling works reflected his keen eye for image and a quirky juxtaposition of classical shapes with absurd moves. Rubato Ballet remained the only company committed to the classical vocabulary and director Fiona Quilligan frequently drew on her extensive knowledge of music and the visual arts to add texture to the movement.

The most frustrating trait of the 1990’s was the pressure to constantly create new work. No company could effectively work as a repertory company because of the project-based year-to-year funding and consequently many fine works had a brief life. The Arts Council still put out signals that it wished companies to interact with the rich tradition of folk dance, and this was largely ignored or when it did happen was strictly on the choreographers’ own terms. Territorial Claims, by Mary Nunan for Daghdha Dance Company, is one such work. Originally a duet it was expanded for four dancers and used hornpipe steps and a relentless score for bodhran (an Irish drum) to explore issues of territory, ownership and conformity. Lacking any hang-ups about tradition, the work proved that the choreographer could draw on small aspects of traditional dance without losing their own voice. Ultimately this remained an individual’s artistic decision, not something enforced by funding bodies.

When Riverdance emerged from Eurovision interval-filler to a global entertainment phenomenon in the mid-nineties it took some of the pressure off contemporary choreographers interacting with traditional dance. In spite of its notoriety it didn’t have a tangible effect on dance audiences, as it was so far removed in scale and style from other dance activity. To many Irish people its ability to mix Irish dance steps with other folk dance was nothing new either. The national folk theatre, founded by Father Pat Ahern in 1974 had for many years led the way in mixing folk dance styles with theatre: Maria Pages, the Spanish flamenco dancer had worked with Siamsa Tire long before becoming a Riverdance star.

What Riverdance has done, however, is to raise the general profile of dance even if that did not translate into bigger local audiences for indigenous companies. Dance and dancers are now part of the visual currency that reflects the “Celtic Tiger” Ireland of the new millennium. When Guinness, a brand name and product synonymous with tradition, opened a new visitor centre it commissioned a dance/physical theatre work from Imagination, a London-based company that produces large-scale spectacles. The national broadcast company, RTE, uses a contemporary dancer in the links between programmes on its “younger” station Network 2. These examples are not far from DeValera’s comely maidens. They all reflect the same use of physical expression to reflect the zeitgeist in an immediate and uncomplicated way, whether it’s cloaked in nostalgia or in the tawdry dressing of global marketing.

Today’s most visible young guns, Michael Keegan Dolan, Liz Roche and David Bolger all reflect today’s Ireland, but with more self-confidence and thoughtfulness that the nation actually imagines itself. The emergence of David Bolger’s company Coiscéim has been as much about high production values as the content of his dances. This is not to say that he is “all style – no substance”. But merely that a slick, confident presentation and keen sense of theatricality have brought his obvious talent to public consciousness more readily, because the overall package reflects the entrepreneurial chic that pervades.

Michael Keegan Dolan, along with Bolger has a highly developed sense of theatricality and described dance in a recent interview as “theatre without words”. In contrast Liz Roche concerns herself with her movement vocabulary driven by a questioning intellect. None seem to have any hang-ups about traditional dance and its integration into contemporary dance forms. This probably reflects Ireland’s more urban outlook, where tradition is preserved in museums and interpretative centres yet not seen as integral or relevant to everyday life.

Even still, there is little sense of history in Irish theatre dance, even recent history. Years of precarious funding structures and the willingness to axe companies have contributed to this mindset, but even in the relative affluence of today’s dance scene there is little desire to revive works from the past. Links with the past are slowly disappearing. Joan Denise Moriarty died in 1992, just months before the opening of Firkin Crane as a dance development centre; she had intended it as a home for Irish National Ballet and it is now the Institute for Choreography and Dance. Earlier this year Dame Ninette DeValois died and the Abbey Theatre announced that it was considering moving from its historic Abbey Street location to a new site in the rejuvenated docklands. That decision, like the plan for a new Academy of the Performing Arts, is influenced by the government’s immediate political needs rather than the long-term needs of the artist.

But this is the political climate in which today’s dance making exists. The Arts Council doesn’t fund artists, it funds Arts Plans. The government doesn’t govern a republic, it manages an economy. The challenge for Irish dance is in constantly reasserting itself within these realities. If tradition has disappeared then so to is the prejudice against and distrust of physicality that concerned the Catholic Church in the early years of the state. Dance may have reclaimed the body in the twentieth century. It now has an important role in continuing to uphold the power of movement and interrogating Irish society, its images and its expression of physicality. By re-imagining our bodies and physical culture, we can then re-imagine our nation, the Ireland that we want in the twenty-first century.




The Plays of W.B. Yeats – Yeats and the Dancer: Sylvia Ellis

Idealist without Illusions: Katherine Sorley Walker

Come Dance With Me: Ninette de Valois

Joan Denise Moriarty: Ruth Fleishmann (ed.)

Dreams and Responsibilities – The State and the Arts in Independent Ireland: Brian Kennedy

The Ex-Isle of Erin – Images of Global Ireland: Fintan O’Toole

Letters from the New Island: Dermot Bolger (ed.)

Visualising Ireland: Adele Dalsimer

A Dance Critic in Ireland [Dance Chronicle 1989]: Diana Theodores

Dance News Ireland 1985-1989: Paul O’Brien (ed.)

Dance News Ireland Spring 1992: Seona MacReamonn (ed.)

Dance News Ireland 1994-1995: Michael Seaver (ed.)


Reclaiming the Body was commissioned by Uzès Dance Festival 2001.