Greetings from the woods of Becket, MA, where I’ve been in residence with Jean Butler for the past week. We’re at Jacob’s Pillow, and I’m dancing for the first time in five years — like rehearse-every-day dancing, not take-class-once-a-year dancing. It feels pretty great.
You might know Jean as the original female lead and co-choreographer of Riverdance, but over the past 15 years she’s been mining her history as an Irish dancer in a much less commercial context. She invited me to join her current project as a writer-in-residence and then, to my surprise, asked if I wanted to dance during this week of creative research. I said yes a little nervously, anticipating all the hurdles, physical and psychological, that come with dancing again after a long hiatus. (See notes on perfectionism in Danceletter 1.) But the transition has been less jarring than I expected; Jean, I’ve found, is interested in meeting us where we are.
The project is hard to explain succinctly (and as resident writer, I’ll be figuring out how to do that). For now, I’ll say that it has a lot to do with understanding, as Irish dancers, where we come from — something that, in training for competition (how most Irish dancers train), we’re not always encouraged to do. Jean is looking at lineages of Irish dance history, documenting and excavating them in ways that haven’t been done before. She began last summer with her own lineage, reconstructing set dances (competitive solo dances) choreographed and danced by her teachers and their teachers. That process of transmission — from the original creators and interpreters to a younger generation of current competitors — was filmed over two weeks at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. During that time we also recorded oral histories with the teachers, some of whom have been dancing and teaching for over 50 years. As one of the oral history collectors, I realized just how little I knew about the evolution of a form I practiced for nearly two decades. And the stories I heard were just a few of so many.
This past week, we’ve been revisiting that material from the library — the films and oral histories — to develop new material of our own. “We” are five dancers (Caitlin Clarke, Kristyn Fontanella, Anna McDunn, Jean, and me), filmmaker Megan Stahl, and dramaturg/living archives collaborator Cori Olinghouse. The project will culminate in an installation called The Stepping Fields in Dublin, in 2021, and we are at the very beginning of shaping what it will be.
Our days in the studio have included as much talking and writing and watching and listening as dancing. Memory is a theme that comes up again and again. Last summer at the library, I was struck by how easily people remembered their set dances from 40 or more years ago — struck because when it comes to my own set dances, I have almost no memory. I keep returning to this moment when Kevin Broesler (a former student, like Jean, of Donny Golden) was teaching his King of the Fairies from 1983. He talked about doing the dance at a competition and how, on one particular heel slide, he winked at Jean and another friend, who were standing in the wings.
When I try to recall moments of actually competing onstage, I come up blank. How do we remember what we remember, and why?
Here’s something I do remember:
Sometimes people ask me how I started dancing. The answer is that growing up, I traveled to Ireland with my family every summer. Though my heritage is Irish on my dad’s side, these visits weren’t about that, at least not directly. As far as I know, my parents just decided to go and fell in love with it, and my mom, a travel agent at the time, planned many return trips.
The farmhouse where we stayed had a big walled garden in front. One day I was out there with my mom, maybe enjoying some rare sunshine, when we noticed a little girl lurking by the gate. I was a shy four-year-old who preferred to let grown-ups do the talking, but my mom sensed a budding friendship that needed to develop in private. The intuition! Against my protests, she slipped indoors, and as if on cue, the girl began to talk to me, or maybe the other way around. In any case, we hit it off. She was an Irish dancer, and just the right amount of bossy to my shy.
Three years my senior, at the wise age of seven, Mairead (who, it turned out, lived across the street) became my first dance teacher. It was from her, in the farmhouse driveway and yard, that I learned the basics of traditional Irish dance, how to do a “jump-two-three” and a “back-two-three-four-five-six-seven.” Our student/teacher relationship could shift to become more collaborative; old photos show us standing face to face along the garden’s concrete pathway, immersed in making up dances, Irish and not. Over the years, when I’ve felt frustrated with dancing, I’ve tried to tap into the feeling of that beginning, before the pressures of competing set in. It’s not too far off from what we’ve been doing this week.
From the Internet
Being here, I haven’t spent much time on the internet (a nice break). But today, my fellow dancer Kristyn shared this video with me about the school where we both studied, the Griffith Academy in Hartford, CT. On the subject of (not) knowing your history, I didn’t know most of this history during all the years I trained there, including the fact that one of my teachers, Mary Beth Griffith, was an assistant to the great choreographer Agnes de Mille.
That’s all I’ve got for now. I leave you with this Western Massachusetts sunset:
Thanks as always for reading.