Ireland has an incredibly interesting historical relationship to dance – most notably the 1935 Public Dancehalls Act, which censored Ireland’s social scene based on the fear that unsupervised dancing would lead to immorality and promiscuity. Hence, director Emma Martin’s Dancehall is a fascinating expression of restriction and oppression, later countered by unbridled freedom and joy.
We begin with a vast and almost bare stage, with three long drapes quietly cloaked over the rigging at the rear, and musicians William Butt, Lance Corburn and Alex Petchu taking their places. Five dancers enter, and make a ritual of changing into prim, restrictive clothes and from there, for the next hour, they dance. Stephen Dodd’s lighting design is sublime, never quite showing us the dancer’s faces, asking us instead to focus on their bodies and their journey. Andrew Hamilton’s composition underscores the whole thing perfectly, at times ominously, setting an intriguing tone for the evening.
The dancers’ movements are often halting and bound, then just as suddenly bleeding into moments of fluidity and grace. This is not your typical classical choreography, and while there are recognisable moments which nod to forms we all know, there’s as much which feels unusual and original. It’s wonderful to watch these five incredibly skilled and precise dancers interact with each other, as well as find the detail in all of their individual performances, which are unique but build to a really interesting whole.
Dancehall is free of a traditional linear narrative: it does not demand a literal interpretation and as such audiences can read it how they like. And this is its success: it asks us not to be cerebral in our viewing of it, but to simply allow it to work on us in a more physical, guttural way. The simple staging is a huge strength: there are plenty of powerful images throughout the production created simply with light and bodies. Equally, at a mid point, when the lush mustard coloured drapes descend, the space is transformed to a place of warmth and heat, and the simple effects used in the final moments of the show are utterly beautiful.
Dancehall had the audience on its feet in rapturous applause – an incredibly satisfying thing to see in the context of the Dublin Theatre festival which is so dominated by text-based work and classics. To see something which engaged with Ireland’s traditions but in such a non-traditional way, really captivating its audience, was incredibly satisfying, and makes this one of the highlights of the festival.
Dancehall is playing at the Samuel Beckett Theatre until 11 October. For more information and tickets, see the Dublin Theatre Festival website. Photo by Luca Truffarelli.