Rian, Sydney Festival


Fabulous Beast, Theatre Royal, January 17

IN Rian things start hotting up – a relative term – when the men take off their jackets and the women discard their little white socks and flat shoes, the company’s version of getting into ecstatic, Dionysiac mode. The modesty is thoroughly disarming.

Rian. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Rian. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

The eight dancers and five musicians are first seen sitting amongst their instruments on a curved platform at the back of the stage. The men wear suits, the women are in delightfully demure knee-length cotton print frocks. The setting could be a community hall or an ancient amphitheatre, but given the startling, super-saturated green light it’s a fair bet we’re in Ireland. The sense of being both in the present (or near enough to) and the mythical past permeates Rian, which combines something of a Saturday-night knees-up in an Irish country town with dance as deep-rooted, life-affirming, universal ritual.

Anyone looking for a stereotypical kind of Irishness – boisterous, garrulous – will have to look elsewhere. Rian is close to being prayful; it’s certainly playful at times but mysterious too. The idea of ritual, and not just Gaelic ritual, is absolutely central. While the musicians are all Irish, the dancers have been drawn from around the globe and the work gracefully incorporates intimations of other cultures. The movement itself has the air of folk dance, building its force through repetition, accumulation and the group in unison. This isn’t entirely easy going as one similar dance follows another, although the effect is undeniably hypnotic.

Rian is built around constant circling, in large formations and in the swaying, swirling and spiralling of each body. The footwork is mainly simple, of the skipping, stamping and jumping kind, but the upper body work involves intricate variations for arms, shoulders and torso that are mesmerising. So too is the small band under the music direction of Liam O Maonlai, which could be a show all in itself. The sounds of uilleann pipes, harp, concertina, tin whistle and much more are achingly lovely.

All this loveliness falls on the decorous side of things, which is a little surprising from Michael Keegan-Dolan, the man turned Giselle into a line-dancer. I longed for breakout moments of something wilder and more untamed, something that would reveal more of the performers’ individuality. No matter how fast they twirled and stamped, they seemed to me to be in an essentially private world. Thursday’s opening night audience seemed to have no such reservations, standing and cheering lustily and calling for more.

Ends January 23.

This review first appeared in The Australian on January 21

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