In the spectacular surroundings of Sadler's Wells theatre, the history-heavy, lustrous red curtain rises on an equally vibrant stage. Lush green from floor to roof, the large space feels like a temple or a church. This is heightened by the rich, guttural Gaelic song that welcomes us into what is a veneration of Irish culture through music and dance. Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre have collaborated with musician Liam Ó Maonlaí to create Rian, a work that is essentially a ceilidh with extremely high quality dance and music.

Rian © Fabulous Beast
Rian
© Fabulous Beast

Dancers and musicians, onstage throughout, mingle and swap roles in this meeting place of stories and social dancing. The piece allows the performers to share a little of themselves, by allowing their varied backgrounds to flavour the Irish tradition. There is a glimpse of India and a spot of French Jazz, which brings some welcome variety. In this open, jam session structure, it's enjoyable to see each performer doing their thing then letting someone else take the stage. However, in a ninety minute work, this format does wear a little thin. The dancers don't get much of a chance to really build relationships with each other or the audience, and those that are allowed to develop are the more memorable for it.

A particularly effective duet sees a rhythmic step dance turn into a flirtatious dialogue, which leaves dancer Emmanuel Obeya comically outwitted and wrong-footed. In contrast, another duet hints at the darker elements of interaction, with the pair trapped in an achingly repetitive loop, swooping and weaving heads low to the ground like frightened animals. These duets are well crafted, and individually are lovely examples of placing the traditions of folk dance and music in a more contemporary setting.

Rian © Fabulous Beast
Rian
© Fabulous Beast

At times however, the choreography felt a little lacklustre and over simplistic. The overwhelming amount of unison was tiring to watch for such a long piece, and the lack of physical contact between dancers was frustrating. I was silently begging for someone to invade someone else's space, even just to hold hands. When two dancers did finally touch, I almost punched the air in celebration. Of course, keeping the work faithful to folk dance as opposed to simply appropriating the tradition as pastiche is very important, and choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan must be respected for his decision to maintain the integrity of the culture represented.

While the interaction between dancers was fairly minimal, certain combinations of music and movement were perfectly executed and stood out from the rest. A haunting story of doomed love is sung with fragile beauty by Eithne Ní Chatháin, while the three female dancers accompany with simple movements, letting the song fill the space and catch in our throats. Another moment that works wonderfully sees the ensemble seated at the front of the stage, with one man playing a virtuosic pipe solo – the scene becomes strangely hilarious as everyone begins to move in slow motion, waving all four limbs in the air like upturned beetles.

These snippets and tasters give this piece a lot to offer, though with so much stopping and starting it never quite gathers the pace it promises. Even so, Ó Maonlaí and his band of exquisite musicians are such a joy to hear, it's worth seeing Rian for this reason alone.

***11