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  • Chris ORourke

this is an Irish dance

Neil Martin and Jean Butler in "this is an Irish dance" Photo by Ian Douglas


Zen in the art of Irish dancing

Mindful, focused and steeped in moments of meditative stillness, “this is an Irish dance” offers a gentle duet between choreographer and performer, Jean Butler, and composer and performer, Neil Martin. A multi-layered conversation between sound and silence, motion and stillness, music and dance, “this is an Irish dance” is imbued with an energised ease. Delivered with a feeling of effortless effort, movement and music, both individually and together, often find the most exquisite of moments. Yet other moments linger a little too long. If, in its dialogue between tradition and innovation, “this is an Irish dance” comes close to achieving a state of grace at times, it almost undoes all its good work by overstaying its welcome.

Throughout, Butler and Martin engage in a sort of gentle duel, defined as much by distance and defiance as by their deep affinity. As sequences arise, be they music, movement or a combination of the two, there’s a sort of stand-off, part challenge, part seduction. Butler, the embodiment of ease and grace, executes a variety of sequences as well as several long walks about the space. At times the upper body dominates, at others footwork, at other times both merge. Throughout, fragments of deconstructed Irish dance are always in evidence, but Butler allows her playful side to emerge, seeming to channel a little Elvis, a little flamenco and what looks like a healthy amount of Go-Go. The Irish dancer’s penchant for remaining upright dominates, creating a restrictive vocabulary from which Butler can draw upon. Indeed, the rare occasions when she sits, or moves to the floor, suggest performative possibilities that could be considered missed opportunities. Throughout, Butler exhibits an almost feline quality, like a cat conserving its energy, waiting for the precise moment to pounce, with not a movement wasted.

Jean Butler. Photo by John Midgley

Butler’s foil and partner in this most gentlest of crimes, Neil Martin, matches Butler’s concentrated intensity with an equal intensity of his own. Performing live with cello, Martin’s interplay with Butler is one of a deep-rooted partnership exquisitely realised. Martin’s sensitive score is astonishingly good, as is his subtle, understated performance. Indeed, there are moments when both he and Butler seem to achieve an almost psychic synchronicity between musician and dancer, movement and music, which is a joy to behold. Yet, about three quarters of the way through, it all suddenly seems to peak, and if it doesn't severely dip, it certainly plateaus. As it moves towards the end, the sense that the whole has overstayed its welcome a little is very present, due, in part, to some prolonged sequences, in part to its restricted vocabulary. The final sequences, often a little more inventive in places, have to fight just that little bit harder to regain the audience. The end, when it comes, seems to arrive rather than arise, feeling a little like a release in a way, but not necessarily in a good way.

“this is an Irish dance” can feel like a forty-minute show stretched to an hour. Yet it is also one of the most exquisite interdisciplinary duets to be found anywhere. Through movement, music, or a gaze at times, Butler and Martin achieve moments of almost pure transcendence, often built on the simplest and most powerful of ingredients. It might overshare a little and overstay its welcome, but “this is an Irish dance” shows moments of quiet grace and profound beauty, and an irresistible chemistry between Butler and Martin.

Neil Martin and Jean Butler in "this is an Irish dance" Photo by Ian Douglas

Experimental, testing boundaries and seeking new relationships, “this is an Irish dance” is a fitting finale to the Project Arts Centre's Project 50 celebrations. Roll on their next fifty years. And roll on even more projects from Butler and Martin.

“this is an Irish dance” by Jean Butler and Neil Martin runs at The Project Arts Centre as part of Project 50 until February 11th

For more information, visit The Project Arts Centre

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