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  • Chris O'Rourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2022: What We Hold

Jean Butler in What We Hold. Image Ste Murray


Pushing at boundaries informs Jean Butler's loving promenade through Irish Dancing at the Irish Georgian Society. Her heartfelt What We Hold, pushing at limits of form, convention, history and memory, sees history and autobiography seamlessly interwoven. Beginning, as it must, with the ruthless cost of admission. A young, male dancer executing sean-nós like a military drill, feet tapping at frightening, almost inhuman speed. Constantly assessing his reflection in a mirror, refining poise, position, pace. Mirroring becoming both a theme and a device; young mirroring old, familiar mirroring different, past mirrored in the future. The breathtaking sequence brought to a close for the space of a breath before immediately resuming. Endless practice and repetition to create the illusion of effortlessness.

Guided gently upstairs, a series of suspended voice recorders recount histories and memories. Butler recalling her past self as she shapes her adult future in a sublimely sensitive sequence. Standing regal and barefoot at the top of two long tables, set out like a catwalk, the Riverdance queen surveys the room with authoritative majesty. Her posture liquid grace, her expression sphinx like. Presently Maren Shanks, with a veritable chest-plate of medals, joins Butler as they mirror a slow, simple sequence in which they meet, reflect and separate. Leaving Butler to execute a long solo of simple, repeated patterns. Hints of tap, flamenco, married to the self confident, jazz sway of a Josephine Baker establish a leitmotif that intersects with Irish dance. Yet given the manner in which the emotional doors got kicked off their hinges with the opening sequence, this section can feel tame and cerebral, and a shade too long as contrast. Like a poem recited in the middle of a rock concert. Even so, Butler is spellbinding. Feet grounded yet fluid, body moving from the centre, the upper body weightless.

Maren Shanks and Jean Butler in What We Hold. Image Ste Murray

With a playful nod we're ushered into a large hall where a prolonged, three tap sequence is married to a three note composition by Ryan C.Seaton; Seaton's score searing and sensitive throughout. Here, Butler's journey is enriched by communal forms and additional dancers; Tom Cashin, Marion Cronin, Kristyn Fontanella, Fionn O’Sullivan McCarthy, Jack Porter and Maren Shanks. Arriving at the place all those hard hours and endless experiments have been leading towards. Shared joy. As contagious as Butler’s smile. Overwhelmingly, overbearingly uplifting as the room wheels and rises on eddies of exultation. If you’re not tapping your feet or smiling broadly as the light goes out, go see a doctor. You might be dead.

And therein lies the riches of What We Hold. Not history, not memoir, not even insight and forgotten voices, vitally important as they are. What We Hold is a joyous journey. With its foot tapping, power anthem, sweep-you-off-your-feet opening it grabs you by the collar, presses you against the wall and kisses you hard. Before directing you to the bedroom, where it says, 'sit down there for a minute while my parents have a word.' Granted, they're liberal minded parents with interesting things to say about history, tradition, and moving towards the future, but it does dampen the mood a little. Gradually re-aroused, courtesy of some lengthy, three step foreplay that culminates in a whirling dervish.

Jack Porter, Maren Shank, Fionn O’Sullivan McCarthy, Jean Butler, Marion Cronin and Kristyn Fontanella in What We Hold. Image Ste Murray

What We Hold honours not just Irish Dance, but Butler. You can mirror technique, you cannot mirror transcendence. Mirror instruction, but not immanence. Mirror poise, but not presence. With a presence both immanent and transcendent, Butler infuses grace into every drop of her shoulder, every tilt of her hip, every precise step. One can only hope that What We Hold, along with some other notable dance pieces this year, puts paid to the double standards and farcical hypocrisy which sees dance included in Dublin Theatre Festival yet excluded from the Irish Theatre Awards. Where it not so, What We Hold would be in serious contention. Joy, joy, joy.

What We Hold by Jean Butler, presented by Our Steps and Lovano, ran as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2022 at City Assemble House till October 9.

For more information visit Dublin Theatre Festival 2022


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