Sean Ó Riada's importance within the Irish cultural landscape is under continuous debate. There might be consensus that he brought Irish traditional music from the margins through arrangements for his group Ceoltóirí Chualann, orchestrations for film scores like Mise Éire and Saoirse? and radio broadcasts for Radio Éireann. But there's bitter divisiveness over the importance of that legacy.
To some, often branded as the Dublin elite, his compositions are un-noteworthy and the “Irish Bartók” label overstates his music's originality and the extent to which it reinterprets and casts a new light on tradition forms. It's also argued that his re-scoring of traditional music for the instruments of Ceoltóirí Chualann – a reaction against popular céilí band schlock – was already taking place in bars in London.
For others he is a poster-child for musical democracy. After moving from Dublin to Cúil Aodha in West Cork, he set up a male voice choir Cór Chúil Aodha, and its success is often forefronted within community music circles. Earlier, the symbolism of bringing Ceoltóirí Chualann from the relative wilderness of Galloping Green into the Shelbourne Hotel (for the 1960 Dublin Theatre Festival) resonates with both casual champions of the underdog and academic proponents of a cultural World Systems Theory who see the local heavily influencing the global. And Ceoltóirí Chualann provided a springboard for Ireland's most successful tradition group, The Chieftains.
Rian is likely to be similarly debated. Liam Ó Maonlaí's eponymous album is inspired by Ó Riada's 1969 concert, which was recorded and released posthumously as Ó Riada sa Gaiety. Choreographer Michael Keegan Dolan's interaction with that music (played live) promised an exploration of the “tension and harmony between Irish traditional music and modern dance” and “a response to the current seismic changes in Irish society.”
After the curtain rose Ó Maonlaí lit a candle and the sounds of a ghostly harpsichord were heard, an instrument Ó Riada thought best resembled the clarsach, a wire-strung Irish harp. This reverence was picked up by stiff-suited and casual-green-gúna-ed dancers, who began moving with an almost courtly formality. Framed by Sabine D'Argent's green semi-circular platform, which housed the musicians and dancers at rest, the setting was welcoming and inclusive.
Performers stepped into the centre in various configurations from languid solos to lurching octets, often joined by marauding musicians. A heavy emphasis on unison movement might have signalled a sense of community amongst the multi-ethnic cast, but it also had a leavening affect. Sometimes Ó Maonlaí's looping musings on piano or harp were mirrored with repeating dance phrases so the performance got stuck in a kind of holding pattern until the next number.
There were rare moments of delicious choreography, with seductive phrases that almost simultaneously opened out and turned in on themselves or hints of Sufi whirling or west African dance. The eight dancers - Saju Hari, Anna Kaszuba, Saku Koistinen, Louise Mochia, Emmanuel Obeya, Keir Patrick, Ino Riga and Louise Tanoto – were constantly appealing with their joyousness, although there was often a danger of spilling into forced enthusiasm - some of the yelps to dance tunes sounded hollow.
The simplicity of Keegan Dolan's choreographic response – a departure from the high theatricality of his Midlands Trilogy - was rewarded more in the slow airs than in the dance tunes, where a solo dancer's response to sean-nós singing offered more poetry than the convention of matching unison movement to changing jigs and reels.
Rian's overall effect was either simple and seductive, or facile and unchallenging, depending on your point of view. For the record, most of the audience on opening night chose the former, using their hands to clap along with the music rather than to prop up their chin.
But it didn't offer any exploration of the tension and harmony between modern dance and traditional music. If anything, the choreography was overpowered by the music - an imbalance that Ó Maonlaí happily embraced onstage – and there was little dialectic between the two. A commentary on changing Irish society was even more illusive, unless the rhetoric of a multi-ethnic cast performing in a unified dance language counts as a blueprint for our future.
In the sleeve-notes for Rian, O Maonlai admits that while the album isn't perfect, “the perfection comes between the one singing and the listener.” It's a safe ambiguity that could describe hidden genius or be just a get-out-of-jail card. But as Pina Bausch asks in the film Pina, “What do we long for, and where does this yearning come from?” These are questions that are fundamental in addressing changes to our society and connections within our culture. Perhaps they were addressed in the rehearsal studio as Rian, the dance-theatre production, evolved. But onstage they remain sadly unanswered and although the dance and music might viscerally connect with the audience, there is little substance behind the thrill.
Michael Seaver is dance critic with The Irish Times.