"I’ve got a lot of dancing and living to do."

Born in Birmingham, England to Irish parents 32 years ago, Colin Dunne has achieved more than most in the world of Irish dance. He started dancing at the age of three and went on to win 11 British titles, 9 All-Irelands and 9 World Dance Championships. Dancing lead with Riverdance for five years, he earned the admiration of dancers and fans worldwide for his impressive technique. Naturally when he and Riverdance co-star Jean Butler went on to create their own show, Dancing on Dangerous Ground, we couldn't wait to see it.

Only those lucky enough to have had tickets to the performances in London and New York have so far been able to see the fruition of Jean and Colin's dream of creating a "different" kind of Irish dance show. But now, with the release of the video of "Dancing on Dangerous Ground," we fans can see for ourselves this theatrical production that should have been touring even now. With luck we will be able to see it back again one day. Colin was kind enough to give the Celtic Cafe an update on the show and what he has been doing these past several months, and we certainly look forward to seeing him dance again whenever, wherever.

 


Colin, thanks so much for giving the Celtic Cafe this interview. We really appreciate it, and are very excited about your new website going online January 15, 2001, I understand that it will offer fans the opportunity for direct contact with you? That’s wonderful news! Can you please let us know why you have chosen to do this?

Well, in the last six months I’ve actually had the time to get to know the Internet and see what it’s all about and actually understand it! I realised there were quite a few unofficial Colin Dunne sites out there… which is great, but I got the idea of maybe doing the official one a couple of months ago. At the moment, there’s a new extended biography, some pictures which I think will be new to the public, and the ability to contact me and leave messages. I really see the site as a place of contact between myself and the dance world, and that it will be very much a two-way thing. I can share some of my views and thoughts and let people know what I’m up to, and people can access me and I guess ask questions or comment on whatever they like… within reason of course. I’ve obviously taken quite a long break from dance this year and the launch of the site is really just a way of saying that I’m back!!!!! I’m going to open the site for a month or so and see what happens and I would envisage that by New Year there will be a lot more on there in the way of writings by myself, more pictures and maybe some special video clips!

"I’ve obviously taken quite a long break from dance this year and the launch of the site is really just a way of saying that I’m back!!!!!"

What is happening with the Dancing on Dangerous Ground website? How will this and your personal website be linked, and will the DoDG website be updated with news of future plans for your show, which I understand you hope to get back on tour in the fall of 2001?

First of all if I had realised that the acronym for Dancing on Dangerous Ground was actually DODG and hence “DoDGY,” etc., I probably wouldn’t have gone with the name! I know a lot of people have got a lot of mileage out of that one, so let’s call it “DG” for short!!!! Actually just a little story there -- the show was based, as you know, on the myth of Diarmuid and Grainne and for months the working title was “D&G” but we couldn’t risk being confused with an Italian fashion house. But the words “Dangerous Ground” came from looking for “D” and “G” words. But Yes… the DG site is still open and I believe there is a core group of people who still check into the site and keep themselves entertained on the message board with dreams of picnics in the park with a married Jean and Colin and child… what’s all that about?! There will of course be a two-way link between the show site and my own site, but colindunne.com is a separate thing and deals with anything and everything I might be doing. Whilst the show was a major piece of my work, I’m not attached at the hip to it and it doesn’t define everything I do or think!

So is it true that DoDG will be back up and on the road next year? What’s the scoop?!

Well… it’s always a possibility. I think it was a great show which obviously had a lot of early teething problems that inevitably caught up with it. But the sold-out week at Radio City and the fantastic New York reviews would indicate that it can exist very well as a commercial and critically-acclaimed show. To be honest, when the show officially closed in June, Jean, Ian Allen (our manager) and I really needed time to back off and take a break from talking about it, and give ourselves the time to put everything into perspective, each in our own way. Quite recently we have started talking again about the possibility of resurrecting the show or a new version of it, and of course it’s very addictive when you start talking creatively. But there are a lot of different stages to go through before that would happen and we are currently exploring some avenues.

I understand that because of the legalities surrounding the financial difficulties of the show, that you have been unable to comment publicly about any aspects of it. Now that you are able to, can you please tell us what you think happened with DoDG? The reviews in New York City were terrific, and folks were really looking forward to the next stop on the tour, Toronto. Those shows were postponed and then cancelled, and the disappointed fans have been hoping to see it start up again in the new year. We are very excited at the prospect!

You know, I could continue theorising on what happened with the show for the rest of my life… but that would be unhealthy! I think I’ve had the time now to put the whole of the last year into perspective and put it in its place… it was a huge learning experience. Ultimately the show had to close down because of the financial burden we were carrying over from London and

the inability to secure a worthwhile tour in the immediate future after Radio City -- but there is a huge list of contributory factors that led to that situation. As producers of the show as well as choreographers and performers, you have to take responsibility for everything that happens in a show -- whether good or bad -- and I think now that we all have. My only continuing regrets are concerning the people in Toronto who I think got a bit of a raw deal, and those people who lost money through the show… and I would really hope that some day I or we will be able to make that up to all of them.

What have you been doing in the months since our last interview (Radio City Music Hall Interview) with you? Are you and Jean in frequent communication about bringing back the show, and will she also have a website of her own like yours? Have you been dancing publicly at all in the interim since DoDG was put on hiatus? Have you kept up your dancing in a studio or whatever to remain in top form? As someone who has won 9 World championship titles, I imagine it’s a lifelong habit for you to keep up your dancing!

Well, when the show closed I found myself with a rather extended period of downtime off the road, which obviously at first took some adjusting to. But I decided to really make the most of it, I guess… and in a way it’s sort of being a bit of a blessing! It’s been all go for me for the last five years since I joined Riverdance, and even when I left that show in 1998, I more or less went straight to planning DG… so I’ve really used the time out to take a break, put the show into perspective and try and rejuvenate. I decided pretty early on to move to New York indefinitely as I’ve always loved working here. I actually didn’t put on a pair of dance shoes for three months, and I think the last time I didn’t dance for such a long period was when I was 2 years old! But in the meantime I discovered yoga and pilates and the gym… oh, and kickboxing… all of which helped me when I went back into the studio. I’ve seen all the theatre shows I ever wanted to see and caught up with the fantastic New York dance scene -- there is so much great dance here which has been very inspiring. I’ve been able to talk about my own experiences with a lot of other dancers and choreographers including Judith Jameson, the artistic director of Alvin Ailey, who is just fantastic. And so when I did go back into the studio I felt very inspired and clear-headed and really just began to rediscover what it is about dancing that I love to do. It has been very liberating to go to the studio and dance and play with it, without the immediate pressure of working towards putting something on stage.

You had a company of topnotch dancers in DoDG, and I know that when the show went on hiatus, many went back to school and some joined other shows. I imagine that many of them will be returning when DoDG gets going again. Can you tell us about some of the dancers and what they are doing now?

I will always be proud of the company of dancers we had in DG and the way in which they responded to the physical dance and dramatic demands of the show. It wasn’t easy at first to tell a bunch of Irish dancing guys that that they were going to be rolling around the floor doing push ups as part of the army training scene. But I have to say that by the time we came to choreograph the scene where they wake up after being ploughed with drink by the women at the wedding, they had gotten into the swing of it and were, I think, able to recall on some of their own experiences. After explaining what I wanted to get out of the scene to them, I left them alone for 15 minutes and they basically choreographed the first minute of the piece themselves! It was always our aim that the dancers, though part of a company, should not lose their own identity, that we nurture them in a way that they felt their personality could come through in their dance. I think it was our greatest achievement that we moulded a company of dancers who became thinkers, who were very much a part of the creative process, and who understood the dance they were doing rather than just being taught a series of steps and told to stand in line and perform them with a smile. I think many of them feel that they understand dance a little more after their time with us -- which is very gratifying -- and I would love to work with many of them again in the future. I am still in touch with many of them and they have all been very supportive at a personal level to both Jean and myself and were genuinely sorry when the show closed. Many have gone back to school/university to complete or pick up their education, which I think is sensible. Many have actually changed direction in their studies in a way that reflects their new experiences in dance and theatre -- for instance, I know that one member has returned to a degree in design but is now specialising in theatre set and costume design.

The November Featured Artists of the Month here are Seamus Egan and Solas, who are on tour promoting their new CD “The Hour Before Dawn.” Since Seamus is the composer of the music of DoDG, I imagine that he will contribute again to any new music in the revamped show that you expect to take on tour next fall. Will there be a CD of the DoDG music made available at some time?

Many people ask regularly about the prospect of a show CD being released. At the moment there are no plans to release such a CD as a recording of the music was never produced for an album release. The only recordings of the show that exist at present are those taken from the sound desk from the live show.

I think a lot of us felt that Irish dance had the potential to be on stage, there was such a growth and development of the dance even within the competitive scene during the Eighties that lead to a redefinition of what people might think Irish dance was. What happened five years ago was the explosion and release of all this creativity and energy which previously had nowhere to express itself, but I don't think we ever thought that it would make such a big bang in such a short space of time. As a result it has given countless dancers the opportunity to use their skills as a vehicle to tour the world and experience the magical energy that can flow between an audience and the stage as opposed to being constantly scrutinised by a panel of adjudicators. Long may it continue!

I had the pleasure of interviewing Seamus a couple of weeks ago when Solas made it out to my neck of the woods, and he’s absolutely wonderful as a person, not only as an extremely talented musician and composer. What was he like to work with on the music of DoDG, and in fact, how were things in general with the musicians of Solas being incorporated into the show?

Yeah, Seamus is a great guy and a very talented composer. Jean and myself had known him for some time and would regularly talk music… so there was some basis of a language already built up between us when we started working on the show. I was able to catch up with the band a few months ago down at the “Bottom Line” in New York and they’re playing better than ever and even played a couple of numbers from the show as part of their set which was great. I think the band themselves are really happy to be back on the road as a band and doing their own thing. As I said, the show was a huge learning experience for all of us!

I understand that you are not happy with the upcoming video release of the show and don’t endorse it?

I think anybody who knows me or has ever been involved in my work knows that I’m a bit of a perfectionist. The video was shot during the last week of the ten-week run at Drury Lane, and whilst I can accept responsibility for the show not being at its prime at that point, I never agreed to the shooting of the video at that time, especially since we were about to make some key changes to the show for the New York run. It gets complicated. Whilst the video creative team and crew were very supportive and I think did the best they could, I’m just not happy with the video. There were certain post production decisions which I was very unhappy about which I found to be beyond my call -- at the time that they were made I backed off and have not been involved in any creative decisions such as cover artwork since then. I have actually yet to see the cover.

So should we buy it?

Sure! At the end of the day, the DG video is the only recorded representation of the show as it was in London and should do well to serve fans of the show who have seen it live, and also those who haven’t but who will want to see it on their TV screens and see what all the fuss was about.

Long ago we read that you and Jean are involved with the University of Limerick’s Irish dance program. Can you please tell us about this in some detail, and what your goals for this are?

Jean and myself were asked by Michael O’Sulleabhain to officially launch the university’s MA in Irish dance performance in August 1999 which we did, and the intention was that we would keep in close contact with the course and to offer our thoughts on how it could be developed, and also give some workshops to the students. The intention of the course, quite simply, is to develop Irish dance language and performance in an environment without competitive or commercial pressures and really to provide a healthy environment for experimentation in choreography and performance. The course is run quite closely alongside the MA programme in contemporary dance and so the Irish dance students get to work with a wide range of choreographers from the larger and more established world of dance. I think the course is a fantastic idea and provides an excellent forum for all of us involved to really take stock of where the dance is going, and also to have fun with it without anybody watching! Michael and his gang of musicians at the school of music are always great fun to be with and I am actually going over there in the last week of November to give a workshop and see how they are doing.

Can you tell us what kind of work you do in your workshops?

Well at the risk of sounding like I’m pontificating, if there is one general criticism of Irish dancers, it is I think a certain kind of fear or lack of confidence to have an idea and really develop it or at least investigate it. There seems to be some kind of “follow the leader” mentality whether it be at competitive level or even at show level and a tendency to play safe by regurgitating what has been done before, in an effort to win, whether it be a medal or commercial success. And so for dancers who are studying at this high level and are seeking to gain an MA in dance… I feel it is important for them that I don’t go in and simply teach them a piece of choreography or just add a few new steps to their repertoire. We all have enough fancy steps at this stage! At the end of the course these dancers should come out with a better sense of understanding of the potential of Irish dance and with the confidence to go with their own ideas as choreographers. And so I really go in with an open mind, and since every dancer and person is unique, I just like to provide stimulus mainly by way of music to point them in a direction, and really just help them to create what it is they want to create. Each time is different but I love to work in this way.

We have a special feature at the Celtic Cafe website on none other than Dr. John Cullinane, probably the world’s leading authority on the history of Irish dance. I was surprised to hear that there is no archived collection of Irish dance memorabilia in Ireland, at least not one accessible to the public and to scholars. He is looking for a place for his 4000 items (and it keeps growing as folks entrust their prized collections to him) and I wonder what your thoughts are on this.

The history of Irish dance has always intrigued me in that there appears to be so many unanswered questions as to where it actually came from and what it actually is. It seems that other dance forms such as flamenco, tango and African-influenced percussive dance have some kind of ideology or social history attached to them, but I could never really fathom what all this Irish dance is really supposed to be about! I think John

has done amazing work in piecing together some kind of history for us to look at and I think a public place which is dedicated to that history would be a great idea and is long overdue. I feel that even with the explosion of Irish dance in recent years, that the dance is still underrated and undervalued as an art form in Ireland and I think the government should get their hands out of their pockets and find a place for John!

Thanks to shows like Riverdance and Lord of the Dance and performers like you and Jean, there is now worldwide awareness of what some might once have considered a bit of a “moldy art form” – kind of a “quaint” folk dance limited to Ireland and those of Irish descent. That has certainly changed. When you were winning your World championships over the years, could you have ever imagined being on stage as a career, traveling the world? Dr. John laments the fact that he was born too early… he’d love to be traveling around the world dancing, not just simply adjudicating.

I think a lot of us felt that Irish dance had the potential to be on stage, there was such a growth and development of the dance even within the competitive scene during the Eighties that lead to a redefinition of what people might think Irish dance was. What happened five years ago was the explosion and release of all this creativity and energy which previously had nowhere to express itself, but I don’t think we ever thought that it would make such a big bang in such a short space of time. As a result it has given countless dancers the opportunity to use their skills as a vehicle to tour the world and experience the magical energy that can flow between an audience and the stage as opposed to being constantly scrutinised by a panel of adjudicators. Long may it continue!

In his interview, Dr. John mentioned having been a guest at the Late Late Show tribute to Michael Flatley. He feels that the dance that Jean did on the show was sublime, and said he thought that you helped choreograph it. Is this the case, and what led up to that?

Did he really say that? As I recall the routine she did on that show was based on a piece she had already done for Canadian TV the month before with Sharon Shannon and a whole bunch of other guys, which I had had nothing to do with as I was on the road with Riverdance at the time. I was in Dublin though at the time before the Late Late tribute, taking a break from Riverdance, and as would normally happen if either Jean or myself was working on something for ourselves we would ask the other for the critical eye! It was actually during this break and some of those days in the studio that we started talking about working together on a new show.

What was intriguing to me about DoDG was that you and Jean meant for it to be more than just another Irish dance show per se… that it was meant to be more of a theatrical performance first with Irish dance in it, instead of the other way around. Will you still keep this focus, especially since the New York reviews were so positive for the most part?

Absolutely! When we started talking about our own show more than two years ago now, when we had nothing but a blank piece of paper in front of us, the fundamental principle and guiding factor was that the show, whatever it would be, would be a “theatrical” show. Now… what does that mean -- it’s easy to talk about being “theatrical” -- just put your show in a “theatre” and off you go! The key was to begin to use Irish dance as a dance language, a language that could carry a quite simple narrative from beginning right through to the end, a language that could portray character and emotion with the aid of a lyrical and narrative musical score, costumes, set and lights, and of course a language that we already knew could wow an audience looking for excitement and spectacle. It’s not an easy thing to do. Irish Dance, by its nature, does not naturally and inherently lend itself to portraying a huge spectrum of human emotion… we all know that a line-up of smiling dancers in unison can say “we’re Irish and proud,” we all know that a male solo can represent male bravado, and we all know that a pretty female wearing floaty costumes dancing a slip jig to an airy tune can portray an innocent virgin who then might turn into a maneater! But beyond that, what? Dance is an abstract language but I see it essentially as an extension and an interpretation of everyday body language -- and that is where we were heading with the development of the dance in that show. I do believe that DG was a major and important step in the development and future of Irish dance, and I believe that the majority of people, whether dancers or not, whether they loved the show or hated it, also acknowledge that. Particularly in the second half of the show, the dancing and choreography drove the narrative home; the wedding scene, the seduction of the guys, the waking up of the army into rage etc… that’s real theatre using Irish dance as the means of communication. We’re very proud of that.

Where do you think Irish dance is headed? Undoubtedly you are aware of the changes in costume, etc., at the competitions these days, compared to when you were winning all the titles. We have a CelticCafeDANCERS list on eGroups, and it has grown very large with lots of Irish dancers of all ages and levels and Irish dance teachers joining. What kind of advice might you want to offer them, taking into account the career opportunities that have opened up in recent years?

You know I think every dancer is different and has different aspirations and goals with their dance. I would just really encourage dancers to have fun with it, whilst also working hard to achieve their full potential. It has done me the world of good to really step back from it in the last six months and really see if it’s something that I still want to do. I think because of the rigorous competitive structure that we all come up through and now with the ability to go into any one of a number of shows almost immediately, it’s quite easy to get caught on the treadmill and just keep dancing for no other reason other than because we can. I think that maybe some of the company members of some of the larger shows might be more qualified to offer advice to the majority of dancers, seeing as many of them went into shows at 17 years of age, having left school early and are now in their early- to mid-twenties. My own experiences have probably been a little more extreme, but it all happened a little later on in life and so I think I was able to maybe deal with it in a different way. But yeah….just enjoy the dance.

Do you think it’s possible to have TOO many Irish dance shows on the world stage at one time?

I’m not sure that I worry whether or not there are too many Irish dance shows. A lot of dancers and teachers have put years of their lives into this art form and I see no reason why they shouldn’t reap the benefits and branch out from the competitive world and have some fun and, quite frankly, earn a living from it. What I am concerned about though, is the quality of some of these shows and the number of spin- offs of major shows which are poorly-produced, unimaginative versions of the other. A point that particularly infuriates me are those shows which are produced and put together by entrepreneurs who know nothing about dance and who have jumped on the bandwagon, employing no Irish dancers, but then throw a show together which then masquerades as an Irish dance production. I think it’s highly insulting to those who have spent a lifetime in Irish dance. Enough said!

The history of Irish dance has always intrigued me in that there appear to be so many unanswered questions as to where it actually came from and what it actually is...I think John has done amazing work in piecing together some kind of history for us to look at...even with the explosion of Irish dance in recent years, that the dance is still underrated and undervalued as an art form in Ireland and I think the government should get their hands out of their pockets and find a place for John!

What are your requirements for dancers joining your company?

I think no matter how you might list your criteria when looking for a dancer, it really just comes down to a feeling you get on the day about somebody. Obviously, technique is crucial, but then some dancers are all technique and whilst are trained extremely well to do what they do for competition, they can’t respond to something different you might throw at them. The key, I think, is to try and get some sense of their potential to respond in the short space of time you have in an audition and assess their ability and -- perhaps more importantly -- their desire to learn and their feelings about dance. You have to take into account that maybe a dancer is nervous and that most are entering into uncharted territory. I really just leave it to instinct.

So what are your plans for the immediate future?

Aside from doing some theatrical dance workshops, I’m back in the studio everyday and have been working with some great dancers here in New York, not necessarily Irish trained… jammin’ and having a good time. There are a lot of ideas flowing there at the moment which I’m very excited about. I’m beginning to workshop some of these ideas and would love to maybe showcase some of them in New York in the spring of 2001 and get some reaction. But I’m not talking a new show or a big splash here so don’t get too excited at the moment… just some great dance ideas that I would like to start showing small groups of people! I’m going to be working with a UK-based contemporary dance company in the New Year, doing some choreography for them, which may or may not include me performing with them. And of course there is DG to look at again which would be fantastic to resurrect and see through.

What do you enjoy doing for fun? What are your non-dance passions these days? What kind of music do you enjoy listening to? How’s life for Colin Dunne the person, aside from Colin Dunne the world-renowned Irish dancer?

You know, I’m just a regular dinner-and-a-movie kinda guy. I’ve recently rediscovered a passion for reading, something I loved to do as a child, but then I think I got turned off from books as a result of having to read so many really boring academic books through college, university and those lovely accounting years! I have a huge and eclectic collection of music which I use to suit my mood. I’d love to do a parachute jump but my insurance won’t allow it! But other than that… I just do as regular folks do. I think my dancing life provides all the excitement I need! Colin Dunne the person is doing great right now that he’s had some time out and he has actually been looking after Colin Dunne the dancer who is normally the more stable of the two. I think this has been a pivotal year for both and I’m glad

to have come out the other end… roll on 2001… I’ve got a lot of dancing and living to do.

Interview by Bernadette Price

What could Dancing on Dangerous Ground and James Bond possibly have in common? Read this great review by Gérard Morvan and find out!

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