Irish dance director and choreographer Breandan de Gallai has created arguably the most challenging Irish dance work ever seen on a New York stage. Noctu, which means stripped or laid bare in Irish, sweeps away everything before it in a work that breaks all the rules. CAHIR O’DOHERTY reviews the show, talks to its choreographer, and has one piece of advice for you -- kill for a ticket.
Who knew Leonard Cohen and Bjork were writing reels and jigs? They probably didn’t and -- to be honest -- until I watched Noctu at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York I would never have imagined how effortlessly their music could lend itself to the rhythms and steps of Irish dancing.
The first thing to say about the new dance performance Noctu (the name means stripped, or laid bare in Irish) is that it is the most ambitious Irish dance work I have ever seen.
Currently playing at the Irish Rep (which is overdue an award as the most consistently brilliant theater makers in the country) through October 2, the show has been directed by the Gweedore, Co. Donegal visionary choreographer and dancer Breandan de Gallai.
The show begins with a warm-up that happens onstage. You hear the Irish accents of the dancers greeting each other as one by one they get in line (some of them turn up late, this is Ireland we’re talking about) and dance in unison. In their O’Neal and Umbro sweats they look like any young Irish person on the streets of Dublin.
It’s the most unaffected, informal way for the audience to get a sense of who these dancers are as people, but in a way it’s also very misleading, because by the end of this complex and challenging work you’ll be hard put to think of them as ordinary at all.
There’s a good reason for this -- Irish dancers aren’t. Most of them live in their calling like monks live in their faith. They are terrifically fit athletes who are also artists, and as Noctu makes clear early on, at the end of the day “they just f***ing want to dance.”
There’s a bit of Billy Elliott set up to one of the main story lines in Noctu, which seems unavoidable. For a young lad growing up in rural Ireland, becoming an Irish dancer is a bit like announcing you’re going to design women’s dresses for a living. Noctu doesn’t pretend that your path will be smooth, but it reminds you very forcefully how beautiful your life can become.
Starting out with the bluesy voice of legendary Irish chanteuse Mary Coughlan singing “Miss Brown to You,” the dancers perform a get to know you piece that’s followed up with Goldfrapp’s utterly gorgeous “Deer Stop,” and then with Kate Bush’s Irish inflexed “The Night of the Swallow.” This is seriously discerning, wildly beautiful pop music and it is matched with some impressive dancing.
“We follow those sequences up with music by a friend of mine called Joe Csibi and that’s followed by a traditional hornpipe and then by a tango,” de Gallai tells the Irish Voice. “Those sequences are followed up by Bjork’s ‘Violently Happy.’”
If you haven’t understood the beats and the rhythms of these famous tracks that take an axe to the frozen sea of Irish dance tradition you soon will when you see how they erupt onstage. Noctu is focused, energetic, and uproarious and -- yowsa -- is it sexy.
Cast members wear black kilts, then leotards, then just their underwear in a clear effort to break free from all the distracting neon colors and tossed curls that have taken over competitive Irish dancing.
Noctu isn’t making fun of all that modern showbiz excess; it just wants to purely focus on the dancing and the dancers body in motion. It’s a wise and refreshing choice.
“I came up with the idea for Noctu after I left Riverdance,” says de Gallai, who danced for years in the show himself.
“I was working with the composer Joe Csibi and I really wanted to have my own voice as a choreographer, and I realized I probably wouldn’t get to work on something on the scale of Riverdance again.”
Like most dancers, de Gallai has nothing but praise for his years in Riverdance.
“I was very, very proud to be in it and it made a huge difference to the world of Irish dancing from Tokyo to St. Petersburg. To me then and to me now it’s all about the dance,” he says.
Searching for a show of his own, created from the lessons he had learned, de Gallai took matters into his own hands when it became clear to him that it would be difficult to interest producers in any new directions for Irish dance. Michael Flatley’s success seemed to provide them all with a blueprint of the correct path to take, after all.
“Venture capitalists had a very clear idea of what the audiences wanted and they weren’t shy about saying so,” de Galli adds.
“But I was more interested in making dance from the perspective of the artist. So the argument became we know what the audience wants versus my idea that they only wanted it because that was the only thing available to them now.”