If you’re a follower of Irish traditional dance, you may recognize him — from 1995 to 1998 he co-starred in the megashow “Riverdance.” But he left all that behind long ago and had spent the past 18 years creating intimate, exploratory evenings like this one. He seemed intent on moving as far as possible from the clichés of Irish dance, an art form that has come to be defined by competitions on the one hand and large-scale spectacles on the other.
“The music is pumping, you’re pumping, everybody’s pumping, and the audience wants to be pumped — the whole thing is based on a kind of adrenaline rush,” he said via Skype from Limerick, in southwest Ireland, where he lives. “This is the opposite of that.”
The melody Dunne, 51, has just played on the piano is lighthearted, with a distinct bounce. It makes you want to dance. Then he plays a different version of the same tune: The notes slither and crash against each together as the rhythm becomes jagged, almost random. It’s hard to imagine a dancer finding his or her way through this fog of notes.
The second version, Dunne explains, is a transcription of the way the Irish fiddler Tommy Potts, who died in 1988, played the tune. Potts, who is a cult figure among some Irish traditional music fans and is ignored or disliked by others, is Dunne’s absent partner in this hourlong show, which comes to the Baryshnikov Arts Center this week. (The show is a coproduction of the Baryshnikov center and the Irish Arts Center.)
The two men, born almost six decades apart, are in many ways kindred spirits — both working within the Irish tradition but chafing against its conventions, both happiest plying their trade on their own, outside the mainstream.
“Concert” is Dunne’s effort to bridge the physical and temporal distance between them, to imagine what might have happened had they had the chance to meet and work together in real life.
Their connection was not always obvious to him. When he first heard a recording of Potts’ fiddle playing, not long after leaving “Riverdance,” he found the music “deeply esoteric,” he said. “I had absolutely no interest in it.”
But as his own exploration into the sounds of and approaches to Irish dancing deepened, that changed. Like flamenco or tap, Irish dance is a percussive dance, defined by the intricate and exciting ways the performer’s feet hit the floor. In previous shows like “Out of Time” and “Edges of Light,” Dunne has manipulated these intricate rhythmic patterns by dancing barefoot on a variety of surfaces or distorting the sound through electronics. This experimentation found its natural counterpart in the flights of fancy in Potts’ fiddling. “He would add a beat here or a beat there,” Dunne says, “or invert a phrase. Sometimes he’ll be halfway through a tune before you recognize it.”
Around 2015, he started to play “The Liffey Banks,” Potts’ only commercial recording, during long sessions of improvisation. He read about the fiddler’s life and eccentricities: his dislike of playing with other musicians, his refusal to play for dancers.
“He was never comfortable performing in public,” the prominent Irish fiddler Paddy Glackin, who collaborated with John Cage on the score for “Roaratorio,” said in a phone call from Dublin. “He needed a sense of warmth around him.” By playing alone, in the cocoon of someone’s home, Potts could follow his own musical byways without having to make compromises. He was an outsider and an insider all at once.
Having found an affinity with Potts’ unconventional playing style, Dunne decided to make a work in which he could engage the music on his own terms, through dancing but also through a kind of conversation across time and space. A professor at the University of Limerick, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, gave him access to a large archive of informal recordings and interviews, which Dunne and his sound designer Mel Mercier wove into a score containing not only passages of Potts’ playing but also his voice.
With humor and a touch of good-natured acerbity, the two converse and even argue over the finer points of their craft. “There’s something to what people say about folk music,” Potts said in a recording. “It’s monotonous.”
“I quite like a bit of repetition,” Dunne retorted, with a dry chortle.
Mainly, though, the conversation occurs through movement. Dunne plays excerpts from Potts’ recordings and dances to them, sometimes barefoot, sometimes in sneakers and finally in traditional Irish reinforced shoes, which produce a more distinct tapping sound. He lays down different surfaces to further alter the sound, which ranges from almost silent, to whisper-like, to sharp and dry. He has lost none of his speed or accent, though the dancing is less hard-charging now.
His quick, complex footwork highlights the endless ways in which a dancer of his brilliance can subdivide a beat. “He’s probably the most rhythmic Irish dancer there has ever been,” said Jean Butler, his former “Riverdance” co-star, who has also engaged in experimentation within the genre.
In his approach to Potts’ music, Dunne decided to allow himself a certain freedom — to improvise within a structure. Improvisation is unusual in Irish dancing, where the choreography is more typically set and rehearsed in advance. “You basically learn the technique by learning and perfecting the steps,” he explained. But he found that by leaving things open he was able to keep the connection to the music alive every time he goes onstage.
Nor does he maintain the rigid upright stance that has become the norm in Irish dance. His back and hips are loose, and his arms move freely. His left hand, in particular, seems to comment on the music, like a cymbal in a drum set. It is as if every inch of his body was absorbed in the music; there’s no space left for flash. “I think it’s the deepest kind of listening I’ve done,” he said, “and it’s not even just listening with the ears, but with the skin and bones and muscles.”
Some see this looseness as a way of reconnecting Irish dance to its past. “Colin holds his body in a way that harkens back to an earlier generation,” said Linda Murray, the curator of the dance division at the New York Public Library, whose own grandfather was a fiddler and Irish dancer in Dublin. “He has a beautiful way of hitting the floor with great precision, but without slamming the floor, which is very rare. Like my grandfather used to say, ‘He has a beautiful touch.’”
Naturally, not everyone in the Irish dance world has warmed to this rather quiet, cerebral approach, as he is the first to acknowledge. “To be honest, very few people from the world of traditional dance would come to see this work,” he said, “I don’t really feel like part of that community, I guess.” Like Tommy Potts, he has taken his own path, choosing the freedom to explore over playing to expectations.
It is perhaps ironic that Potts, who found playing for dancers distasteful, should be the subject of an evening of dance. But then, he might have made an exception, just this once, for this particular dancer.
This article originally appeared in