When the curtain went up on Rian – Liam Ó Maonlaí’s collaborative avant garde performance with contemporary dance troupe Fabulous Beast last night at Sydney’s Theatre Royal – my reviewer’s heart sank a little.
Ó Maonlaí was singing sean-nós in front of a bare stage around which sat the remaining po-faced performers, eight dancers and four other musicians, dressed in garb from 1930’s Ireland – dark suits for the men and summer dresses for the women – in front of a large green screen. It looked grim.
Besides, sean-nós singing and contemporary dance are two pursuits that I would not necessarily seek out.
But Rian – part of the 2013 Sydney Festival programme – is a show that challenges, surprises and ultimately rewards if you are prepared to go along for the ride.
Over 90 minutes without intermission, the one-time Hothouse Flower performs many of the songs from his 2005 album of the same name, accompanied by four other excellent Irish musicians: Peter O’Toole – another former Hothouse Flower; Dubliner Maitiú Ó Casaide – from the well-known Cassidys family band; Eithne Ní Chatháin (aka Inni-K) from Kildare – an innovative singer and composer and Cormac Ó Beaglaoich – an acclaimed concertina player from West Kerry.
The tunes range from jigs and reels to polkas and rootys blues.
But Rian is not a gig. What makes this show very different is the addition of Fabulous Beast’s dancers, under the tutelage of the highly-acclaimed Irish choreographer, Michael Keegan-Dolan.
Interpretive dance and traditional Irish music are unlikely bedfellows but Rian, underpinned by the impressive enigmatic musical talent of Ó Maonlaí, proves to be both intriguing and beguiling.
More than once, the performance brought to mind scenes from Brian Friel’s Dancing At Lughnasa, where the repressed Mundy sisters give in to occasional bouts of joyful, uninhibited dancing.
Even the musicians get to throw a few shapes at one point, providing one of Rian’s unexpected moments of humour.
One senses that O Maonlaí is more comfortable in this environment than fronting a rock band. The Dubliner clearly embraces the chance to display the versatility of his musicianship, moving from piano, to harpsichord, to guitar, to harp, to bodhrán. (His ‘gong’ solo struck a rare bum note).
But even if Rian was greeted with wild applause and a standing ovation on opening night, it will not be for everyone.
Rian runs at the Theatre Royal until January 23. For more details, click here.