The Liffey Banks is a 1972 album from virtuoso traditional Irish fiddle player Tommie Potts. This album is the only commercial recording of his work to have been produced before he died in 1988. Within traditional Irish music circles Tommie Potts is an iconic musician, famed for his individual take on the Irish music tradition, which broke apart the form into irregular rhythms, deconstructed jumps and starts. An LP copy of The Liffey Banks sits on stage. My programme note tells me that this album is practically impossible to dance to. A man walks out on stage – he’s going to give it a try.
I know nothing about The Liffey Banks, I know nothing about Tommie Potts and I know even less about traditional Irish music tradition. The opening to Colin Dunne’s CONCERT seems to anticipate my lack of knowledge, putting me at ease quite effortlessly. Dunne walks out on stage with a remarkable assuredness, understated and welcoming, no need for fan-fare. He then proceeds to jog lightly on the spot before talking me through the basic footwork to Irish-step-dance. Standing alone on the vast stage at Tramway 1, Dunne is seemingly casual and content, performing and teaching this footwork with a gently evident passion for it. He steps back, into starting the work, leaving the door open in case I want to follow. Sitting in the audience, my feet are itching to give it a go.
CONCERT is an alluring piece of work that is at its heart is pleasingly simple. Dunne dances to the album, interpreting each track differently, in an evolving duet both with this LP and the figure of Tommie Potts. He dances on different surfaces, recording his own rhythms through the placement of different microphones – some hang over a piece of flooring, others are taped to his shoes. Dunne’s approach to step-dance – and his presentation of that to an audience – is as idiosyncratic as Potts’ music. At the outset he describes to us how the step-dance is as much about the steps you don’t take, the pauses, silent beats – what happens out of time is as important as what happens in it. His movements, punctuated with irregularity, gesture to absent rhythms. Difficult to describe with accuracy, he dances in a way that seems to produce something, like a sentence without a
These spaces – and indeed the repetitiveness of the steps – allow you to watch the work quite lazily. I hope this is intentional as it affords a lot of pleasure to notice the rest of what’s happening in the room, how this body relates to the space. Colin Grenfell’s lighting design is well-constructed, drawing the eye to specific places and flattening out to take in the bigger picture. I barely notice the change but feel myself relating to the work differently as the lighting shifts. One moment stands out – and again I hope it was intentional – Dunne’s shadow catching on the stage-left brick pillar of Tramway 1. His shadow, dancing, bleeds around the corner of the wall, fading into the bright light – almost spiritual in its presence. My eagle-eyed pal for the night assures me that what was happening on the stage-right brick pillar was even better, as Dunne’s shadow chased itself between apparition and disappearance. I didn’t notice it, but they did – and as the lights came up it was the first thing we spoke of.
Watching on, with more focus, at the paraphernalia of microphones, a tape recorder, a set of speakers, a record player and – at the work’s close – a projector, you feel a sense of seeing time elongated, produced through the co-presence of technologies that replaced each other. It is clear to see that it is in this elongation that CONCERT sits as a meeting point: between past and present, Potts and Dunne, tradition and interpretation. Tracks are punctuated by artificial conversations, Dunne stitching together recorded interviews with Potts into present-day dialogues with himself. It is at these moments that the work is most ridiculous and most pleasurable – there’s something very human about trying to do something that’s impossible, and bending the materials in anyway you can to justify it. As with his steps, it is between the dancing, between the tracks where something happens.
Cumulatively, CONCERT never builds to anything more than the sum of its parts, at least not for me. Dunne’s relationship to Potts always feels deeply personal but not necessarily shareable – at the end of the work there seems to be something unsaid, something left behind, that can’t quite be articulated. There is a build-up to a moment – a projection of Potts (who to this point had been visually absent) – which is accompanied by a cacophony of noise, layers upon layers of sound. Trying to catch everything together, to bring past into present, it falls short – it even feels a little underwhelming. I’m not sure if such a grandiose ending would even be possible; what that would have to look like to achieve everything the show was aiming for. They did try though, and, leaving with new knowledge, new curiosities and that image of a dancing shadow fading over brickwork, I’d say it was well worth the effort.
CONCERT was on at the Tramway, Glasgow from 12-13 October. It transfers to the Barbican from 17-20 Oct. More info here.