By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR
A spur-of-the-moment creative impulse by two Greater Boston residents during a Thanksgiving sojourn has now, nearly four years later, culminated in a unique video project that offers a new perspective on traditional Irish dance.
“From the Floor” is the brainchild of Jackie O’Riley and Rebecca McGowan, performers and teachers who specialize in sean-nós and other older, “low-to-the-ground” styles of Irish dance, marked by improvisational stepping and footwork.
O’Riley is an original member of the touring sean-nós dance show Atlantic Steps who performed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin as part of "The Sound of Ireland" production. She also runs a non-competitive Irish dance program for children and was a co-recipient of a 2017 Boston Foundation grant for choreographers. McGowan, co-founder of the contemporary step dance company Rising Step, has performed at the Kennedy Center, in WGBH’s “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” and at numerous festivals in the Boston and Washington, DC, areas. She has also taught at the Catskills Irish Arts Week, Pinewoods Camp, and CCE MAD Week, among other places.
McGowan and O’Riley describe “From the Floor” as a “visual album” of Irish music and dance: six separate but associated videos of the pair dancing in tandem or solo to music provided by accordionist Chris Stevens – a member of the Maine-based quartet The Press Gang – and local fiddler Nathan Gourley; each video “track” consists of a tune or medley of tunes, to which O’Riley and McGowan dance traditional, improvised, or original steps.
“From the Floor” defies easy categorization. While O’Riley and McGowan’s stepping is often shown in full view or in close-ups of varying degrees, these are not instructional videos, per se. Sometimes, in fact, Stevens and Gourley, or their instruments, are the focus of a shot, and neither O’Riley or McGowan is visible. At a few junctures, dancers, musicians, and production crew members are shown at ease, or chatting about the next take.
There is a clear artistic intent to “From the Floor,” one which has much to do with the venue. Instead of an artificially lit dance studio, the filming took place in in a room of a Victorian house belonging to McGowan’s grandmother, Peg Wright, with trunks, suitcases, furniture, and other knick-knacks (some of which make cameo appearances in the videos) pressed against the walls. Thanks to several large windows, the room is fairly bathed in sunlight, projecting images of the window panes on the sturdy-looking wood floor; in some scenes, you can see flecks of dust floating gently over the dancers’ feet.
So perhaps the best way to think of “From the Floor” is that it depicts the holistic event of dance – not just the act, but the anticipation of it, the effect and influence of setting, and of course, the chemistry between dancers and musicians.
“Our over-arching motivation was to bring the viewer into the ‘small parts’ of Irish dance and address how it’s presented,” says O’Riley. “A popular perception of Irish dance is that it’s high-energy pieces taking place on a big stage. But Irish dance is a smaller, more personal activity, too, and there are different moods and feelings that go into each dance – hornpipes, for instance, have a kind of solemnity to them. We also wanted to convey the language of sean-nós, which is focused on the knees and ankles, and so there are a lot of subtleties that may not be immediately apparent from a distance.”
Central to the project, she adds, was confronting the ephemeral nature of dance itself: “It’s difficult for dancers to share what they do beyond that moment on stage. How do you capture it in a way that really communicates what you do?”
This was the topic of a conversation O’Riley and McGowan had while visiting Wright in Lexington during Thanksgiving of 2015. Finally, the two decided to put thought into action, so they collected their dance shoes, found a place on the house’s slate pathway that seemed right, and used an iPhone camera and CD player to make a prototype video. It was a start.
Having hatched the concept, McGowan and O’Riley began to think in earnest about the dances they wanted to put together, while looking in their circle of friends and acquaintances for help in producing high-quality videos. Among those they turned to were Gourley, who in addition to playing fiddle assisted with the audio recording and mixing, plus dancer Matthew Olwell and musician Katie McNally to aid the overall production.
Stevens was a key recruit, notes O’Riley: “We went up to Chris’s house, and talked about tune choices and transitions, what would work, what felt right. We collaborated with Chris early enough that he weighed in on our pieces as we were creating them, and that was a big help.”
Still, the process was a lengthy one, what with all the participants also having to make time for various other projects and priorities – and O’Riley had to wonder if “From the Floor” would ever get done.
“I look back at it as three years of self-doubt,” she laughs. “For most people trying to create anything, whatever it is, staying focused and confident can be difficult. Preparing for a performance is one thing, because once it’s over, it’s done; making something that’s supposed to last entails a lot of responsibility and pressure. I’m usually pretty good at talking myself out of good ideas. But Rebecca and I supported one another, and just kept going.”
The most difficult decision, McGowan reveals, was where to do the filming. “We visited practically every concert, performance or assembly hall in the Route 128 area. And in the end, we finally went back to my grandmother’s house. It was a long road, but a good one, to get there. We often turn to what is the most obvious choice.”
One major advantage to using the house, she adds, was “that it was a home: a welcoming place for us to gather and talk and work. My grandmother is an artistic and creative person herself, so I think that helped make it all the more comfortable for us.”
Still, the space presented some challenges, such as limiting the variety of camera angles, which made one idea of McGowan and O’Riley difficult to execute. Then they had a brainstorm.
“We wanted to have just our feet and just Chris’ hands in the same frame, but we couldn’t get it right,” says McGowan. “So we piled up some cinderblocks and lay a board across them at just the right height, then we got up on the board to dance.”
The result, titled “Reels on the Board,” is arguably the most visually compelling portion of “From the Floor”: McGowan’s and O’Riley’s feet are in the foreground, shuffling continuously in rhythmic patterns, juxtaposed against Stevens’ flying fingers as he plays a set of reels on concertina. After a while, the feet and fingers seem to become characters in and of themselves, as if presenting an order vs. chaos set piece. It’s not until the video’s last minute that you see dancers and musician in full.
This openness to creativity, and willingness to incorporate different kinds of images and tones, was at the forefront of “From the Floor,” says O’Riley.
“We not only wanted to show the dancing, we wanted to give a sense as to what we were feeling and experiencing in that time and place – what it was like to be in Peg’s house, what it was like to be with our friends, enjoying the moment. We also cherished the opportunity to put together something that’s associated with all the teachers, mentors, and friends who have inspired us through the years.”
The fact that her grandmother’s house became such an integral part of the project has taken on an added significance for McGowan, since her grandmother is in the midst of selling the property.
“I let Jackie and the crew take the lead in figuring out what aspects of the house would be featured, and seeing it through their eyes was very interesting – they keyed in on things I never would have thought of,” she says. “So this is a great memento to have.”
Information about “From the Floor” is available at fromthefloordance.com, where the video can be downloaded.
By Sean Smith