Sunday, October 26, 2014

1943 - A Dance Odyssey: The Journey

I recall Mary Jones of Arkhive Productions leaning (elegantly), against the Abbey Theatre Bar, flicking through my book "Irish Moves, an illustrated history of dance and physical theatre in Ireland" at its April 2006 launch by Fintan O'Toole (part of the 3rd International Dance Festival Ireland, as Dublin Dance Festival was then known). Alighting on Chapter 3, about the forgotten chapter of Modern Dance in 1940s Ireland, and the enigmatic Irish-German Modern Dance Pioneer Erina Brady, Mary said "I think there might be a film of Erina Brady's school by Liam O Laoghaire in the Irish Film Archive". Mary, who, as the name of her documentary company might suggest, has an intimate knowledge of the contents of the Irish Film Archive, advised me to go in and check it. So once the book launch festivities were over, like Inspector Clousseau, or Hercule Poirot, that is exactly what I did.

Lo and behold, I was handed a seven minute black and white tape called "Dance School", featuring none other than Erina Brady teaching angelic little 1940s tiny tots modern dance in her "Irish School of Dance Art" studio, which, as I knew from Jacqueline Robinson's 1999 Memoir "Modern Dance in 1940s Ireland" (published in Irish Moves), was at 39 Harcourt Street. Wow! This was an unbelievable record of, and testament to, Erina Brady's dancing class, populated with small girls, from about 3 or 4 years of age, a few young women, and just one (super cute) little boy. Who were they? How could I find out? Where might they be now? How did this film - Ireland's first modern dance film - come about? So many questions, so little answers! The names of the participants were listed nowhere - apart from Liam O Laoghaire, credited from the start as director, and Erina Brady, "student of Mary Wigman".

Finding the answer to these questions took many years. I began by attending a lecture by O Laoghaire's (recently deceased), archivist Bob Monks at the National Library of Ireland on some other topic. After Monk's lunchtime talk, I approached the helpful archivist, who knew the film, and told me part of it had been shot on Kodachrome colour. Indeed, "colour" had been noted on the official documentation about the film. So I returned to the Irish Film Archive, related what Bob Monks had said, and pointed to the "colour" indication on the page. Next thing, an eleven minute film was handed to me, the last four minutes of which, as promised, were shot in gorgeous
kodachrome colour, of Erina Brady and her pupils performing to an audience outdoors in a garden which we guessed might be the Iveagh Gardens (logical - given the proximity to Harcourt street).

Fast forward a few years, after my foray in a job I was offered at Cirque du Soleil's Montreal HQ as Artistic Talent Scout (Depisteur Artistique). In Montreal, where Cirque du Soleil had relocated me, the mystery of this gorgeous little film by Liam O Laoghaire haunted me, as did the lost and by now only partly-told story of Erina Brady.
Sensing there was a big story behind it, I couldn't resist returning to resume my research a few years later, by writing letters to the Irish Times and the Anglo-Celt newspapers, and writing articles - all little hooks I cast out into the universe fishing for information. No answers were forthcoming, except from Bob Monks again who explained to me over the phone that the film was made in barter with O Laoghaire in return for movement classes Erina Brady gave to his Irish language theatre group down the road at the Daimer Hall.

When Ireland's first modern dancer, June Fryer/ Kuhn passed away in 2011, with the help and support of the Alliance Francaise and the French Embassy, I put on an exhibition in her memory during Dublin Dance Festival, 2012, at European Union House on Molesworth Street. As part of this tribute to her, the Irish Film Archive allowed us to project Liam O Laoghaire's film "Dance School" on several screens, some of which pointed out onto Molesworth street, along with a slide-show of archive photographs from a French Dance Archive and
family collections. This was the Eureka moment when my ongoing letters to newspapers, (through which Romy Hogan got in touch with me), and this exhibition gelled. Romy came along to the European Union House exhibition opening, and was transfixed by the film. Why wouldn't she be, as herself, her two sisters, and her former friends were all in it! June's sister, Ann Fryer/Walsh, also came in and spotted herself in the film too, both in the black and white studio shots as well as dancing her self-composed choreography to the Blue Danube, out
in the open air, her fiery red mane of hair exquisite still more than 70 years on, in Kodachrome colour.

So I set about filming the former tiny tots watching their former selves in O Laoghaire's 1940s film, and going back to revisit the site of the former studio, which we would discover has transformed from artist haven to Accord Catholic Marriage Counseling Bureau. This meant launching a fundit campaign, and a fundit pitching video. This would not only raise the necessary funds to make the film, but [the video] would also reach and identify another of the key former tiny tots in the film who now resides in Leeds, Ann Danaher, via none other than her Berlin resident daughter's facebook account! Talk about contemporary research methods and leaving no stone unturned.

The film was broadcast by RTE One television in April 2013, to an audience of 150,000 - all part of the ongoing research. (Crucially, RTE also kindly came on board to cover the Archive fees, the Composer fee (Rossa O Snodaigh of Kila!), and other bits and bobs beyond our reach on the Fundit budget alone).  The final part of the jigsaw was the identity of the film's beautiful mystery boy. His (as yet unconfirmed) identity came to us via Bewley's Cafe Theatre, where one of the tiny tots went to see a Mary Lavery short story adaptation and met another Erina Brady pupil - from Clondalkin. Yes, she had seen the film. The conversation got around to the identity of the boy, and the location of the outdoor dancing. Well, said the lady from Clondalkin, that of course was Collinstown House, John Betjeman's residence while he was working at the British Embassy as press attache during the Emergency, and the boy was none other than his son, Paulie Betjeman (yet to be 100% verified, but doesn't sound unlikely).

Come and see for yourself, and meet some of these exceptional former tiny tots in person next Tuesday, October 28th, at 6.30pm at TCD Samuel Beckett Theatre. There will be a post show discussion kindly moderated by Ruth Barton of TCD Film Studies (author of a recent book on Liam O Laoghaire's favourite, Rex Ingram, and previous books on Jim Sheridan and others).

An advertisement for the enlightened and holistic philosophies of modern dance, these former tiny tots range from a painter; a stain glass artist and print-maker (and founder of Leinster Print Studio in Clane, County Kildare); the recipient of a CBE in Peace & Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and former Chair of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre; and a former Business Woman and Teacher at The Fitness League. We'll be toasting them and their achievements with a glass of wine after the screening and discussion.

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