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This former Riverdance star is making a comeback - on his own terms

Brendan de Gallai’s new show, Linger, explores the topics of sexuality and ageing.

IT’S A SIMPLE thing like having breakfast at home that makes Breandán de Gallai feel happy and content these days.

After around a decade on tour as a lead dancer with Riverdance, travelling around the world and living out of a suitcase, he’s settled. He’s also at a point in his life where he can tackle dance on his own terms, and explore some difficult and under-explored topics with his own work.

His new Irish step work show Linger opens this coming week, and tackles sexuality and ageing.

The Gweedore-born dancer first auditioned for Riverdance’s Eurovision interval show in 1994, which led on to 10 years of dancing with the company, and then working as a dance director for it. He’s also working with Ériu Dance Company as its artistic director.

With Linger, he’s miles away from the Celtic love stories explored in Riverdance. He’s aiming to using Irish dance “to engage with issues rarely explored in traditional dance” – in this instance, sexuality, masculinity and ageing.

Life with Riverdance

Riverdance was a formative time for de Gallai. ”It was a real discipline because it was tough on the body,” he recalled.

“Back in those days as lead dancer I would do seven shows a week, whereas now they have rotating leads. It was very taxing but it taught me a discipline of caring for yourself and by valuing every night because it’s a whole different audience.”

Waltz

He’s now happily settled in Dublin, but found coming off the road a difficult transition period.

“Being on the road is a very, very lonely thing and though you are surrounded by people who are in the production it comes to the point where you have to make space where you don’t see them,” he said.

It got harder as he got older. “In your 20s it’s great, you can go out a lot, you’re seeing these places for your first time, you’ve got the energy. In your 30s it becomes a much harder thing. I really enjoyed it but there were times it was very, very tough.”

Doing his own thing

He finished the show because of this, but also because he “was very eager to do my own thing and I always felt like I was running out of time”.

When I was 27 I thought I was too old; when I was 33 I thought I was too old. Here I am making my comeback at 46. If I only knew then what I know now.

“It was a great experience and I saw the world,” he said, recounting trips to Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Rim, and Japan.

“I got to see places I probably never would have gone to and had great experiences with the people that you meet and who you perform in front of – everyone from the Queen to Madonna.”

It’s great to look back on it, but it was also great to move on. “Most people have some sort of meltdown” when they finish as huge a project as Riverdance, said de Gallai. “They drift for while.”

Crumbling Grandeur Lift

He went to college, drifted for a bit, enjoyed himself and took it easy. But in the last few years, things have settled. “I always felt that I was going to go somewhere else, that I wasn’t in Dublin for good. You had that nomadic thing in your head because that was all you do for a decade. Now I hate leaving Dublin, but I have to travel for work.”

Linger

The process for Linger –  funded thanks to a Dance Ireland legacy commission - started some years ago. As an Irish dance artist, there is the sense of ‘falling between two stools’.

“To me dance has various purposes and people engage with it on different levels and all of them are valid. But as a dance artist I felt myself wanting to be in a different space doing work that was a bit more investigative,” explained de Gallai.

I want to do these pieces that don’t fit the Riverdance model.

Linger6

Sexuality and restrictions

This is de Gallai’s third major project. He even did a PhD investigating the things he explores in Linger, like sexuality.

“It comes out of Irish dancing and that expection that Irish dancing men are very manly, they don’t wear tights or whatever.” These restrictions led to a struggle for the young de Gallai.

“Not only was there a struggle with your peers but you also had a struggle with people who should know better saying it is rhythmic and forceful and manly. There was a lot of conflict there and tension.”

He recalls being a young dancer and people seeing him dancing in soft shoe asking “why are you doing the girl steps?”

“As I grew up the dance teacher would say ‘boys don’t do that particular move’.”

Almost all of Linger is danced in soft shoe.

As he got older, de Gallai got frustrated with the gendered roles in dance.

“If you look at, say, the big storyline that you see in Lord of the Dance, there’s always a sense that there’s a good guy, bad guy, good girl, bad girl.”

It was “terribly frustrating” to see a gendered attitude among those high up in the dance world.

Those gender roles – the girls have to be fey and pretty and I think of it as absolutely negligent. Those women are objectified and they enjoy the objectification and that’s the message that is set out from that part show, which I found absolutely appalling.

Liberation dance

In this new world where he is out on his own, there is “absolute freedom” for de Gallai.

“I couldn’t give a fuck if people in the Irish dancing world find it inappropriate,” he said, adding that the dancing world evolves every year as it is.

For now, he feels liberated, particularly working with the Project Arts Theatre.

“You still have the voices in your head but they’re not coming from the Irish dance world.”

Blue with Alter Behind

“He reminded me of that struggle” 

De Gallai said that Irish dancing favours the youthful body, and the other dancer in the production – Nick O’Connell – is younger than he is.

“He reminded me of me and that struggle, and that was the impulse to me to get started on Linger. I think he dances the way I used to dance.

“He has what seemed to me a very similar narrative. He arrived at a certain point that I arrived at at the age of 27. I thought, God I would have hoped things would have changed a little bit.”

With two dancers of different ages, Linger compares their ability. De Gallai wanted his movements to be the same as the other dancer, only more measured and considered, as he is older and doesn’t have the same zeal. 

The audience gets to “see how that guy who’s 16 years older moves so differently because of age and how that itself can be beautiful”.

Though when he is dancing his best he feels 25, he can see how he and O’Connell differ. Their build is different, for example. He doesn’t see the two dancers as different, but the same person at different points of their life.

Though he does say that a show like Linger ‘isn’t going to be like Goldilocks’ when it comes to the simplicity of the narrative, De Gallai assures it’s also not for those who like to be snobbish about dance. 

“I hate the fact when you’re in the contemporary arts world you’re never allowed to have a good night. It all has to be very cerebral,” he said.

For above all, this is a show about doing things your own way. That’s what de Gallai wants to do, and he wants to bring his audience – no matter what their background in dance – with him.

And after a decade on the road, even his attitude to his morning meal has the same spirit. ”When you’ve had breakfast in a hotel for 10 years in a row, believe me there is nothing as special as breakfast on your own terms,” said de Gallai.

Linger opens for previews on 20 January at Project Arts Centre Dublin, running until 23 January, It goes on to Firkin Crane in Cork on 29 January and Dance Limerick on 4 February.

Read: Fury, apologies, and calls for respect as feminists shake the Irish theatre world>

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