Kieran Jordan has written and directed a lovely story.
Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely
Two things to write about this week, the first is especially for the dancers! “The Dan Furey Dance Group and a Circle of Squares” is a documentary about a group that honors the legendary West Clare dancer and teacher Dan Furey, and looks at how the steps he taught are now disseminated throughout the world. Written and narrated by the great old-style step dancer Kieran Jordan, it is a touching, heartfelt piece that is as much about friendship and community as it is about the world of traditional dance.
Furey was born in 1909, lived in Labasheeda, Co. Clare, and throughout his life he built a reputation as a teacher of set, céilí, and step dancing. His teachings touched hundreds locally, but Furey’s international renown spread largely via the Willie Clancy Summer School. There, in the late 1980s, he struck up a friendship with a pair of treasured dancers, Céline and Michael Tubridy, who recognized Furey’s goodness and forged a strong bond with him. With James Keane, another dancer, his classes proved to be an important place for lovers of traditional dance from all over the world.
After his passing in 1993, his students from his Willie Week class persevered and became known as the “Dan Furey Group.” Over time, new people joined and not only learned Furey’s steps but kept his memory alive through them. Now, as we learn from his students and friends who are part of the community and appear in the film, Furey’s steps have not only reached different parts of Ireland, but are actively danced throughout the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan, and beyond.
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This project is very much a product of the COVID-19 experience. Although there is ample footage of Furey, Tubridy, and others in more traditional contexts, the Furey community is represented though Zoom’s now-familiar grid format, which does an excellent job of capturing the sense of togetherness they maintain as their story is told. In this sense, I’m reminded of the online singing sessions I wrote about last summer that were organized by Macdara Yeates through the Séamus Ennis Arts Centre. They used Zoom similarly and effectively, to keep a group of geographically disparate singers connected and evoke a sense of community, when more traditional approaches were unsafe.
“The Dan Furey Dance Group and a Circle of Squares” is a lovely story. The dissemination of these steps from West Clare to the world is fascinating, and one that says so much about the power of traditional Irish culture. This film, which is just over 33 minutes in length, is a must-watch for dancers, but is also something that musicians will also enjoy. The film premiered at the Leitrim Dance Festival two weeks ago, but it is now available to watch for free via YouTube – I heartily recommend it! To watch, visit tinyurl.com/DanFurey.
In other news, I received a press release late last week (more of a missive, really) from a character named Weldon D. Kane. In it, he announced a video project premiering on YouTube, Sunday, the 18th. Often, a press release is a pedestrian, largely uninteresting document not worthy of mention – not this one, though. To begin, “Weldon Kane” is something of a shadowy character. A background check on the internet made no mention of him, except in relation to this project and the story that unfolded in the release (which was a scan of a typed, folded piece of paper) was highly unusual, to say the least.
“In the mid-20th century a secret society of distinguished traditional Irish musicians and singers began experimenting with time travel,” it began.
“Members journeyed through centuries; some, to the past, to study with the great bards of early Gaelic Ireland; others, to the dark expanses of the future, to witness the music of an Ireland not yet known. Soon after, these musicians began bringing their learnings back to the then present, creating, innovating, and changing the face of Irish music forever. The society was called Cumann Na Fir Bholg.”
The Fir Bholg, or “men of the belly,” were a mythological group who divided Ireland into provinces before the Tuatha Dé Danann. Interesting on its own, but what could they have to do with anything?
“I write to you now in a position of grave danger,” the release continued. “I know not what fate the divulgement of these secrets will bring upon me. But the truth must be revealed.” The whole thing closed with a warning: “Be safe, comrades. They are always watching.”
Suffice to say I was intrigued. What could this be all about? As I learned more, I discovered the broadcast’s title was to be “Joe Heaney Was A Time Traveller.” Yes, the very same Joe Heaney who was the subject of the great 2017 film “Song of Granite.”
So I tuned in, not sure what to expect. After a disclaimer about Kane’s strong claims, it began. Immediately, I was struck by a sense of passage. Archival footage mixed with sean nós song, except nothing was normal. The film moved along episodically, as if through time. The music conveyed a sense of a future past, the sounds manipulated, fragmented, and processed in a way against nature but consistent with the visual cues, which were similarly mysterious. Figures were doubled and presented in diptych and triptych arrangement, with panels occasionally mirrored and often looped, as if the world were expressed as a meme in gif-like form.
The film ends as mysteriously as it began. We learn that the Cumann na Fir Bholg members who appear here included Seán ‘ac Dhonnchadha, Elizabeth Crotty, Elizabeth Cronin, Richard O’Mealy, Joe Heaney, Padraig O’Keeffe, and Padraig Ó Tuama. (Is this the limit of the organization’s membership?) We also learn that Kane’s whereabouts are unknown, save for the fact that he had passed through homeless shelters in Dublin. (The film closes asking for donations to Dublin’s Inner City Helping Homeless organization, ichh.ie/donate.)
Ultimately, the film raised important, pressing questions: who is Weldon Kane? Was he from the past, crossed up as he visited tomorrow? Or is he from the future, here now for a visit? And why is he here today, and not yesterday or tomorrow? Will we ever hear more from Mr. Kane? It’s hard to know, but the film is worth checking out. Don’t look for a hard adherence to traditional sound and don’t expect to understand what you’re seeing right away. Do watch it, though and best to experience it as it comes you with an open mind. Remember: they are always watching. (In this case, for about 34 minutes.) To learn more,“Heaney” is available on YouTube through April 25, visit tinyurl.com/weldonkane.