Ten years ago she performed to a television audience of 300 million as costar of the first "Riverdance" in Dublin's cavernous Point Theatre. This fall, Jean Butler will return to Dublin, dancing alone at the 350-seat Project Arts Centre. Her story isn't a heart-wrenching fall from grace, or even a vain return to her roots, like a film star drawn again to the stage.
Her performance is simply another step on an exploratory journey she and other traditional Irish dancers have begun through other dance forms. In applying the principles of these dances to their Irish dance steps, they are not only finding a way to express themselves, but also creating a new dance vocabulary.
"I'm deconstructing my physical self and putting it back together again," she says. This immersion into the world of contemporary dance has been not only a physical challenge but a cultural shift from the Irish dance world in which dancers simply copy steps that are shown to them.
"It's such a heady thing and so different from all that stuff I used to do, where I would live on adrenalin and get lost for hours," Ms. Butler says.
Both she and Colin Dunne, another "Riverdance" star, have undertaken Master's degrees in contemporary dance performance at the University of Limerick, where they were artists-in-residence. Whereas Butler's focus has gone into solo self-investigation, Mr. Dunne co-choreographed and performed "Reverse Psychology" and "The Yellow Room" with New York choreographer Yoshiko Chuma for Daghdha Dance Company. Last year, he received a grant from the Irish Arts Council to work with four dancers to develop the ideas born during his studies.
He is particularly influenced by something called the Release Technique, a soft and fluid style of contemporary dance. "Before, my style was very muscular ... and lifting out of the floor. Now it's more released into the floor," he says. "It's like thinking of the body hanging down as opposed to being held up. They are very subtle differences to look at, but huge shifts to find physically."
Both Dunne and Butler are adamant that the results of their explorations aren't fusion. "Fusion is like an excuse, an apology for one or other of the art-forms that you are joining up," says Butler. "[It] suggests insufficiency. I'm looking for something that's quite pure and unique."
Their current work is a far cry from the energetic stepping of "Riverdance," which electrified audiences around the world and eventually became something of a dance cliché due to overexposure. Still, "it did give Irish dance the confidence to get onto the theatrical stage," says ethnochoreologist Catherine Foley, "and made Irish dance transnational so that it's now as identifiable as, for example, flamenco. This, in turn, drew attention to Irish dance and Ireland, but when people came, they didn't see Riverdance danced in pubs. They found set-dancing and, in some parts of the west, sean-nós dancing."
Sean-nós (Gaelic for old way) is a highly individual and expressive style of Irish dance. Hunched-over bodies and weightless arms contrast with the more typical image of upright bodies with arms pinned to the side familiar to people from "Riverdance."
Discovering these other styles of Irish dance whetted the appetite of many dancers, who then sought out even more obscure regional styles. In a way, "Riverdance" had an effect on Irish dance similar to Paul Simon's "Graceland" on South African music. Neither was an unadulterated reflection of the culture, but acted as a bridge between the pure form and what was required of it to survive commercially.
"Riverdance," and the rediscoveries and adaptations that followed it, have fueled intense debate around tradition versus innovation. Risteárd Mac Aodha has spent the past 20 years working in the cultural folk arts of the Connemara Gaeltacht (an area where Gaelic is the first language). For the past two years, he has organized what he calls "conventions" around certain dances. In reality, these are gatherings in a pub where a historian first outlines the history of the dance and then encourages people to dance individual versions and debate the merits of each.
"Some dances have changed a lot in the past 50 years," says Mr. Mac Aodha, "mainly because of the pressures of competitive dancing. There are those who feel that these innovations are not traditional and that contemporary techniques and style changes are not even 'Irish' in substance."
Those who want to see Irish dance evolve are stepping into dangerous territory. The Irish dance community can be fiercely traditionalist, particularly in the highly regulated competitions. Almost all Irish dancers have grown up with the strict rules of An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha (Irish Dancing Commission), which organizes competitions throughout the world. Dances must be performed at strict metronome speeds and there are rules about everything from "artificial carriage aids" to fake tans.
"But a tradition should not become petrified, otherwise it dies," says Willie White, artistic director of Project Arts Centre. "The challenge is how do you retain what is distinctive about a tradition and at the same time incorporate more cosmopolitan influences."
A feeling exists that this is a significant moment for Irish dance. Both Dunne and Butler know it is time to leave the studio and begin performing. "I'm becoming a little impatient with myself," says Dunne. "I now need to stop pontificating to myself about what this work is or might be, and just pluck up the courage to put something out there."