​Riverdance’s Suzanne Cleary & Peter Harding on Creating New Dance Traditions

Into the Water is a fantastical folk-dance adventure set in a magical wasteland. Broadway Baby Children’s Correspondent Tom Moyser met dancers Suzanne Cleary and Peter Harding to discuss breaking and making Irish dancing traditions, Nordic folklore and bear-head masks.

We want the children watching to leave the theatre with the idea that they could literally just make up their own folk dance together

Seven years ago, Suzanne Cleary and Peter Harding left the world’s biggest Irish dancing production, Riverdance, “to do something different with Irish dancing”, as Peter tells me when I meet the pair to discuss their groundbreaking children’s dance show, Into the Water.

Since then, they have done “electro music” and cabaret performance, and now want to take their passion to a whole new audience, children. Did it feel scary? “Yes,” says Peter emphatically. “We were petrified,” admits Suzanne. “At the beginning, it was like, can we do this? It took longer than it would to do other pieces of choreography, to break it down, change it again and again.”

But this tension was relieved when children saw the piece for the first time: the sons of a producer from Coreo-Cymru, a company who funded the piece’s development, came to see it. They were “real boy-boys”, Peter remembers. “At the end, when we finished it, the kids were on the stage, with the instruments, tapping on the table… They just want to dance and play. We thought, job done.”

The development of Into the Water was a long and involved process. Peter describes their initial research into “the folk origins across Northern Europe, what connects us all together. We found things like apocalyptic storytelling. There’s always the apocalypse and a rebirth, the circular nature of life where it always goes round in a circle. And the idea of this maypole, this Tree of Life was prevalent in all folk traditions. So we sort of threw that all in a bag and made our own story out of it.” “We made our own folk,” Suzanne agrees.

The result of this idea is an energetic, eclectic and extremely fun routine about two protagonists who play games and dance together, building patterns and traditions as they go. “We wanted to push ourselves this time,” explains Peter. “Irish dancers are notorious for not having any facial expressions, hands by your sides, very very sour. We wanted to make people feel something. Rather than just looking at this dance and thinking ‘that’s spectacular’, actually taking them on this journey with you, with these characters you actually care about.”

“We’ve been so concerned for years that with Irish dancing, it has to be technically perfect. It took a long time to knock that out of ourselves. Suzanne’s mum’s in today and she taught Irish dance.” Suzanne is anticipating a tough critic: “she will see every detail, so that must be strange for her to watch, us doing different things or when we’re not [dancing in time] together.”

Peter explains: “It’s based on the story of Ragnarok, which is Nordic folklore. There’s two people, Lif and Lifthrasir, they start folk music. They’re the two survivors. They start everything again. There’s this idea in Nordic folklore that the tree feeds the well, the well feeds the tree. There is no future, there’s just a past and a present. It goes round in a circle and you just learn every time you do it.”

As our conversation winds to an end, there’s still one thing I cannot quite place. What about the bear heads, I ask, how do they fit in? I am referring to the full-head bear masks with which the pair enter and leave the stage. Peter explains, “they hide under the Tree of Life and it says [in the original poem] they lie underneath ‘bare’. They’re naked.” Peter and Suzanne laugh. “We can’t be naked in a children’s show!” Suzanne clarifies.

She leaves it to Peter to sum up: “hand-tapping, foot-stomping adventure with friendship and love. We want the children watching to leave the theatre with the idea that they could literally just make up their own folk dance together. And if you do it enough times it becomes a tradition.”

Into the Water runs at theSpace @ Surgeons Hall this Fringe. Follow the company on Twitter @_upandoverit and find their full Edinburgh listing: http://www.broadwaybaby.com/shows/into-the-water/713005http://www.upandoverit.com/

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