There are people who run away to the circus and there are people who, like Michael Roberson, accidentally discover that they have ended up in a movie theater.
I went from waking up in a city to waking up in the middle of a field surrounded by cows and walking out of your common caravan,” he said, referring to seven months when he toured as the a performer with Gifford’s Circus in the UK.
“There have been a few times when I asked myself: ‘Wait, what am I doing here?’ And you realize you’re doing something other people might not be doing [want to do]but you will be fine. “
In Roberson’s new life as an artist and aerial dancer, no two days are the same. This week, he finds himself at the Dublin Fringe as a featured performer in WAKEIrish theater mavericks Thisispopbaby’s latest high-octane production.
In a splendid stage that is truly a celebration and examination of the traditional Irish wake, Roberson’s solo number is a revelation, seeing him take the stage in full GAA attire. enough and stripped to reveal a mesh jacket and yellow trousers before performing a mix of aerobatics, modern dance and Irish classical dance.
One store described his actions as “literal.” [stripping] get rid of the idea of what masculinity is or should be”. “There’s so much going into action that I mostly think, ‘hit the beat, don’t fall out of the air,’ stuff like that,” laughs Roberson.
“But then I had an audience respond to the GAA removal and realized that this was not a striptease at all. You are removing preconceived notions. And you find yourself, even if you’re not fully attached to that cultural norm, you can still feel the weight of it.”
The story of how a 29-year-old from Little Rock, Arkansas, found himself traveling with a UK circus is a rather unorthodox one, and it begins, of all places, with dance. of the Irish. Growing up in Bill Clinton’s country, the Roberson family was only “a little bit” Irish, and a few generations back there.
“My mother was a Catholic school teacher, but growing up I didn’t think, you know, that Irish culture would become my culture,” says Roberson. “We don’t go to St Patrick’s Day parades too often and no one has ever done the Irish dance. But when I was 10 years old, my mother said, ‘You’re going to be an Irish dancer’. She told me to try it for a month”.
This probably happened about 20 years ago when Riverdance was at the height of its cultural power, especially in America. Was that a factor in her proposal?
“Interesting, I didn’t see Riverdance Roberson said until I had been dancing Irish for several years. “My mother grew up with pigeon feet and had to wear modified shoes as a child. One of the jokes we had was that she signed me up for the Irish dance because it would teach me to turn my feet out without having to pay for expensive corrective shoes.
“I wasn’t a very good student at the time and I didn’t like reading, but I could remember the dance steps and could recognize Irish tunes. It gives me a sense of authenticity that ultimately is tied to success in school or success in other sports, and that is truly priceless.”
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Roberson loves Irish dance and has competed for almost 14 years, but his rebellious personality gets in his way. He is often more interested in creating new routines and moving more freely than competitive standards encourage.
He manages to get kicked out of some feiseanna for adding steps that don’t fit the style or performing palm dances in triple-roll competitions.
“After a while, my teacher asked if I wanted to be a teaching assistant and she would let me choreograph for the kids, and that was a great outlet for me,” he said.
Of the Irish dance competition scene in the US, he added: “It was fierce, very competitive. It still has strong roots in Irish culture and is certainly still considered a very cultural dance.
“In 2010, the dresses switched from the Celtic knotted dress to this Victorian design. It all became flashier and more intense. It evolved from “hey, we go out on Wednesdays and take Irish dance lessons” to “you have your own coach and you’re in class every day”.
“What a lot of people love about Irish dance is the cultural identity, but with this new competitive mindset, it is slowly becoming less accessible to too many people.”
In 2012, Roberson was considering leaving Irish dance, but a 10-day event in Ireland – Take The Floor, held at DCU – helped refocus him. Events, created with Riverdance. Riverdance members Shane McAvinchey and Paula Goulding.
It could be said that Roberson began to fully realize the opportunities that Irish dance could offer.
“It just ignited a whole new interest in me,” he said. “It was around that time that I met people who were choosing the arts – they didn’t dance because their parents gave them dance lessons. They were so much fun to be around and my world just expanded from there. “
By 2019, Roberson was getting the wind of a new product, WAKE, Thisispopbaby got together. Realizing they needed an Irish dancer, he went to a casting in New York. While auditioning, he met aerialists, including Aisling Ní Cheallaigh, and fell in love with the skill.
Around this time, Roberson was living in New York choreographing an Irish Christmas show off-Broadway with the Brooklyn Irish Dance Company. Moving home from New York to Arkansas during his stay in Covid, he trained in a local aerial studio.
In 2021, he applied for an Irish dance job that he thought was in Ireland, but turned out to be for Gifford’s Circus in the UK. It was an unexpected career turning point, but a coincidence, as he enjoyed months of training in circus skills – something that would give him a good chance when he returns to the Thisispopbaby group for WAKE.
His appreciation for Irish culture was further enhanced when Thisispopbaby organized actor workshops to explain the importance of the Irish rise.
“The guest lecturers came and talked about the parallels between the Irish wake and dance club culture and other forms of shared grief,” says Roberson. “It was great to learn about it all. It’s that sense of community to which we all belong. “
In the future, a show of his own is in the works and he will continue his work as a freelance Irish choreographer.
“With Thisispopbaby, this is as unique and wild and new as the performance has given me,” he said. “If they say, ‘hey, we’re on the road,’ I’ll drop anything and everything and rejoin this group. Besides, I have a simple goal of just trying new types of shows and seeing more of the world. “
Thisispopbaby’s WAKE runs at the National Stadium as part of the Dublin Fringe until September 17. See fringefest.com/festival/whats-on/wake.
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/theatre-arts/i-went-from-waking-up-in-a-city-to-waking-up-in-a-field-the-irish-dancer-who-accidentally-ran-away-with-the-circus-41993020.html ‘I went from waking up in the city to waking up in the fields’ – Irish dancer accidentally ran away with the circus