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Despite success, dancer feels trapped by his Irishness

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

Sean Curran wears three tiny gold rings in his left earlobe, and one small ring in the right lobe. There used to be another one, higher up on the right ear, but during a performance, as he executed a lift, the jewelry caught on his partner’s costume, resulting in a torn ear and a fairly bloody curtain call.

So much for some of the physical perils of a dancer’s life. These days, as head of his own 10-member troupe, called simply Sean Curran Company, the 37-year-old Irish American from Massachusetts has other things on his mind, including the subtleties of insurance, workman’s compensation, and the challenge not only of keeping his dancers occupied for up to 50 weeks a year, but making sure they’re happy and satisfied as they work and travel.

At the moment, Curran and his colleagues are extremely content, since they’ve just completed a successful participation in the Joyce Theaters’ ongoing "Altogether Different" festival, a five-company annual event that continues at the elegant, dance-oriented auditorium at Eighth Avenue and 19th Street through Sunday.

Not only were the Sean Curran Company’s three sold-out performances enthusiastically received by both the public and the press, but the group was awarded the honor of opening the series, which began on Jan. 5.

"It’s supposed to be for emerging choreographers," the jovial, energetic Curran said over lunch the day after the opening night, "but I can’t help wondering about the word ’emerging.’ I’ve been emerging for so long that I hope I don’t keep on doing it until I start submerging. I hope I have a little time to sort of level off and work."

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Curran’s co-participants in "Altogether Different" are the Lisa Giabbi Movement Theater, H.T. Chen & Dancers, Sally Silvers & Dancers and the Kevin Wynn Collection.

When Curran wonders whether he ought to be termed "emerging" when, in fact, he’s been working for a couple of decades, he has only to think of his co-participant, H.T. Chen. "I think he’s in his 50s," Curran said.

Something else that bothers him to an extent is the possibility of being "typed out" as "the one who does the Irish stuff."

"My background is definitely in Irish step-dancing," he said, "since I’ve done it since I was a little kid, and since I love it so much. But at the same time, I don’t want to be known for just the Irish-oriented things I’ve done."

One of Curran’s Irish dances has taken on a life of its own and become the company’s biggest crowd-pleaser. Indeed, "Folk Dance for the Future," which makes use of traditional Irish "mouth music," and was created in 1997 on a commission from the Fund for the Borough of Brooklyn’s "Celebrate Brooklyn" observance, ended the four-part program Curran and his team performed at the Joyce. As usual, the piece, to which the choreographer gives the subtitle "Traditional Methods/Postmodern Techniques," had the "Altogether Different" audience on its feet at every performance.

If Curran does find himself "trapped" by his "Irishness," he’ll be at least partly to blame. Last fall, he spent two months in Ireland, primarily in Dublin, teaching and choreographing a new work for John Scott’s Irish Modern Dance Theatre.

The work Curran created in Ireland "That Place, Those People," is Irish in inspiration, although not entirely so in content. "Since both of my parents were born in Ireland, when they spoke of ‘home,’ they meant Ireland, and when they referred to ‘those people,’ they clearly meant the relatives and friends they’d left behind," Curran said.

"That Place, Those People" will receive its American premiere in April as a production of the Danspace Project of St. Mark’s Church on Second Avenue.

As a young dancer, Curran spent 10 years with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, starting in 1984 and ending, somewhat abruptly, in 1994. Arnie Zane had died of AIDS, and Curran had entered into a sad and difficult period involving alcohol and drugs. "I was bottoming out on alcohol," Curran said with a candor which seems to come remarkably easy to him. "I’ve been sober for five years now, but that was a bad time, when I knew I was losing effectiveness, and when it became obvious that Bill Jones was disappointed in me and in my potential."

It had been Jones and Zane who had discovered Curran when the pair, in 1983, came to New York University to choreograph a work for the senior class of the Tisch School of the Arts.

Jones and Zane offered Curran a place in their company, which the dancer at first refused, thinking that his career lay on Broadway.

"I used to go to Broadway auditions," he said, "and sometimes I’d get called back, even twice, but in the end, I never actually got the jobs."

A year later, Curran joined Jones and Zane, and, when the latter became ill, started performing roles the dying dancer usually did. "I knew the roles," he said, "and I fit the costumes."

The closest Curran has yet come to Broadway is a job with the long-running off-Broadway hit "Stamp." He’s been associated with "Stamp" for four years now, mainly filling in for vacations and other absences.

"I know four of the eight roles," he said, "and I’ve done them all." One of the things "Stamp" has done for Sean Curran is to keep him at least somewhat solvent, even as the costs of running a 10-dancer company have risen far beyond the performer’s expectations.

Being at heart a realist, Curran is willing to face the fact that, at the close of "Altogether Different," he will once again find himself fairly deeply in debt.

Family support

His entire schedule for 1999 is filled, but, even with bookings and commissions, his parents, who have been supportive from the start, will probably have to come to his rescue, as they have done from time to time in the past.

Curran’s father, John, was born in County Kerry and raised in Cork, in Crosshaven, outside of Cork City. His mother, Kitty, comes from a village near Castlerea, Co. Roscommon. Both parents came as teenagers, each at the behest of an aunt who sponsored them on the condition that they in turn would bring one of their own siblings to the United States when they were financially able to do so.

Both of Curran’s parents kept that promise. "My parents were so young when they came here that they were still in school," Curran said. "In fact, they met on a bus going to night school, trying to get their high school equivalency degrees."

Despite their youth, Curran’s parents managed to bring their siblings to America before much time had passed, with the result that, as a small child, Curran was virtually surrounded by Irish immigrants.

"When I went to school for the first time, I had a thick Irish accent from living with my parents, my Uncle Christy and my Aunt Peggy," Curran said.

His family taught the boy a bit of the Irish language, and urged him to learn step-dancing. "I could bless myself and count to 10 in Gaelic," Curran said.

John Curran, now retired, has an Irish radio program, "The Sound of Erin," on Boston’s WNTN. Formerly heard every day of the week, the show is still broadcast on weekends.

The Curran family’s supportiveness has been strong from the start, but with a sensible string or two attached. "He always wanted to dance or act," Kitty Curran recalled, "but we insisted that he get a college education first, which is why he went to NYU. He started out at Roger Williams College in Rhode Island the first year, because when he was 18, we thought he was too young to deal with New York City."

Curran realizes that his parents’ close cultural identification with Ireland is more or less directly responsible for his early training.

"They both wanted to instill at least a reasonable sense of Irish culture into me and my three younger sisters," he said. "That’s the reason for the dance lessons."

Curran’s professional performance career could be said to have started when he and his eldest sister, Patricia, danced at Irish parties and functions in the Boston area.

"I was basically hyperactive, I think, but there we were, these little kids doing Irish dances," Curran said. "They’d give us a Kennedy half-dollar or two, and whoever was running the party would give us a $5 bill, which went straight into our college fund."

The jigs and reels and hornpipes the Currans performed in and around Boston, in VFW halls, church basements, and group halls, had, in a sense, a particular fruition last Friday night, when the Sean Curran Company played its final performance in the 1999 "Altogether Different" celebration. That night, no fewer than 10 members of the Curran family, parents, sisters and brothers-in-law, made the drive down from Massachusetts to see what all those childhood lessons and shows had led to.

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