Contemporary Dance Performance: The Path to Now


Dr Mary Nunan
Dr Mary Nunan

Charting the journey of an Irish contemporary dance artist with specific reference to the role that the University of Limerick played in this.

It is hard to say exactly where it stemmed from, my interest in Contemporary Dance. In many ways it began before I even knew there was such a thing called contemporary dance.  The only two kinds of dance I had heard about when I was growing up (I was born in 1954) were Irish Traditional Dance and Ballet. I took some Irish Traditional Dance classes when I was young and was often whirled at speed around Kerry sets and polkas, by my aunts at weddings and other celebratory occasions. I never studied Ballet as a child.

I was introduced to something called Creative Dance, as part of Physical Education, when I was at post-primary school. And I also studied it as part of my undergraduate degree in Physical Education at (Thomond College) now the University of Limerick.

Two years after graduating from college, following on from some classes in something called Contemporary Dance, I left my full-time job as a post-primary teacher and headed to off New York learn more about it. At this stage I had never seen any contemporary dance performances: all my inspiration had come from the teachers with whom I had studied.

I lived and studied dance in New York city for a period of three years. New York, home of such pioneering contemporary dance artists as Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Erick Hawkins: the latter whose technique became foundational to my development as a dancer. New York, home of the post-modern ‘turn’ in dance in the ‘60s as reflected in the ideological stances and choreographic works created during this time. These works emerged from a radical rejection of traditional contemporary dance techniques. Everyday movements became inspiration for material in many of the pieces created. Choreographies were performed in parks, rafts floating on lakes, in lofts as part of ‘happenings’, on streets and on roof-tops: everywhere and anywhere. Art and life became intertwined and musicians, dancers, visual artists, architects, film makers – trained and untrained, all joined together to create.  The legacy of this period and its impact on dance history is unquestionable.

Returning to Ireland, in 1980, I was invited to join Dublin Contemporary Dance Theatre. Founded by Joan Davis in 1979, it was Ireland’s first professional contemporary dance company. It was a small repertory company and many of the guest choreographers who came to work with the company were New York based: the links with this city continued to strengthen. And the community of dance artists now living and working in Ireland started to grow: slowly.

In 1986, Limerick called again time inviting me to be a dancer-in-residence. This position, the first of its kind in Ireland, was jointly funded by Thomond College of Education, Mary Immaculate College and the Arts Council. It led to the establishment of Daghdha Dance Company of which I was founder Artistic Director (1988- 1999). During this period the company developed a strong artistic identity and was invited to perform, at prestigious dance festivals, nationally and internationally. At that time Daghdha was based on campus at the University of Limerick something that did not go unnoticed by Professor Micheal O’Suilleabhain when he was appointed Chair of Music in 1993.

This led to the establishment of an MA in Contemporary Dance Performance as one of a suite of nine MA programmes housed with the Irish World Music Centre. I was appointed as the first Course Director. As part of this programme I had the opportunity to invite guest tutors to work with the students.  Once again I looked to New York and invited a number of the pioneering dance artists from the post-modern ‘turn’, including Steve Paxton, Lisa Nelson and Yvonne Rainer to come work with them. Their contribution to the programme was hugely enriching for the students.

The community of contemporary dance practitioners living and working in Ireland has grown exponentially over the last forty years. And Limerick is recognised as one of its most important hubs. The University offers undergraduate and post-graduate level programmes in contemporary dance and Dance Limerick, in the heart of the city, is a thriving centre for professional dance practice.

For my part, I continue, in my role as teacher, to support students to find their own paths in this ever-widening field and I also continue to contribute to the wider community through my research as a choreographer and performer.



Mary Nunan is a contemporary dance artist, choreographer and performer. She has been Course Director of the MA in Contemporary Dance performance at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick since 1999. Throughout her career she has choreographed a substantial body of critically acclaimed solo and ensemble choreographies. Mary was a member of the Arts Council from 2003-2008.  She was awarded a practice-based PhD, from Middlesex University, UK (2013).


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