From famine to celebration

The nickname "mud craw-lers" for the large Irish community in South Wales has stuck since the 1840s, when shiploads of people fled the potato blight. Unscrupulous captains would pack immigrants on to their boats and disembark them on the mud of Penarth beach, to crawl exhausted to Cardiff.

In a Swansea community hall, 13 to 15-year-old girls from schools meet 18 to 70-year-olds from the Swansea-based Big Toe community dance project. Working with freelance choreographer in community and education work Chris Lewis-Smith and dance co-ordinator for Valley and Vale Community Arts Carol Brown, the groups meet for the first time to piece together Dark Rosaleen, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the great famine. While there have been the inevitable difficulties raising money, the project is funded by Vale of Glamorgan and travels to Cork later this year.

Against a skipping motif recalling innocence, Judi Linley of Big Toe sings one of the haunting, traditional songs she's found to complement new material from AKAbella, a women's choir. "One potato, two potatoes," chants the group in a reworking of the children's rhyme. "When you think of Ireland, remember me," sings Linley as a group of receding figures echoes the plaintive "Farewell to Dublin's hills and braes, to Killarney's lakes and silvery sea."

Emulating stowaway bodies, and urged on by Chris Lewis-Smith, dancers work on "rolling suspension", sensing their bodies as floppy bags of water. Rolls gain momentum on the hard, parquet floor, lifting into "a whizzing roller coaster at its highest point" to sight land.

Huddled on each others' backs, humped bodies rise and stretch. Accompanied by Chris Lewis-Smith's soundscape of a rushing waterswell, the piece has an eerie power.

Next they'll embark on the "Welsh ladies" sequence, based on Cardiff's Stanley Street, where Irish immigrants lived 30 to a house, encountering taunts and jibes of job-stealing through cheap labour.

During a break in the seven-hour intensive rehearsal (repeated daily for two weekends), groups continue experimenting. Long term Big Toe members now use their expertise to teach flamenco, middle eastern and tap dance. Experienced dancer Cathy Coombs works in disability dance. The Barry youth group has just completed a dance project for International Women's Day. Carol Brown has taken her boys' company to South Africa, working with township children in Soweto.

"We like dancing and performing our own stuff in school," say Rachel Reynolds and Michelle Limbrick of Bryn Hafren Comprehensive, "but this is more imaginative."

"It's a commitment but it's fun and it contributes to your career," says GCSE dance student Rebecca Hinds-Payne. For Tracy McDonnell of Llanreddyn High School, it's her only chance to dance.

While Irish surnames in South Wales are common (Big Toe dancer Justin Byrne's forbears are from Co Cork), links have been lost. With its emphasis on strength and resilience, the piece is about reconciliation, using a folk dance weave to integrate Irish and Welsh dance forms into a new, exciting hybrid. "It's a way of looking back and remembering," says Chris Lewis-Smith.

Dark Rosaleen is at Memorial Hall, Barry, today; Counterpoint Theatre, Swansea, April 56; displaced people's event at Frogmore Community School, Camberley, Surrey, in April (01656 87191101639 643625)

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