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Published: 21 August 2021

By Andy Ross

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From our correspondent - Shetland

Rob Heaslip is an Irish dance artist, who blends contemporary dance with folk theatre and traditions to create compelling performances. 

Shetland enjoyed a treat during July and early August, when Rob Heaslip’s Strawboys visited the isles as part of their Summer 2021 Scottish tour, supported by Creative Scotland’s touring fund. They danced a number of free outdoor “pop up” performances, including at Mareel, several leisure centres, the King George V flower park and the Old Haa museum in Yell.

Strawboys is the second in a trilogy of works, interpreting traditions of death, life and birth in the far northwestern edges of Europe among the Gaels. Strawboys are known as mummers or guisers, but Shetlanders know them as skeklers and their island roots are in Norse culture.

 In western Ireland these costumed figures traditionally appear at weddings, bringing good luck to the bride and groom. In Shetland, skeklers would visit homes in winter, providing entertainment in exchange for food, drink or money. Each of the traditions features a gown made from straw strands and an intricately woven headpiece, often hiding the face of the wearer.

in this performance, Rob Heaslip’s dancers wore a luminous variation of the costume, designed by Alison Brown Threads, who mixed modern bright colours and patterns with traditional straw. As the audience gathered, the dancers quietly entered. Movement started gently, building up to a whirling and energetic dance to a lively Balkan-inspired rhythm, before returning to calm, with the dancers leaving the scene as silently and mysteriously as they had arrived. Each of the outdoor locations gave a slightly different feel to individual performances. In true Shetland style, there were brief impromptu interactions: with a passing cat at Mareel, and a toddler who entered the stage area during the performance at the flower park!

There are several further opportunities to see Strawboys in Scotland during August – see this link for dates and locations https://www.robheaslip.com/schedule.html