Rian. photo: Ros KavanaghRian_05_Ros Kavanagh.jpg

Celebration of music ... dancers from around the world build new traditions in Irish dance with the help of five musicians.

HOW should an artist respond to economic hard times? When ordinary people are thinking about marching in the streets or living in them, what role - if any - is there for contemporary dance?

When the Dublin-based director and choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan first started thinking about Rian, which makes its Australian debut in the Sydney Festival, he knew it could go one of two ways.

''I could have made a very angry, cynical, dark piece about how f---ed-up Ireland is,'' he says. ''But the response was Rian. It's absolutely joyous. It's a celebration of music and an imagined ancestry and a universality.''

Keegan-Dolan's company Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre's last Sydney Festival appearance was in 2010 with Giselle, a work he describes as ''full of f---ing and killing.'' Rian, he says, is much lighter in tone, something closer to ecstasy.

''I didn't plan it that way but Rian is definitely my response to the shit going down in Ireland in 2008 and 2009,'' he explains. ''I think good artists are generally ahead of the times. They have to respond to what's going on around them. When people are buying 15 properties in Croatia and driving enormous cars and sniffing cocaine, the artist's role is to remind them that this may not last forever and to be cautious.

''At the same time, when 15 per cent of the population is unemployed, the artist's role is to remind them that this won't last forever and there are more profound gestures that can sustain us. The artist needs to see clearly and then express that clarity.''

The starting point for Rian, Irish Gaelic for ''trace'' or ''etch'', came when Keegan-Dolan listened to a CD of the same name by the Irish musician Liam O Maonlai, best known as a member of the rock band Hothouse Flowers. O Maonlai is a fluent speaker of the Irish language and is recognised as one of the country's best sean-nos (traditional Irish) singers.

At the time he first heard the album, Keegan-Dolan says he was mourning the fact that Irish culture's ancient traditions have been lost.

''I found Liam's music very inspiring,'' he says. ''I loved that his music sounded really old and traditional and yet it was so relevant to the times we were living in. It felt important. It made me want to make dance that was profoundly connected to Irish music and the landscape and the magic of the place. For me, Rian is a step towards building new traditions in Irish dance.''

On stage, five musicians, including O Maonlai, sing and play traditional instruments, including uilleann pipes, bodhran, tin whistle, fiddle, concertina and harp, while eight dancers from around the world move rhythmically and hypnotically, their energy mirroring that of the music. There is no narrative. But neither is it abstract ''pure dance'', says Keegan-Dolan.

''Even the words 'pure dance' sound awful. Like pure alcohol. If you drink it, it might kill you,'' he laughs. ''This is loose and poetic and imaginative. The dancers have created the movements themselves and all the relationships and life stories of the dancers and the musicians are in there. But none of it was intellectually planned, it just unfolded.''

Keegan-Dolan says Rian has little in common with traditional Irish dancing or its commercialised offshoots, such as Riverdance.

''I have no training and no interest in that style of dance,'' he says. ''I have always found it a little odd and the more I learned about it the odder I found it.''

Rian has toured the world since its debut at the Dublin Festival in 2011. Reviews have been mixed. The Guardian praised Rian for ''heartstopping moments in the music'' but declared the dance ''underpowered''. The New York Times went further, describing the choreography as ''frustratingly repetitive''.

Keegan-Dolan is unfazed. ''I read one review and it says I'm an idiot. The next one says I'm a genius. I don't know what these people mean or think,'' he says. ''I don't think Rian is a show for critics. If you're coming to critique a work, a certain part of the brain needs to kick in early on, and that's exactly the part of the brain we'd love you to relax.

''I wanted to make movements that were repeated relentlessly to see how that would affect the viewer. Some people are moved to tears

and some people are ecstatic after seeing Rian. And then you get this other bunch of people who just don't get it at all.''

Rian is at the Theatre Royal from January 17 to 23.