A year ago, at 77, Irish grandmother Madge Bolger became a stage performer for the first time in her life. It all came about when she began dancing onstage with her son, choreographer David Bolger, in the two-person show "Swimming With My Mother."
"It's something that's completely different and completely unexpected at this stage of my life," she said Monday by phone from her home in Dublin. "It never dawned on me that I would be performing anything with my son. If someone had told me this would've happened, I would've said they were mad. Now this little thing that David wanted to do has just snowballed. Now I'm traveling to Minneapolis, and David has been showing me the streets on the Google."
"Swimming" is a mother-son duet crafted by David, the Dublin-based choreographer, director and dancer who won an Ivey Award in 2011 for his choreography in the Guthrie Theater's "H.M.S. Pinafore," which was broadcast nationally on PBS.
For Madge, this stage business, in which she and her son intertwine their two passions, has offered pleasant and occasionally mystifying surprises. She said she has been taken aback by the tears of audience members in London, Paris and elsewhere where the two have performed.
"When we were in Edinburgh, quite a few different people came up to us after the show and were quite emotional," she said. "I felt awful; we've upset some people."
The Bolgers bring their show to the Guthrie this week. The title invokes an activity that has been a family tradition for generations. Madge's parents were swimmers. She taught her six children and dozen grandchildren how to navigate the water. In fact, she expected David to become an Olympic swimmer for Ireland.
"I learned to swim at 2, before I could walk good," said David, 45. "There was an article in a publication with a picture of me at that age. I had a bicycle tube tied around my waist for flotation. I still swim, but dance is the career I chose, or the one that chose me."
That career has taken him around the world, through his own 15-year-old company, CoisCéim Dance Theatre, and through his work with directors. It has been about two decades since he first performed in the company of a Joe Dowling production in Ireland. Bolger choreographed "Martin Guerre" for Cameron Mackintosh, which had its sold-out American premiere at the Guthrie.
"Swimming" began with an invitation to an Irish dance festival in 2010, David Bolger remembered. He was asked to do a solo piece, an idea he was not keen on. So he approached his mother.
"Madge and I are very close," he said.
Madge? When did he begin to call his mother by her first name?
"When I was a teenager, because my older [siblings] did it and it seemed OK," he said. "Now, it's a way to show respect for Madge as an artist. She's her own person, not David's mum."
Don't expect a swimming pool or anything like that at the Guthrie, he warned. The show is based on two movement vocabularies, that of swimming and dance. Swimming is a metaphor for familial bonds. "When I'm performing, I imagine I'm on a beach or in a ballroom," she said.
He recalled that the family goes for a Christmas swim every year. "My sister is manager of the pool," he said.
For mother, swimming is tied up with her own liberation of sorts, a way to claim her space and her independence. She remembers that when she and her late husband were wed, she had to quit her department-store sales job.