Kate Gilnagh would have been just one young Irish girl among many who set out in 1912 for a new life in America — if it hadn’t been for the ship she boarded to take her there.
It wasn’t until she looked back and saw the RMS Titanic sinking into the ocean from her spot in a crowded lifeboat that 16-year-old Kate realized the scale of the tragedy she’d just escaped.
In the decades since the Titanic disaster, Gilnagh told and retold her story in countless public forums, from interviews with the New York Times and the BBC to TV appearances on To Tell the Truth and The Steve Allen Show.
For choreographer Marguerite Donlon, though, her grand-aunt Kate’s story was an oft-heard piece of family lore. “I grew up with this story,” Donlon said. “I remember constantly asking my grandmother, ‘Tell me the story again.’ ”
Now, Donlon is retelling the story in her own way.
Weaving old recordings of Gilnagh’s first-hand account into a new electronic score by Dirk Haubrich, her dance The Last Lifeboat will have its world premiere as part of BalletX’s Fall Series at the Wilma Theater beginning Wednesday night.
The series consists of world premieres by three international choreographers: in addition to the Irish-born, Berlin-based Donlon, the program includes new pieces by Dutch choreographer Wubkje Kuindersma (Yonder, contemplating the impact of climate change) and Cayetano Soto of Barcelona, whose Napoleon/Napoleon is a satirical exploration of imperialism.
A guardian angel and a desperate lie
Gilnagh was below deck in her third-class cabin when chaos broke out that fateful night. It was through the efforts of a fellow Irish immigrant, James Farrell, that she was rescued.
When a crewman tried to stop their group, Farrell, whom Gilnagh later referred to as her “guardian angel” threatened physical violence, allowing her to reach safety.
A white lie was also necessary in the end. Facing a packed lifeboat, Gilnagh claimed her sister was on board in order to gain the last spot.
“That kind of haunted her, being an Irish Catholic,” Donlon said with a chuckle. “The idea what you’ll do to survive has always fascinated me.
"She really didn’t know at that point how bad things were, but I guess instinctively she knew she had to get on that boat.”
Donlon’s piece began as a solo rumination on Gilnagh’s traumatic experience, and though it has since been expanded to include more dancers, her inspiration was a far cry from the epic treatment of the James Cameron blockbuster.
“I didn’t make a Hollywood piece,” Donlon said from Basel, Switzerland, where she was choreographing a new staging of La Cage Aux Folles.
“I didn’t want to have any mention of the Titanic in the title, because it’s not about the Titanic. It’s about this one simple, almost insignificant young woman from the middle of Ireland.
"It’s her story, and her story is as important as anyone else’s.”
Escape and reinvention
By stressing an individual’s story, Donlon saw an opportunity to look back but also to draw comparisons with the experience of modern-day immigrants.
“You can’t compare Ireland to these politically tormented countries,” she said. “They weren’t escaping for their lives. But there are some parallels."
In her BBC interview, Gilnagh mentioned being “16 going on 17” at the time of the Titanic disaster.
Donlon was the same age when she left Ireland to study dance in England, before settling in Berlin in the early 1990s.
“I was going to fulfill a dream, and so was she,” Donlon said. “I did take many a ship from Liverpool to Dublin in my time. I just thank god my ship didn’t go down.”
BalletX Fall Series 2018. Performances Nov. 28-Dec. 9, Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., $25-$55, 215-546-7824, balletx.org