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The Irish dance phenomenon: Celtic crossover.

Irish dance has stepped from obscurity to claim center stage, with both Riverdance and Lord of the Dance on tour this month. What account for the breakout success of a bravura folk art once known only to a few?

Arms pinned to their sides, legs flicking, flailing, scissor-kicking, pounding like pistons, Irish dancers seem to embody a schizoid sexuality. The top half of the body refuses to acknowledge what the lower half is up to.

"One theory is that the Catholic Church forbade any form of sensual expression--except the rhythm method," says Colin Dunne, champion Irish dancer (nine world titles between the ages of nine and twenty-two) and head of the Riverdance troupe in the United States.

"Another theory is that the Irish didn't want their English oppressors to know that they were having a good time, so they kept their faces glum and their upper bodies still," he continues. "Or perhaps it was because the dancing took place in confined spaces like small bars, and you couldn't move your arms without spilling someone's drink." Whatever the reason, Dunne is happy to work within the confines of the form, while experimenting with ways of taking it further. Like Michael Flatley, whom he replaced as Riverdance's leading man in October 1995, Dunne is a choreographer as well as a performer.

Flatley parted company with Riverdance after a disagreement with its Irish producers, Moya Doherty and John McColgan. He said that they refused him artistic control; they said that the show was bigger than he was and rejected his demands for fees and royalties, amounting to some $75,000 a week, which would have made him the highest-paid dancer in the world. Riverdance has carried on successfully without him, earning more than 10 million [pounds sterling] (about $16 million) to date from box-office sales alone. Videotapes, compact discs, souvenir programs--even a Web site--have also added considerably to the enterprise's profits.

Flatley has sued the Riverdance producers, reportedly for 2 percent of the show's revenue, but the case has yet to go to court. Meanwhile, Flatley has created his own successful show, Lord of the Dance, which opened in Dublin in July 1996 and is currently touring fifteen U.S. cities through October [see the Performance Calendar] before traveling to the Far East and Australia. He, in turn, has been sued for money allegedly owed to several of his agents and collaborators.

Yet a third Irish dance spectacular, Spirit of the Dance, hopes to visit the U.S. next year. This sequin-clad show models itself on Riverdance (with which it has no connection), using similarly eclectic mix of Irish step dance, flamenco, tap, Ukrainian folk dance, and even a pointe-shoe number. Choreography is by Alan Harding, a British showbiz and television dance director. Two Spirit of the Dance troupes of thirty dancers each have performed for the past two years in English seaside resorts and middle-sized theaters that the two larger shows don't visit. Riverdance and the Lord of the Dance tour to arena-sized rock venues and major theaters, reaching deals with theater managements to avoid treading on each others' toes.

So far, at least, audiences on both sides of the Atlantic show no signs of being sated by Irish dance. Riverdance has split into two troupes, one touring Europe and the other the U.S., both performing the same show. By Christmas, the British one will be back in London for the fourth time. There are plans to set up a third troupe to tour U.S. theaters in 1998. Riverdance and Lord of the Dance have also both completed successful Australian seasons, performing to sold-out houses. Smaller, older troupes, such as Chicago's Trinity Irish Dance Company, are also enjoying success.

The extraordinary appeal of Irish dance in the closing years of this century is partly due to the skillful theatricalization of the folk dance form and its music. But it is also due to the spirit of the times. Audiences have gone crazy for percussive shows of all kinds: Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, Tap Dogs, Stomp, and the internationally touring flamenco companies of Joaquin Cortes, among others. People of all ages, not just the young, respond to high levels of energy and of noise, amplified to match the thumping rhythms of rock music. Production values are those of rock concerts, with look-at-me lighting and video effects. Dancers give attitude, borrowing stylistic devices from each other and from MTV videos. Folk art has become mainstream, overtly sexy, accessible.

The crossover happened first in world music, as modern musicians and recording technicians hybridized traditional tunes, rhythms, and instruments from different countries. Dance fusions followed, as choreographers reacted to changing musical styles. Several of the leading Irish dancers, including Flatley, Dunne, Jean Butler, and Daire Nolan, toured with the Chieftains, the popular Irish folkrock band, in the 1980s. Riverdance did not invent a new type of international Irish music and dance for the 1990s; it capitalized on what was happening already.

Riverdance owes its origins to a seven-minute number devised to entertain the audience for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1994, when Ireland was the host country. The annual pop-song contest is transmitted live on European TV to an estimated 300 million viewers. While the judges debated how to allocate their votes, Moya Doherty, a producer for RTV, Ireland's national television station, filled the time with a dance divertissement that she had commissioned from Flatley.

The studio audience in Dublin rose to its feet at the end of the number, which celebrated Celtic myths and the River Liffey, at the heart of Ireland's capital city. The standing ovation was both a tribute to the performers and an affirmation of the Irish audience's sense of its own identity in the eyes of the watching world. That combination of national pride, Celtic nostalgia, and kinetic pleasure in dance has boosted Riverdance--the show, the videos, the CDs--ever since. Although the Irish diaspora around the world accounts for the core of Riverdance's success, its appeal is far wider, just as a delight in flamenco is not limited to Spaniards. Audiences of all stripes seem drawn to the production.

The dancers from whom Flatley and Doherty drew inspiration for the initial Riverdance show were amateurs, veterans of the competition circuit. Colin Dunne's experience was typical. He was born twenty-nine years ago in Birmingham, England, of Irish parents (just as Flatley was born thirty-nine years ago in Chicago of Irish stock). He was sent to Irish dance class to keep him in touch with his roots, and was good enough to qualify for his first championship at the age of eight (the minimum age has since been raised to eleven). His teacher, Marion Turtey in Coventry, was, he says, "the best, and ahead of her time. She choreographed a number for us in 1985 to some fusion music--it was the Beatles' 'Hey Jude' set to a hornpipe rhythm--to express second- and third-generation Irish kids' identity confusion growing up in England. There were letters to the local press criticizing us for bastardizing traditional dance and for wearing teenage street clothes instead of proper outfits."

Competition rules were, and are, extremely strict. "Boys had to wear kilts, which I hated," says Dunne. "We rehearsed for hours every day, preparing three routines, one in soft shoes and the others in hard shoes, girls as well as boys. You go through the grading system run by the Commission [An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha, the Irish Dance Commission] until you reach the championships--All-Ireland, Great Britain, and World. I won twenty-nine titles in all until I retired at twenty-two to become an accountant. There was no way then of earning your living as a dancer."

Dunne has been pondering, for a book he is writing, why he danced as a youth. "It was always for competition," he muses, "not for fun or social pleasure, though I do remember going into the studio when I wasn't in training and putting on any music I liked--pop, jazz, anything--and just moving to the music, wearing my sneakers instead of dance shoes. I'd use the steps I made up, and the accidents, to spark off ideas for a competition dance." He says that the rules changed to allow for innovations. "Tap syncopations came into the heavy-shoe routines, which also grew faster and more complicated, and ballet influenced the soft-shoe work. I'm not sure that Michael [Flatley] realized how much things had moved after he did his last world championship in 1975. He wasn't unique as an innovator."

Flatley introduced flamenco-style arms into his choreography for Riverdance, an innovation that Dunne dropped when he took over Flatley's role on short notice. "I like to keep the Irish step dance technique, with the arms loosely held but never rigid. So when I dance with Maria Pages [the show's flamenco dancer], we do the same rhythms but don't try to fuse our styles. I don't see myself as a matador, as Michael did." Dunne accepts the fact, though, that his style has changed greatly since he joined Riverdance and has learned a lot more about himself as a theatrical performer.

"I think I--we--have rediscovered our reason for dancing. We do it now to communicate, to show pride in our traditions, not just to win prizes," concludes Dunne. "And now it's become a profession, so the kids in dance classes have another goal to aim for."

In fact, the demand for young Irish dancers is so great that the schools can hardly turn them out fast enough. They are wanted for trade shows and wedding receptions, cabarets and parties, as well as for the big touring shows. "Riverdancing" has become a generic term for Irish dancing, used by fans who wouldn't know the difference between step, ceili, and set dancing--the group formation dances rather like American square dances.

The two leading ladies in Flatley's Lord of the Dance were just sixteen when he recruited them in Dublin as foils for his central role. His aim was to attract a younger, more rock-and-roll audience than Riverdance's families and bused-in parties (though the audiences were very similar each time I saw the shows). Riverdance is essentially a variety show on an Irish theme, with a thread of a story: Irish immigrants to the New World influenced American tap and maybe--a very tenuous "maybe"--Irish dance has influences in common with Spanish and Eastern European folk traditions. Lord of the Dance claims to be more innovative in recounting a dramatic narrative of good versus evil, using the conventions of a video game.

In Lord of the Dance, warring clans clash in hard-shoe routines, to the consternation of the women of Ireland, who tippy-toe in soft shoes. Direction and choreography are attributed to Flatley, Arlene Philips, and Marie Duffy. The Lord of the Dance is challenged, tempted, and killed, only to rise again in time for the finale.

A virtuoso dancer, Flatley presents himself as a macho man, oiled torso gleaming above his champion boxer's belt, sweatband retaining his bleached locks. Although he is an unlikely sex object, he is expert at stimulating excitement and applause. His finale, as televised during the Academy Awards last spring, delivers a paramilitary showbiz drill of one-arm salutes and the rat-a-tat-tat of firing feet--for some, an uneasy echo of I.R.A. violence.

Lord of the Dance is the furthest from folk dance, the least "authentic" of the current crop of Irish spectaculars. (Its title and theme music come, incongruously, from a twentieth-century English carol, not from the mists of Celtic prehistory.) Its costumes of hot pants and bare midriffs were still raising eyebrows in Dublin when I first saw it there last summer. Riverdance, regarded as revolutionary when it first opened, now seems conventional, the big hair and short skirts for the women almost part of the Irish national costume. Both shows, and their imitation spinoff Spirit of the Dance, have so raised the profile of Irish step dance that it will likely not disappear when the next dance craze displaces it. Like flamenco and tap, it will continue to develop.

"Irish dancers are only just beginning to learn what we can do in the theater," says Dunne. "What we need to do is develop a structure, maybe a training academy that teaches theatrical as well as academic technique, and that encourages experimental choreography. We can learn from other dance forms how to be expressive, how to take our traditions forward, instead of just passing exams and winning trophies."

RELATED ARTICLE: IRISH DANCING ONLINE

Irish dance isn't only breaking new barriers onstage. There is a wealth of material about it on the newest of information resources, the Internet. Both Riverdance and Lord of the Dance maintain official Web sites. The one for Riverdance is at http://www.riverdance.com. Lord of the Dance's site is at http://www.lord ofthedance.com/index.shtml. And Trinity Irish Dance Company has a site at http://www.trinity-dancers.com.

A good general description of the various forms of Irish dancing can be read on the page called A Brief Overview of Irish Dance at http://www.inx.net/~mar didom/rcidance.htm. This page is part of a larger Web site, Rince Ceol Amhran (Dance Music and Song), published by the Irish Arts Center of New York at http:// www.inx.net/~mardidom/rchome.htm. (For further information on dance at the Irish Arts Center, call Linda Downes at (718) 441-9416.) The Irish Arts Center pages include lists of books and music you can consult, as well as links to many other sites on the Internet.

And if Irish music is your interest, point your Web browser to Ceolas, which claims to be the largest online collection of information about Celtic music. Hosted at Stanford University in California, it's located at http://celtic.stan ford.edu/ceolas.html and includes a link to Stanford's IrishNet.

You can also find out more about Irish dancing in your area by calling the local Irish consulate (it's in the business section of your telephone directory's white pages under "Consulate General of Ireland") or by contacting the Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America, Dennis Dennehy, President, P. O. Box 258, Oak Lawn, IL 60454.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on Web sites
Author:Parks, Gary
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Directory
Date:Oct 1, 1997
Words:2371
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