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DANCE: NOT YOUR FATHER’S JIG

4 minute read
Martha Duffy

THE USUAL IMAGE OF IRISH DANCing is of a young girl wearing a fixed expression and tight ringlets, her arms pressed rigidly to her sides. Her legs? Ah, that’s where the magic is: quicksilver taps, emphatic stamps and leg beats, ebullient kicks. The Irish dancer is a physically divided person.

Two years ago, a small group of friends in Dublin decided it was time to update that picture. TV producer Moya Doherty was faced with creating a seven-minute filler piece for the 1994 Eurovision pop-song contest. “I wanted to show a modern image of Ireland,” she says, “not the old green pastures. Irish dance is frozen in tradition, and I thought it’s time to thaw it out.”

The result was no filler, but a romp. Doherty and her producer-husband, John McColgan, knew they had a hit and quickly turned it into a full-length show called Riverdance. Composer Bill Whelan wrote the score, which uses traditional forms like the jig and the reel. And Michael Flatley, the volcanic star of the short segment, devised the choreography. All four had a background in television or the theater, which paid off in the show’s drive and shrewd pacing. Americans are about to get their first look at this phenomenon.

Riverdance was bold from the beginning, owing nearly as much to a Broadway chorus line as to Irish tradition. It opened in Dublin early last year with a cast of 26 dancers and musicians (the company now numbers 85). The production’s signature is scarcely controlled energy and bravura. Legs fly, but arms too are often loose and vividly expressive. A piece for the male corps called Thunderstorm is a consistent showstopper. It is performed a cappella, the tapping, stamping feet providing the accompaniment. As the dancers traverse the floor, the rhythm they kick up resembles a storm in all its fury, followed by the growls and eddies as the storm regroups. When conventional, cheerful instruments join in at the close, the effect is one of rescue and relief.

Since the first SRO Dublin engagement, Riverdance has shuttled between Ireland and London, where it plays at Labatt’s Apollo theater in Hammersmith, an old rock palace where the Beatles and the Stones once trod the boards. Because it is a big, expensive production, the show needs a theater that seats around 3,000. This week it starts a short U.S. run at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall; most seats were sold weeks ago. A national tour is planned for later in the year.

That a troupe most New Yorkers have never heard of should sell out a 5,854-seat house is not as surprising as it may seem. Riverdance depends on far-flung Irish communities for both its personnel (only 30 of the troupe are native-born Irish) and its core audience. The traditional art that Riverdance draws on still flourishes around the world, mostly through contests–not unlike Welsh singing competitions.

A resurgent Irish pride has also helped Riverdance thrive. The brief history of the troupe coincides with a period of real progress in the peacemaking process in Northern Ireland. Says Doherty: “It was really a great time to be Irish. People took pride in rediscovering their culture. They felt good about themselves.” Still, the team decided to diversify the content. Whelan adapted some flamenco rhythms that marry well with the jig. In one segment a Spanish dancer performs to traditional accompaniment; in another she does moves similar to a jig.

The evening also features African-American tappers. In a sequence called Trading Taps, two Americans and three Irish lay down their characteristic beats. The Americans wheel around, scooping the air, bending their backs, occupying the space in vigorous 3-D. They look relaxed, seeming to improvise every motion. The Irish are severe and ramrod straight enough to appear two-dimensional, borne by their toes and heels, moving swiftly through space rather than occupying it. Eventually, of course, the two join forces for a genial cross-cultural tapathon.

The one notable cloud over Riverdance has been the defection of its star, Michael Flatley. A cherubic, curly-headed blond, he danced like a fire god, and like all dancer-choreographers, he knew exactly what worked best for his body and his style. When profits began to flow in, he asked for rights to his work, and the dispute with producers Doherty and McColgan could not be resolved.

Flatley is now auditioning dancers for his own show, to be called Lords of the Dance. It opens in Dublin in June, then moves to London. Flatley’s company will be completely Gaelic. Call it the sincerest form of flattery or formidable competition. Either way, it’s a sure indicator of a robust genre.

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