Saturday, March 17, 2012

History at a Dance: The National Dance Company Of Ireland

The cast of National Dance Company of Ireland’s Rhythm of the Dance

It might not be as grand a pageant as Riverdance or as flashily sexy as that show’s Michael Flatley-led spinoff, Lord of the Dance, to name two of the most popular Irish step dance shows still touring the world since their inception in mid-1990s. Yet, while smaller and more intimate in scale, Rhythm of the Dance, now in its 11th year, is equally fast and furious where Celtic hard-shoe dancing is concerned.

Choreographed by Doireann Carney, a Riverdance alumna, Rhythm of the Dance has just as many taps per second as the bigger cousin shows, if not more. Former headliner Aisling Holly was said to have 40 taps a second compared to the 28 taps a second that got Flatley into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1989 as the fastest dancer alive. Why does this matter? Because to love Irish dancing is to love the rat-a-tat of it – dancing that sounds like machine gun fire as triggered by flying feet.

The dizzying speed and thundering sound of Irish step dance has helped turn what is essentially a centuries-old national folk dance tradition into a global entertainment industry, playing to millions in over 43 countries on four continents around the world – and counting. This at least is the legacy to date of Rhythm of the Dance, a two-hour show of live music, song and bravura-style choreography married to state-of-the art technology that is said to be the busiest of all the touring Irish dance shows around.

The show is constantly touring, no doubt due to relatively small size of its ensemble which lends it a certain flexibility – 22 dancers compared to the 32 that have thumped the boards as part of Riverdance – in addition to three singers, and a musical group consisting of a fiddler, a flutist, an accordionist, a guitarist and a man doing double-time on two ancient Irish instruments – the bodhrán (frame drum) and tin whistle. All are members of The National Dance Company of Ireland, based in Dublin, but apparently never there long enough to let any Irish moss grow under its feet.

The troupe is travelling still, presently taking in cities across the U.S. as part of an ongoing North American tour that last weekend touched down for two nights at the Markham Theatre for the Performing Arts, about a 20-minute drive north of Toronto. There, it played to packed houses – an early St. Patrick’s Day present – the second time the company has played Markham since making its Canadian debut there in 2010. The lure in bringing them back was obvious:

Rhythm of the Dance includes blistering set pieces in which the dancers pile-drive tap rhythms into an amplified floor, becoming their own percussive instruments. The tornado-like dancing of the lower body contrast sharply with the stiffness of the torso and arms held pin straight at the sides. The faces of the dancers are often just as expressionless. It’s as if the Irish dance is possessed by demons which have invaded the feet but put the rest of the body to sleep. No doubt, it’s all part of the fascination for a dance form that, less than 20 years ago, was a niche pursuit, the preserve of amateur dance competitions. A seven-minute spot made for a Eurovision TV special in 1994 changed all that, leading to the creation of Riverdance and its subsequent clones. You’d think audiences would have had enough by now. But as was demonstrated by the shows in Markham last weekend, people just can’t stop staring, or clapping along. The rhythm is infectious and the skill set is remarkable. The cliché that the Irish are a merry lot despite the misery that is their history is made true with this show which milks the old-time dancing, and the culture that begat it, for all its worth. This is Ireland, packed and exported for the masses – a good-time show studded through with nostalgia. Why there’s even a rendition of Danny Boy sung by an Irish tenor. It’s loud and it’s proud – Ireland before the present economic meltdown.

The pyrotechnics alone would capture attention, if not awe. But most Irish dance shows insist on marrying the dancing to a narrative having to do with Ireland itself, in particular its ancient history. Rhythm of the Dance is no exception. Like Riverdance – and to some extent Lord of the Dance – before it, the two-hour extravaganza uses dance, live music and song to dramatize the history of the Emerald Isle from its misty mythological beginnings to its well-documented struggles with occupation and oppression. Images of Ireland’s rolling hills and sea-tossed waters are projected onto a rear screen at the very start, drawing the viewer into a vision of a country shaped by elemental forces. This twilighty view of Ireland, as the poet Yeats might have called it, is offset by a more sober look at some of the darker realities that have beset Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries, among them the Great Potato Famine of 1845 which led to mass immigration to the New World and the creation of an Irish Diaspora that no doubt helps keep these touring Irish step dance shows alive. The rear screen fills with photographic images of Ellis Island while in the foreground the tenors sing a song of immigration, and the loneliness associated with it, a hallmark of Irish traditional music composer Carl Hession’s tear-jerker score of ballads.

Yes, it’s been a hard road for the Irish, some of it imposed upon them, some if it of their own making. A part of the show makes way for a shadowy presentation of the sectarian violence that has marked the country since the beginning of the last century. The dancers push and pull at each other, some dressed in Orange (representing the followers of the Protestant William of Orange), some dressed in Green (representing the traditions of Eire) and some dressed in White (representing the peace that ought to unite them), the colours of the Irish flag.

As a history lesson, it doesn’t really say much other than that Ireland has often been a country divided. If that’s a negative, then Rhythm of the Dance doesn’t want to dwell on it. The mood shifts radically from down to up, up, up as the dancers file in, one after the other, to pound out a percussive beat with their irrepressible feet. The dancing is most welcome: it is the reason we are really there, to celebrate dancing talent, not contemplate the vagaries of nationalism. It makes the narrative come across, ultimately, as superfluous if not shallow, a stretched out plot on which to hang the dancing. As if it needed an excuse.

On its own, the dancing shines brightly. It is in no need of embellishments. It could even get away without having any music, a result of the tapping being its own percussive accompaniment. But that would mean losing a set piece in which a soloist marks time with the bodhrán, a stunning demonstration of rhythmic echo and syncopation matched note by note by a body in step with a musical instrument.

The ensemble pieces are equally powerful, several crafted to resemble visually the interlocking designs seen in ancient Irish illuminated manuscripts like the 8th century Book of Kells. The distinctively Celtic abstract pattern is also reflected in the sets and costumes used throughout the show that pay homage to the past. These snaking line dances are performed in hard shoe and also soft. The dancers hammer their rhythms into the floor using their heels and also their toes (the women especially dance on point). They also leap into the air, bounding like gazelles on the wind of song. The troupe comes in all shapes and sizes—some short, some very tall – but all the leg lifts and air-borne jumps are co-ordinated; everyone seems of the same ability. It might account for why the program does not make special mention of any one dancer: all are listed by name but as a group. No stars, just feet.

And yet within the production are three main performers; one in particular is the lead male, Michael Byrne (got his name at half time by asking one of the stage hands), a native of Ireland who cuts across the floor like lightening, creating sparks in his wake. He works hard, dancing at full throttle and corralling his fellow male dancers (an exceptionally strong all-male Irish corps de ballet) to dance with him in a type of babhta rince, a pugilistic bit of virile dancing literally translated as a ‘bout of dance.’ The movement is ear-splittingly aggressive. When their ancient dance is over, the men yell out: a visceral cry from the heart. History that’s alive.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. She is also the author of the national best-selling memoir, Paris Times Eight (Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre). Visit her website for more information, Her next book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, comes out later this year.

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