Trinity Irish Dance Company
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
March 15, 2022
Soles, A New Dawn, Black Rose, Sparks, Communion, Johnny, Push, American Traffic, An Sorcas (“The Circus”)
Do you believe in magic?
Well, magic is on display this week as Trinity Irish Dance Company returns to the Joyce Theater with a St. Patrick’s Day Week celebration of flying legs and feet and all things Irish. I attended Tuesday night’s opening show, and if you haven’t finalized your plans for the next few days, or even if you have, stop what you’re doing and beg, borrow or steal a ticket. They’re that good.
My only prior experience with Irish Dance was via Riverdance, the commercial spectacular that introduced me to Irish Dance, as well as its magnetic female lead, Jean Butler (some dancers you just don’t forget). Riverdance is to Trinity Irish Dance Company as Broadway is to the Joyce Theater: one is big and impersonal, the other is like a family gathering with very talented relatives who you should see more often, and would want to.
I must admit I felt a little out of place when the program began, maybe as an Irishman might feel at a Bar Mitzvah. But that didn’t last more than a few minutes. Or seconds. Trinity Irish Dance Company (TIDC) makes you feel part of the family quickly, from the extraordinary talented musicians to the extraordinarily talented and refreshingly engaging dancers moving like jumping beans with semi-detached legs that have minds of their own. The movement, whether the overall tempo is slow (rare) or rapidfire (often) is impossible, but it’s not a blur: every step is crystalline, even if your viewing brain can’t figure out how they do it. It must be magic.
TDIC was founded in 1990 by Mark Howard, who has been its primary choreographer as well as a continuing cheerleader for Irish Dance. Since then, the company claims to specialize in what it calls “progressive” Irish Dance, which it says led to commercial ventures such as Riverdance (clearly it preceded Riverdance, which gave its first ancestral performance in 1994). Regardless, TDIC takes classic Irish Dance to a more contemporary level, including but transcending orthodoxy in favor of making the art form accessible and contemporary. It’s Irish Dance with a distinctly American accent.
This holds true for the company itself. In addition to members of the company being American (with one exception that I’m aware of: a male dancer from Mexico), the company originated in Chicago, and apparently its center of gravity is still there. Based on the information I’ve been able to glean, while some or most may have an Irish connection, the dancers represent a variety of ethnic groups with the only common denominator, aside from facility with Irish Dance, being a quality of youthful exuberance that’s both contagious and intoxicating.
The company also flaunts the fact that most of its dancers are women. From my observation most contemporary Irish dance is performed by women, but this may be a function of the art form’s evolution and of catering to what appeals most to audiences. It does appear, however, that the company highlights women at least as much if not more than its more explosive male dancers, and has placed them in leadership company positions: one Associate Artistic Director (first listing beneath Howard), and three of four Assistant Artistic Associates (although the latter group may be the equivalent of what in other dance companies are “Principal Dancers”).
There are varieties of Irish step dance that don’t require elaboration here. Suffice it to say that, like ballet, Irish step dance usually places emphasis on the balls of the feet (and at times the women briefly move using the tops of their feet, like pointe work without pointe shoes); but, like tap, it makes considerable use of the heels, particularly when wearing hard shoes. But Irish step dance is mostly known for its speedy footwork, with feet seemingly disconnected from lower legs, which seem disconnected from upper legs, which seem disconnected from their torsos. While it all looks wild and out of control, that’s because it moves too quickly to see what’s really happening – it’s actually a distinct and uniform form of dance (as opposed to technique within a particular style), and as precise as ballet. And while classic Irish Dance keeps the torso straight and the dancers’ arms stiffly at their sides (one source I read asserts that this was an attempt, centuries ago, to prevent the women from dancing with the men), as it has evolved and as exemplified by TIDC, the dancers’ arms are frequently in motion, adding sound (via body taps or tapping sticks), and increased movement variety.
The program that TIDC presented can be considered linearly, but I’ll skip that and, first address what I felt was the most intellectually rewarding, as well as entertaining, piece among the program’s suite of entertaining dances.
A collaboration between TDIC and choreographers Michelle Dorrance and Melinda Sullivan, American Traffic is a hybrid of sorts between Irish step dance and tap. The dance’s title is perfect – immediately conjuring an intersection of the two related and, notwithstanding its undeniable Irish roots, American dance forms.
When I first saw Michelle Dorrance Dance, the program struck me as tap reinvented. Dorrance and her company don’t just tap better than others (they may, but that’s not critical); they danced with originality in a way not previously seen. TIDC does the same thing for Irish Dance. But whenever one or the other, or both, are mentioned, someone raises the chicken and egg question: “which came first?,” the goal being to give one advocacy group or another source credit. To me, the only point that really matters now is that there is a relationship, one that’s obvious and one that perhaps is more subtle, and that they’re similar dance animals – maybe third cousins five times removed, but clearly different from each other.
With American Traffic, which premiered in Chicago in 2019 and which here was having its New York premiere, Dorrance, Sullivan and TDIC collaborate to illustrate, with surprising clarity, the differences as well as the similarities between the two in an entertaining format. By the time it ends, these Irish step dancers are dancing tap. They may not (yet) be as adept at it as Dorrance Dance dancers, but form is the point, not pyrotechnics.
Most of the rest of the program, however, though perhaps less cerebral, was filled with enough pyrotechnics to start several fires. Most of the dances were choreographed by Howard, and they have in common a variation in dance texture so that the visual fireworks don’t become a continuing assault on the eyes and ears. That is, the pace and intensity within each piece ebbs and flows. And the program integrates Irish music with Irish Dance, with a group of musicians supporting most of the dances, and the group (or members thereof) providing musical interludes, while the dancers change outfits, that stand on their own as subsets of the TIDC experience.
And speaking of outfits: the costumes the women wore, not atypical for Irish dance, were uniformly simple and classy, with each reflecting the mood of the particular dance and making the presentation more engaging than it already was.
In total, the program includes nine dances (with two New York premieres in addition to American Traffic), and three musical interludes, but the structure is fluid. It began, with Howard’s Soles, as an almost Etudes-like introduction to the form (or one aspect of it – rhythmically pounding into the floor) that grows from an initial focus on a group of dancers each highlighted under her individual dome of light, into increasingly complex variations with additional dancers added to the mix, ultimately leading to a rousing finale. If you weren’t hooked by then, that alone would have done it. And there is a double-meaning to “soles” that may or may not have been intentional. It’s not just soles of the feet that are referenced, but souls of a people.
The musical interlude that followed, “McDonald Creek,” also allowed the introduction of the four members of TIDC’s musicians: Christopher Devlin, Jake James, Brendan O’Shea, and Steven Rutledge. Their outsized performances, in addition to being part and parcel of Irish Dance, energized the audience in a different way from the more controlled step dancing itself.
Howard’s A New Dawn, the program’s second dance, starts out ominously, with a tribal aura as if foreshadowing the sacrifice of a chosen one or the dawn of a new (and not necessarily pleasant) era, but changes quickly to folk dance music (by Winston Damon with Liz Carroll) and folk forms and circular patterning, not to mention ultra-fast movement. It was followed by The Black Rose, also with music by Damon and Carroll, which integrates Irish Dance and percussion – literally, with the dancers pounding sticks into the floor as a counterpointe to pounding their heels, and parading while crossing sticks with each other. Executed in collaboration with Different Drums of Ireland, it includes “Big Horse,” a 120 year old Irish lambug drum that forms the centerpiece for one of the scenes, and a bevy of flying ponytails.
Sparks, new this year and in its New York premiere, is different. It’s disturbing to me that many companies do not identify dancers in any one dance by name (and / or in order of appearance) because I don’t accept that they’re cogs in a larger machine – although I understand that in this situation, with most of the company participating in each of the dances, doing so would have been particularly cumbersome. So even though not specified I try to figure out who these dancers are. I noticed one immediately who had a unique and magnetic individual aura in addition to the smiles and talent that the other dancers had, but I couldn’t identify her. Sparks enabled me to do it.
Sparks is a solo danced by Artistic Associate Ali Doughty, choreographed by her and Howard, to music played by James on violin. James, who looks to be over 6 ft tall and thin as a rail, towered over Doughty, but it turned out to be a wonderful pairing, with the two of them (a little like dueling banjos but with violin and legs) strangely complementing each other, with Doughty matching James’s supersonic sounds with equally supersonic steps (and that aura) to match. The audience erupted.
The first act concluded in a completely different vein. Communion, choreographed by Howard and Sandy Silva, is a calmer, more spiritual dance that has the women dressed in conservatively colored short tunics and black leggings (costumes by Kristine Fatchet) rather than the cheerleader-style costumes worn in other pieces, and moving slower than the other pieces, while frequently slapping their hands lightly against their legs and chests – or just their hearts. It suggested some communal Irish Dance moving hymn.
The second act began in a similar low-key (but somehow also rousing) vein with a song, “Listen,” inspired by a traditional Irish folk song, composed by O’Shea and Mike Kirkpatrick and sung (I think – the program doesn’t specify) by O’Shea.
This segued into Johnny, the oldest piece on the program (choreographed by Howard in 1991) that premiered on the old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, a rousing piece that also is structured to enable local Irish Dance students to briefly join them on stage and participate. Like everything else, it was great fun.
Push, also choreographed by Howard, followed. This is a pas de six, of sorts, with the dancers taking solo turns followed by the group as a whole performing together. Like Sparks (although not as centralized), it highlighted the gifts of all the dancers involved and enabled me to identify another group of dancers, including Associate Artistic Director (and sometime company spokesperson) Chelsea Hoy, who led it off with vivacious panache; followed by Artistic Associate and multi-award winning Irish Dance champion Michael Fleck (whose lightning-fast footwork was frequently highlighted in those dances in which he appeared); Francisco Lemus (who I believe is the dancer born in Mexico), who added his own level of virtuosity; Sydney Niewiedzial, another Artistic Associate and another company sparkplug; Doughty; and Abigail Graham-Luke, who stood out not just because she has straight, dark hair, but for the quality of quiet serenity that she brought to her execution.
After another musical interlude (“The Reel Things,” an amalgam of traditional Irish music, the program concluded with An Sorcas (“The Circus”), choreographed in 2019 by Howard and Hoy, which balances substance with spectacle, but comes down on artistry.
A built-in encore completed the program. But it wasn’t really over. After the formal program ended, the dancers all made their way to the front of the theater, on the NYC street, on a lovely pre-spring evening, and entertained audience-members as they exited the theater just by their exuberant presence. The deserve to be individually credited. In addition to those already identified, they include (as listed in the program) Courtney D’Angelo, Lydia Frederick (another Artistic Associate), Anna Gorman, Danielle Masbruch, Sierra McNall, Claudia Morrison, Maggie Nowakowski, Colleen Michael O’Connor, Kelsey Parry, Gracie Peters, Clare Rahner, Kaitlyn Sardin, and Marista Wurster. And the lighting for each piece, uniformly dramatic throughout without being obtrusive, was designed by Al Crawford.
I don’t know when Trinity Irish Dance Company will next appear in New York, but its return cannot come quickly enough.