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On their toes: the Trinity Irish Dance Company.

Happy O’Feet
By Mae G. Banner

Trinity Irish Dance Company
Proctor’s Theater, March 12

There’s a minimalist quality to Irish stepdancing: ramrod-straight bodies, arms held stiffly at the sides, pointed feet working a few basic steps.

But, much can arise from this traditional base, when the dancing is full of spirit and the choreography is fired by imagination. Trinity Irish Dance Company stepped it up last Friday at Proctor’s with a consistently exciting array of old and new dances that deployed unexpected groupings, new patterns and directions, quirky entrances and exits, freer use of arms, and even a bit of self-deprecating satire, all of which made for one of the best dance concerts in this young year.

The company of 16 women and two men, plus a friendly trio of musicians in the pit, exuded honesty and pride as they gave a new look to an old form.

Trinity, founded in 1990 in Chicago by artistic director and choreographer Mark Howard, is a far cry from the mechanized clacking of Riverdance. Their program of a dozen varied dances included soft-shoe works that approached the ethereal quality of ballet, as well as hard-shoe jigs and reels. The stage was miked, but the shoes were not. Every click was the real thing.

Always looking to keep the tradition fresh, Howard has peppered the troupe’s repertory with dances by modern choreographers. Two of the best were made by Sean Curran, a one-time stepdancer himself, who went on to dance in Stomp and in the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Curran’s had his own company for a few years now, and some of his dances twit the Irish in a kindly way.

For Trinity, he made Curran Event, (2000) which adds swingy arm movements, body-slapping and partner hand-clapping for a schoolyard-smart flavor. Even the costumes—short pleated skirts and white knee socks, with a pick-your-own-mix of head scarves and backward baseball caps—were a mild joke on Catholic school uniforms.

Curran’s Goddess (2004) fit Irish steps to classical Indian vocal music by Sheila Chandra. The dancers, lovely in red and cobalt sari silks over black bike pants, were fascinating as they combined controlled Irish heels and toes with East Indian fluid hands and twisting wrists. At still moments, they stood with their torsos slightly curved and their palms meeting in the namaste greeting. The fusion was completely uncontrived.

Another brand new dance, The Irish and How They Got That Way (Part I), gave a delightful poke at Irish stereotypes, such as the ruler-wielding nuns of parochial schools and bloody old Irish ballads. Choreographer Harrison McEldowney made the most of parodist Tom Lehrer’s Vatican Rag and Irish Folk Song, in which the dancers mimed several gory murders that were all in the family. The dancers had as much fun as the audience with this spiky caper.

Among the more traditional dances, Howard’s Out of the Woods (2002) was as light and speedy as the sprites of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The eight-count reel by Different Drums of Ireland (on tape) was steady as she goes, but the patterns, flying on slippered feet, were rare. The dance flowed like shining water over a rocky streambed.

The two men, long-legged Patrick Barnett and solidly-built Darren Smith, came forward for a lively turn. Smith’s cross-footed weight-shifting was phenomenal. Barnett, amazingly, kicked a leg straight up to his nose.

Ashley Roland’s Hibernia (2001) was out of place in this program. Costumed in icy blue unitards that dripped with white feathers, it had the dancers stretched out on their bellies, squirming and doing Martha Graham contractions to New Age music, all of which felt forced.

Three final dances by Howard, Treble Jig, (1995) The Dawn, (1997) and Roisin Dubh, (2004), started high and rose higher, building up excitement to a fervent curtain call climax. Two ranks of dancers in traditional dresses adorned with runic symbols moved in and out of the light, a living organism of precise heels and toes. There were springy jumps and neat landings, and flying steps in profile with a javelin-straight leg thrusting out parallel to the ground, all set to a mix of live and taped music on traditional instruments.

The musicians set a casual publike atmosphere in several interludes between dances. Among them, they played guitar, tin whistle, bodhran, Irish bagpipes, and fiddle. Nor were they above joking a bit. Thumbing his nose at the Proctor’s program’s etiquette list of Thou Shalt Nots, the fiddler said, “we take offense if you don’t clap along.”

They needn’t have feared. We clapped a-plenty.

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