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Damhsa: A Celtic Odyssey

Trinity Irish Dance Company

at the Skyline Stage, Navy Pier, August 25 and 26

Chicago's Trinity Irish dancers are perhaps America's best-known Irish dance team. Three times they've won the world championships of Irish dance, held annually in Ireland. They've danced on the Tonight show, at the Grand Ole Opry, for the royal family in Monaco, and for Bulls fans at the Chicago Stadium. But the team's director, Mark Howard, grew bored with the strict rules of competition. He sees Irish dance as an art--a high art--and in 1990 he chose the most mature dancers from his team and created the Trinity Irish Dance Company, a troupe with an artistic, not competitive, mission.

Essentially Howard's goal is to create a new dance form that blends the best of Irish dance with the best of other contemporary dance forms. And he doesn't seem to be a man who does things in a small way. The company's full-evening Chicago debut, "Damhsa: A Celtic Odyssey," employed more than 60 dancers and eight live musicians in 12 dances. The Friday night performance lasted two and a half hours. And while some moments were exhilarating and thoroughly entertaining, others were cliched and flat-out corny.

In "Damhsa," Howard seems obsessed with unity. Whether incorporating modern dance or showing the similarities between Irish and tap, African, and East Indian dance, Howard tries to uncover every connection Irish dance might have with other forms. His efforts reminded me of an ancient Celtic superstition that has affected its art. Centuries ago the Irish and Scots were paranoid about loose ends. No shoelace could drag, no sash dangle, lest an evil forest spirit grab hold of the loose article and take possession of the poor careless dresser. Traditional Irish art, such as appears in the Book of Kells (and in the designs embroidered on Irish dance costumes), also has no loose ends. In a classic Celtic design the eye can trace a line from one point over, around, and under a number of other lines and wind up back at the same point. Pick another line, trace it, and the same thing happens. Christianity co-opted such designs to illustrate the unity of the Holy Trinity.

Though Howard strives for unity, he leaves a number of loose ends: bad luck in ancient Ireland, bad staging in contemporary dance. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the order of the 12 dances. A mesmerizing Irish/modern mix here, a thrilling Irish/ballet solo there, a corny tap/Irish duet next, a lame modern number later--and an East Indian, Afro-Caribbean, Irish mix as the finale. The styles bump uncomfortably against each other, in part because Howard has yet to find a seamless way to unite them.

When it comes to Irish dance, however, Howard knows his potatoes. He has a strong understanding of visual rhythm and line. The Mist, which opens the program, is a mesmerizing, gentle dance, gracefully performed by Howard's core company. They come together in concentric circles, or hold hands and snake around in a line that turns and intersects itself, following a pattern similar to traditional Celtic designs. In Blackthorn and Celtic Thunder, Howard employs the traditional stiff arms and blazing footwork of Irish dance. He also has the dancers form, then break geometric designs of such elegance and harmony they almost take your breath away. Furthermore, these women can dance. Their feet move with mind-boggling speed and precision, and their leaps--with one leg extended and parallel to the ground and the other bent--are thrilling. Liam Harney, one of two men in the company and a two-time world champion step dancer, gracefully captures the genuine spirituality of Irish dance in Wings, a solo he also choreographed. Deftly blending ballet with Irish steps, Harney seems to float when he executes his leaps, and when he floats, your heart floats with him.

All of Howard's dancers are impeccably trained--in Irish dance--but the thread that could have provided artistic unity in this concert breaks when they venture into other dance forms. Turf, a dance duel between Harney in Irish clogs and Brill Barrett in tap shoes, would have made its point simply by letting these two go at it on their own. But Howard adds a corps of Irish dancers who do little more than watch the duel. Wearing baseball caps and flannel shirts, the women were probably intended to convey a gritty, urban look, but the staging made them look more like a bunch of kids in a suburban high school production of West Side Story.

The problem is that the Trinity dancers haven't really mastered other dance forms, and they need a lot more training in ballet, modern, and other theatrical styles if they're going to perform them onstage. Simply because the dancers lack the necessary modern training, The Summer House (created by modern choreographer Brian Frette) degenerates into little more than a dull series of pseudo-sexy poses with a bit of Irish dance thrown in for good measure.

For the finale, Umoja!, Howard invited the Afro-Caribbean troupe Sundance Productions and the bharatanatyam troupe Natyakalalayam to share the stage with Trinity. The contrasting costumes and styles looked a bit strange together, but Umoja! is essential to Howard's quest to expand the boundaries of Irish dance, and the three forms do share a transcendent spirituality and rhythm. Howard's ambitious project can't be accomplished overnight, or even in a couple of years. But it seems a labor of love, and that's the only way an art form can grow.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/William Frederking.

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