Miceli, Sergio
(ed. and transl. by Marco Alunno)


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10.0. The Irish Dance. Precision as perfection

With this last chapter we return to a 'traditional' kind of show whose origins, according to the few historical data available, seems to go back to the Irish 'clog' in the XVIII and XIX centuries. However, its evolution passed through so many steps — e.g. the 'juba' performed by African slaves — that its actual form was basically established only by the middle of the XX century. In fact, in a 1950 Ed Sullivan Show, a very well-known North-American TV program, one can see a mixed dance quartet from the Dorothy Hayden's Irish Steppers performing clumsily, as it was typical in a small TV studio of the time. In the next decades, it is worth to mention Tom King (1960s and 1970s) and, almost at the same time, the turning point with the so-called modern stylings: Peggy Cannon won the Irish Dance national contest in 1979. In thirty years the skirts moved from below to above the knee, but the skill, the grace, the most intense femininity and the strongest seductive power along with an unparalleled elegance were still to come. They did with Jean Butler and, maybe, other more recent Irish Dance groups. On YouTube and in some DVDs' bonus tracks there is a wide documentation about it, but what has been said so far is enough for our purpose.

Nonetheless, there is something I must elucidate. It is quite possible that the definition of tap dance comes up when reading about Irish dance. This is incorrect, because tap dance exclusively refers to the US tap dance that, since the Vaudeville (beginning of the XX century) split into rhythm jazz dance and Broadway tap, the former being aimed to music and the latter to dance. The only things Irish dancehas in common with the American tap dance are the clacquettes (not exactly the same, but similar): metal taps mounted on the heel and tip that convert one's feet into a very sensitive percussion instruments. Finally, the American tap dance has multiple facets that go from an innovator as Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson (1878-1949) to masters as Fred Astaire (1899-1987)98 and Gene Kelly (1912-1996).99 In any case the American tap dance, unlike the Irish dance, is musically based on jazz and other styles derived from it.

98 Stage name of Frederick Austerlitz.

99 Born Eugene Curran Kelly.

In 1965 the Riverdance Company starts its performance activity. Since this show is one of the models for the present chapter, it is worth to analyze, although briefly, some of its technical-expressive features. The typical ensembles that accompany the Irish dance are composed of a fiddle (violin), solo or with a guitar, an Irish banjo, a bouzouki (μπουζούκι), a Neapolitan mandolin, a mandola and/or a bodhrán (drum);100 or also a tin whistle101 with guitar and/or two violins and a bodhrán, a concertina or accordion or bandoneón and a guitar. There is an endless number of possible combinations. In any case, in the most demanding shows, the ensemble can summon up to more than fifteen musicians. Just looking at the drummer surrounded by a huge amount of instruments is a show by itself. When the melody is more important than the rhythm (see further on) the ensemble can be mainly formed by strings, woods with Irish flute, Celtic harp,102 drum-set and percussion. Around the year 2000 more modern instruments such as, for example, the sax soprano joined the ensemble. Sometimes the percussionists (varying from one to four) compete with the rhythmic figurations played by the main dancer (or vice versa).

100 Percussion instrument. Frame drum hit with a wood stick called tippe or cipin. It comes in different sizes, with a diameter ranging between 25 and 65 centimeters. The player can control the skin tension, and therefore the tuning, by inserting the left hand behind the skin. As it is with any other instrument, there are several ways to play it.

101 Known also as English flageolet. It is a diatonic wind instrument with 6 holes and two-octaves range. It belongs to the recorder's family. The most common tin whistle is tuned in D or G, but, of course, it can be tuned also in other tonalities. It can be replaced or supported with the Irish flute, a transverse wooden flute.

102 Another typical Irish instrument. Its origins are in Scotland and its Gaelic name is cláirsach. It is small and with no pedals, using levers for half-tone steps.

Let us observe the music/dance structure. To a novice listener Celtic music might sound like a very long ostinato (frequently in D), whereas it is actually made of repeated modules. Since Irish dance isbased mostly on variation of a rhythmic pattern, melodic variations played by the tin whistle and the fiddle are much less important to dance; yet, they have the function of introducing new musical sections. Male and female dancers may just mark the first beat in the slow sections or drop the speed when an acceleration follows.

Riverdance live in Beijing, 2010.

Beginning: Reel Around The Sun.

If in cartoons music is composed and recorded first in order to guarantee a perfect synchronism with the image, in Celtic dance each piece is subordinated to the choreographic plan as, in fact, is the music composed by Bill Wheland, Donald Lunny, Ronald Hardiman and others. If one thinks to the famous ballets by Čajkovskij (Чайковский), well, Celtic dance is diametrically opposite and paradoxically close to the Broadway tap. Of course, the Russian composer could show a much higher compositional complexity, but this is not the point. The point is that the music function in the late-Romantic and early 1900 symphonic repertoire (at least up to Stravinskij (Стравинский), included),103 suggests a choreography as it were an interpretation of a story more than leading it step by step. As I will illustrate shortly, a performance of Irish dance is manly based on the show of the corps de ballet, since there is no even a rudimental story to follow. This is an apparently contradictory fact that deserves to be analyzed. The Irish dance is a show based on the performance of the corps de ballet. Someone could argue that this is true for any kind of dance, be it an ordinary dance or a ballet. Since the Irish dance has a very weak narrative thread, the spectator's attention is driven almost exclusively to stare at a large number of beautiful and very well synchronized bodies (it is not hard to see some points of connection with the military parades and the tattoos).104 It is not by chance, then, that rhythm prevails over the horizontal melody and its narrative ability (but there are exceptions).105

After all, there is nothing or almost nothing to tell and even if the CD's booklet does (because the production wants to lure the buyer), the narrative outline is not sufficiently strong to be easily followed throughout the show. The audience, though, seems to long for stories more than how it really does and since every production company must meet the spectators' real or presumed needs, they are driven off abstraction and forced to simplicity. Almost everyone commits this very serious mistake. My opinion concerns first the spectator or receiver (that is, what Nattiez called the esthesic106 point of view), the one who has always been led by a story and supposedly rejects pure abstraction. Is it really so? Are the producers right? But the problem is another: does the audience really need stories or has been induced to need them by the perseverance with which producers have always and in any case insisted on narrative?

103 Although in Stravinskij's case to a lesser extent if compared to the great Romantic composers.

104 This does not mean flatness. A perfect synchronization may be achieved above all at the end of the piece, but the most electrifying aspect of the show is the independence of each dancer or a small group of them.

105 In such cases, the dancers may wear black shoes with no metal taps and music may reverse its ordinary function, as the melody prevails now over rhythm.

106 Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Musicologie générale et sémiologie (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1987), 25-57. Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

While observing an Irish dance show one might think of the geometric and kaleidoscopic figures of Busby Berkeley (1895-1976) who, in the 1930s, with the help of a camera, brought a revolution in the concept of dance in musicals. He forwent the narrative component and favored elements of pure abstraction. His corps de ballet, when observed from above, showed abstract forms in constant motions that hid the anthropomorphic characteristic of its parts. They also decorated spirals wrapping around common objects whose size was magnified. In this case it was clear to detect if they were male or female dancers. However, the distorted proportions caused a strange psycho-perceptive deceit, for example in We're in the Money or Waltz of the Shadows in Gold Diggers of 1933 (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, music Harry Warren, lyrics Al Dubin). Who knows if all this had an influence on Alfred Hitchcock who, in the thirty years that separate Blackmail (1929) from North by Northwest (1959), played with distorted proportions. In other words, the trick was to juxtapose a very big object to a very small one, thus producing an unpleasant inversion of the natural proportions. Berkeley's concept of dance in Gold Diggers of 1935 (dir. Bubsy Berkeley, music Bernhard Kaun & Hein Romheld, song Harry Warren, lyrics Al Dubin) and the Irish dance also have in common a taste for bodies' multiplication, that is, a sort of 'repetition compulsion' that Berkeley often created with the help of mirrors (as it can be seen in the finale of the musical A Chorus Line by Richard Attenborough, 1985). Despite that, there is a difference between Berkeley and the Irish dance: in his most original creations, Berkeley asked the dancers for silence. This had two motivations: to not damage the sense of abstractions and to honor a Hollywood film-musical tradition that in these kinds of movies cedes the whole acoustic space to the orchestra. In the Irish dance, instead, every dancer, being part of a musical whole, must use his/her own body to produce clearly distinguishable percussive sounds. After Riverdance, Michael Flatley took advantage of the bird-eye-view shot already employed by Berkeley and put two big screens at both sides of the stage. Of course, the result is very different: what in Berkeley was pure kaleidoscopic utopia, in Flatley is just a projection of the bodies while they move quickly and draw simple geometric figures. In any case, the basic idea is quite similar.

Seen from afar the girls seem to be the most gracious and refined of all those I saw while preparing this essay. Especially in the 'classic' period of Riverdance and thanks to Jean Butler — fascinating as any other — the dancers often wore neck-to-waist tight black attires, decorated with a colorful drape, a bell-like puffing around the hips and a very short skirt. See-through leggings completed the outfit, while the arms could be either naked or wrapped with embroideries. In a long-shot video recording it is barely possible to single each one out by her hair color. The result is a provoking, but elusive elegance that is also radiant and cheerful. I have just described one costume, but, of course, it changes at every new group number. Yet, despite the sophistication, they just look like femmes d'à coté,107 and this increases their charm.

107 Literally, 'the woman next door', which is also the English title of one of François Truffaut's film (La femme d'à coté, 1981) [EN].

One of the typical Irish dance's movements is walking on tiptoe while making continuous leaps forward with such a lightness as if gravity has been tamed. Hands rest along the hips: this posture is usually taken when a male and a female dancer vie. It is not a real challenge, it is rather a joyful complicity — both look in one another's eye — based on reciprocal respect. Arms are stretched along the body especially when the rhythm of the choreography becomes very demanding and complicated both for small sections of the group and for each single dancer. Meanwhile, the main couple freely moves around the whole stage and dances as described above (or with other movements not mentioned here). So may do some groups by deploying in varied configurations: from a twirl to intersecting rows. In any case, an Irish dance's middle and final part is based both on the 'dialog' and synchronicity of the main couple and the chorus deployed before the audience.

Musical numbers include also a solo singer accompanied by a very discrete mixed choir. With regard to female solos, the singers do not have lyric voices; nonetheless they are always very in tune and can reach out a high register as they are weightlessly singing on tiptoe. This is as true for the first Riverdance soprano (Katie McMahon) as it is for all the singers who came after. To the contrary, in the shows danced and directed by Michael Flatley the virtuoso 'competition' between two 'electric' violinists recall some guests of Rieu's orchestra. It is the same kind of vulgarity, because femininity and gestures are very much displayed. The Riverdance's violinists, instead, are very different both for how they play and for what they wear, especially the talented and funny Eileen Ivers.

Flatley's shows became increasingly successful after the first half of the 1990s, certainly not only for and not because of the questionable taste of his resources. The reason why must be found in Flatley's solo performances and the percussive sounds he is able to yield even when music is absent. Or it can be found in his duos with the first ballerina and the precision with which the whole ensemble gets synchronized. It is like a human body multiplied twenty-six times or more; twenty-six bodies or more that beat main and secondary accents. And at the end, a sort of quick 'glissando' passes from the first ballerina to the second, the third and so on, as I have already described it in the tattoos (with one 'slight' difference: in the tattoos those 'glissandos' are made by bayonets and rifles).

As it is common to mix Riverdance with Irish Dance, so is to confuse the Riverdance group with the dancers-choreographers who have run it. All the dancers named here are part of a national phenomenon called Irish Dance. Riverdance is possibly the most famous Irish Dance company with many soloists and dancers who changed over the years. One of them is Flatley. He and Riverdance were one and the same thing since their debut in Dublin in 1994 until 1998. Follow: Lord of Dance, Feet of Flames and Celtic Tiger that Flatley created on his own. Then, Flatley left the stage for thirteen years due to a quarrel with a producer (at least this is the official version). Colin Dunne, who is far less an exhibitionist than Flatley, assisted him since the debut of Riverdance and eventually took his place.

However, the first encounter and the following collaboration between Colin Dunne and Jean Butler is older than the collaboration with Flatley; it goes back to 1993 and the show Mayo 5000. Their partnership in projects other than Riverdance was reestablished some years later with Dancing on Dangerous Ground, premiered in London at the Royal Drury Lane Theatre in 1999. The show made its American debut in New York at Radio City Music Hall in 2000. In addition to Jean Butler and Colin Dunne, who also were the founders, Dancing on Dangerous Ground includes Tony Kemp, a middle-aged actor who is not a dancer. The show is an hour-and-fifteen-minutes pastiche apparently based on an ancient Irish legend. The narrative aspect is much more present here than in Riverdance, as well as the melodic component of the music that is interpreted now by the first parts with movements that the previous shows did not have. In short, it is a boring, hybrid product lying between abstraction and relevant narrative intentions blend with group performances that recall of a Riverdance show.

Jean Butler had been part of Riverdance since 1994 after receiving an invitation from the producer Moya Doherty. Around 2009, Jean Butler reached the age of retirement from the stage and since then she has devoted herself to teaching. Let us summarize now the historical data of Riverdance:


event / protagonists


Riverdance: The Show
Michael Flatley & Jean Butler

Colin Dunne joined the Cast and the Creative Team
of Riverdance


Riverdnace: Live from New York City
Michael Flatley & Jean Butler


Michael Flatley left Riverdance


Riverdance: Live from Geneva
Breandán de Gallaí (aka Brendan Galway)
& Joanne Doyle


Riverdance: Live from Radio City Music Hall
Colin Dunne & Jean Butler


Riverdance: Live from Beijing
Padraic Moyles & Asinn Ryan


Riverdance from Dublin
for the visit of Queen Elizabeth II
Padraic Moyles & Maria Buffini

My impression is that in the period when Jean Butler shared not only the role of first ballerina with Michael Flatley, but also the creation and direction of choreographies, she had been able to soften her partner's excesses, at least to a certain extent. This is clear, for example, by looking at the dancers' costumes, which have already been described above. However, without Jean Butler, it happened, among other things, that in order to match some narrative event they would suddenly stage a striptease by taking off the main costume and remaining in a two-piece suit which stood half-way between underwear and a stage cloth. Such a thing, of course, did not contribute to raise the quality of the show. After Butler's retirement, Riverdance recovered a sense of good taste thanks to Colin Dunne, the ever smiling Padraic Moyles and others.

If I had more space I would explore other changes occurred over the years both in Riverdance and the Irish dance in general. Thus, a separate chapter, for example, would have been dedicated to the Celtic Women: a vocal trio, quartet or quintet joined by a violinist and accompanied by a conventional orchestra. However, the pleasure one finds in speaking about good artists would have considerably diminished.

DVD Michael Flatley Lord of the Dance (1966).Recorded at the Point Theatre in Dublin. Stage design Jonathan Park, stage lighting design Patrick Woodroffe, stage costume design Sue Blabe; additional choreography Marie Duffy-Messenger; music Ronan Hardiman; orchestration and conducting Anne Dudley; stage director Arlene Phillips; direction David Mallett; conception and choreography Michael Flatley. German edition, Polygram 047 810 2.
YouTube (last accessed: 12/24/2014).
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

VHS Riverdance Die Show, Live aus der Radio City Music Hall, New York (1997), with Jean Butler, Colin Dunne, Maria Pagés, The Moscow Folk Ballet Co — Tarik Winston; music Bill Whelan; direction John McColgan. Production Tyrone, Daniel B. Wooten, Eileen Ivers, Ivan Thomas. German edition, Columbia Tristar Hi-Fi Stereo Dolby 26304, 1997. Total running time 94'.
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

DVD Riverdance. Live from New York City (1997), same content as the previous video, except for the total running time: 102'. DTS, Irish Edition. Celtic Music,
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

DVD Riverdance, two-disc collector's edition. Music Bill Whelan. Production Moya Doherty; direction John McColgan. Live From Radio City Music Hall. Disc 1: same content as the previous DVD; Disc 2: Bonus, Riverdance the Documentary — 10 years, Riverdance in China Documentary, Riverdance on the BBC's Pebble Mill. BBC Disc 3000014456, 2008 (1996).
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

DVD Michael Flatley's Feet of Flames (1988). Recorded at Hyde Park in London. Live Event Produced & Directed by Michael Flatley. Original music Ronan Hardiman; film executive producer Michael Flatley, Helene Parker, Martin Fitton; film producer Diane Orrom; film direction David Mallet. German edition, Universal 058 452 3 (2005).
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

DVD Michael Flatley Gold (2000). Partially recorded in Budapest and mixed with pre-existing pieces as well as preview pieces. Bonus. Executive Director Michael Flatley, Director Nick Morris, Producers Celia Baker, Dione Horrom, Executive Producer Michael Flatley, Helen Parker, Martin Flitton, French edition, Universal  078 546 2 (2000).
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

DVD Michael Flatley Starring in Celtic Tiger (2005). Show created, produced and directed by Michael Flately; music Ronan Handiman; Direction for the screen David Mallet. Production for screen Dione Orrom; executive producers Michael Flatley, Martin Fitton and Helen Parker. Bonus. Universal 8236805 (2005).
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

DVD Riverdance Live from Beijing (2010, 15th Anniversary of the show). Music Bill Whelan. Production Moya Doherty; direction John McColgan. With: Padraic Moyles and Aislinn, Moscow Folk Ballet, Yolanda Gonzáles Sobrado, Ralph Cato, Kelly Isaac, Junior Laniyan and Brioni Gallagher, Wu Xiao Fang, Zhang Jian. Tyrone Kultur D4727.
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

DVD Lord of the Dance (2011) (Le retour de Michael Flatley). Bonus, Filmed in Dublin and London during the European tour in 2011. Music Ronan Hardiman; lighting design Mark Cunniffe; film edition Tom Palliser; photography direction Nick Wheeler. Executive producers Michal Flatley, Stephen Marks and Steve Carsey; film production Kit Hawkins and Vicki Bethavas. Show created, produced and directed by Michael Flatley; film direction Marcus Viner. French edition, Kaleidoscope.
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

DVD The Best of Riverdance, featuring Michael Flatley, Jean Butlerm Colin Dunne, Johanne Doyle, Breandán de Gallaí. Music Bill Vhelan; production Moya Doherty; direction John McColgan. Bonus, Kultur 2982. No other available data.
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

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