For the company’s first full evening at home in a decade, the Trinity Irish Dance Company commanded the Auditorium Theatre’s big, beautiful stage on Saturday. The engagement is the second of three that make up the “Made in Chicago” dance series this season, part of the Auditorium’s ongoing commitment to presenting local companies. It’s a rarity for this series that the balcony is open for seating, but unsurprising for TIDC that it and the main floor were full — people love this company.
And for good reason. Founding artistic director and chief choreographer Mark Howard ushered in a new era for Irish step dance, one which led directly to commercialized stadium tours like “Riverdance.” Since 1990, Howard and TIDC have sought to locate Irish step dance, a 17th-century cultural dance form, in the now, developing a cool vibe, and stretching the limits of what Irish dance can do aesthetically and rhythmically.
In so doing, the company’s women — 18 in all — ditch the curly wigs for loose ponytails or top knots. In place of the stereotypical embroidered dresses are modern lines and, occasionally, gender-neutral costumes that match those of TIDC’s two men, be it kilts or pants. Their works speak to themes and stories unique to modern day Irish-American immigrants. But let me be clear: It’s not radical, by any stretch of the imagination.
The evening featured nine dances and three musical interludes by four musicians playing fiddle, percussion and a variety of acoustic and electric guitars. Each piece flowed one into the next; all attempts to follow along with the program were in vain, but the night was enjoyable in its ever-moving fast pace (and multiple lightning-fast costume changes). Older pieces like “Johnny” — which first brought national attention to the company thanks to its namesake, Johnny Carson, and an appearance on “The Tonight Show” in 1991 — and Sean Curran’s sassy schoolgirl piece called “Curran Event,” (2000) have been updated to match the technical panache of the other works on the bill ranging from 2004 to 2019. And the phenomenal musicians of the TIDC band provide perfect transitions between pieces, with the exception of a surprise for the audience at the end of Brenden O’Shea’s guitar arrangement of Paul McCartney’s “Mull of Kintyre”; a band of bagpipe players processed the aisles to join along, but couldn’t hear each other because, you know, bagpipes are really, really loud. Having never been that close to eight bagpipes before, I never want to be again.
Anyway, an obvious emotional range is how I came to differentiate between works. At one end of the spectrum is “Communion” (2014), a tender work performed in nontraditional slippers and dance dresses by Kristine Fatchet. Choreographers Howard and Sandy Silva used the dresses’ three vinyl panels — one at each thigh and one above the heart — to pat rhythms, a cappella, with fiddler Jake James joining occasionally for sparsely placed plunks and flourishes on the violin. The shoes worn are a sort of halfway between the soft slippers and hard-soled shoes emblematic of Irish dance, and when tapped and dragged on the stage create an effect similar to soft-shoe tap dancing.
The delicate “Communion” follows the evening’s rousing climax, in which Howard fuses his 2018 work with Richard Griffin, “A New Dawn,” into “Black Rose,” which he created in 2004. The latter is a tour de force for this company, employing rhythm sticks and hard shoes, and percussionist Stephen Rutledge at center playing a massive Lambeg drum originating from Northern Ireland. It is here that, I think, we best experience the weight of history and culture married with rhythm and emotion.
However, group work after group work and the flowing nature of the program, while an attribute, made the homogeneity of Irish dancing more obvious. Put another way, each piece had its own flavor, but it’s all part of the same food group. This can make it hard to extract substance or meaning from each of the dances independently, apart from the admittedly infectious, smile-inducing rhythms coming from the dancers’ feet and musicians’ instruments, and it becomes tempting to see this form as nothing more than pure entertainment.
That’s what made the evening’s finale most compelling for me. In “An Sorcas,” Gaelic for “The Circus,” Howard and associate artistic director Chelsea Hoy point a mirror on themselves to question the balance between artistic substance and commercialized spectacle in their medium. As the piece opens, we see a glorious huge disco ball (thanks to lighting designer Al Crawford) and hear rousing applause. The dancers, wearing over-the-top sequined flourishes over black tops and kilts, face upstage and bow as the band plays a rock-inspired score. By the end, they’ve shed their sparkles for pared-down costumes and less flashy movements, a nod at Irish dance’s humble beginnings as a social dance. This sort of self-reflection is interesting, even more so when the mood breaks, a big “TRINITY” logo is projected on the cyclorama, and the curtain call — a showy bit set to C+C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now” — ensues.
Lauren Warnecke is a freelance critic.