Monday, January 24, 2005

(D) December 7, 2003 - Riverdance

THIS is the real McCoy in which Irish history is abbreviated into about two hours. The title Riverdance is analogous to that history. Like a river that is fed by many streams, and then flows out into the ocean, the Irish people came from different origins. Centuries later, they “flowed” out of Ireland to other parts of the world.

At the same time, it also signifies the return of the Irish from different parts of the world and different cultures converging back into one mighty river. The relationship with the river immediately reminds us of our emotional connection with nature.

Listening is an important activity in order to appreciate this show. One has to listen to the ebb and flow of the dance as much as seeing it and immerse into the synchronised sounds of tap to music, song and storyline. The story is explicit, simple and clear – it takes you through movements of creation, emigration, and homecoming. Some of you may find this a relief, as you are no longer left to “interpret” the meaning of the performance, unlike contemporary dance.

While still holding true to the traditional Irish dance form, the production has introduced and incorporated various dance styles and cultures into their act. You will spot three types of “percussive” dance – Irish dance, American tap, and the Spanish Flamenco. You would also notice jazz, modern and ballet dance infused with the signature Irish legwork.

I have conveniently lumped Irish dance, American tap and Flamenco into the percussive dance category because these three styles, using the feet, produce rhythmic sounds, which come from the dancers’ shoes. These can be dance items on its own or it can act as a percussion instrument, contributing and complementing to music in an ensemble. When this happens, the dancer also assumes the role of a musician. They treat the floor as a drum and his or her feet would execute the rhythms, which can become more complex and challenging as ability increases.

The Irish dance is more “folk” of the three dances. Central to folk dance is the sense of community where a group of people congregate to dance. As such, you will usually find the dance performed in a group although there are solo items. Observe how they cooperate to build formations of circles and squares. Various patterns come into place when the formation becomes more complex with a fair amount of travelling (use of stage space), and the multiple layers of circles and squares, Vs or its conventional straight files.

When the dancers move in unison, there is a sense of participation in the mass movement. The group becomes one in conscious strength and purpose, and the feeling of oneness with one’s fellows which is essential to collective dancing is one of the principal reasons for the growth, persistence and enjoyment of folk dancing.

You will also notice an element of progression in the dance where the first individual, couple or group starts the dance and not until the second repetition of the dance does another become active. It demands from the dancer the perception of the beat and sensitivity to musical phrases.

The Irish dance primarily comprises legwork, while the upper body is kept stiff and straight. The intricate and blindingly fast footwork producing the loud, tapping sounds, which are in time with the music, is something to listen and look out for.

Apparently, there is a debate among archaeologists about the origins of Ireland’s first inhabitants. Spain is a likely source as there is evidence of a civilisation that existed before the Celts arrived from parts of France and Britain.

Aside from historical digs, the dance itself provides clues of the more permanent presence and impact left on Irish culture by the latter countries.

Of course, I could be wrong but some of the legwork is suspiciously similar to ballet, in which its basic (dance) positions were born in France.

For lack of a better description, most of the “shuffles” (two consecutive tap sounds created using the balls of the feet) are sort of in the first position (feet together in a V shape) but with one leg shuffling in front and the other providing still support at the back. It is very unique to find the female dancers doing a 360-degree turn on pointes (standing on their toes to turn). This is evidently more ballet-ish and feminine when performed with soft-shoes known as “ghillies”, which are made of soft leather; but it can also be done using the hard shoes. Other signature legwork is the full leg lifts (resembling an “assemble” where the ballet dancer would throw one leg up and springs off the other) which they extend towards the front, and the partial leg lifts in which the lower leg flicks towards the left or right.

A lot of footwork consists of tap that requires speed, agility and accuracy, but the legwork requires the balance, grace, and strength of a ballet dancer.

The dynamics of this dance is very strong and there is a very high level of energy reverberating through the stage. But a good choreographer would tell you that you shouldn’t stay in one dynamic for too long. That would be the technical reason, storyline and history aside, for incorporating other types of dance into the whole show to break the monotony.

The item “Trading Taps” depicts the culture clash between traditional Irish dance and American tap that ends in mutual respect. Here we see the obvious difference between the two styles. The American tap is highly influenced by elements of jazz and hip hop and allows a considerable amount of whole-body movements.
It is said that the people who really know the worth of rhythm are tap and jazz dancers. It demands an acute coordination between ear and body, awareness of accent, energy punctuated by beat, and the control of the change or shift of body weight.

The Flamenco is most versatile in terms of dynamics. While the feet can be in staccato, arms and body can move simultaneously in legato. The rich mixture of those sinuous, sensuous arms combined with exciting heel-beats cooks up a feast for the eyes and ears. One can be totally seduced by the dramatic maturity of the dancer, her deadly eye contact and the flaming red dress!

In addition to dance, there are of course many other things to look out for – the mesmerising live accompaniment and beautiful singing, both in groups or solo, colourful costumes, unique set design, glints of cultures from around the world, and so on. All in, it will be a night to remember.

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