Most Americans have seen Irish folk dance somewhere, whether on TV or at a local mall. Kids march out on the stage, arms cemented to their sides so stiff and straight they look more like miniature soldiers than dancers. But their feet kick and twirl them across the stage in a dance that is fast, furious and extremely athletic.
It's also a bit of a one-trick pony. After 30 minutes you've seen just about all there is to see. It's not surprising that the biggest problem of the extravaganza Riverdance - The Show, on stage at Jones Hall, is its two-hour length.
Irish folk dance got famous in a seven-minute performance on a 1994 Eurovision pop-song contest. That wildly successful though very brief moment in the international spotlight propelled the homely little dance into a huge phenomenon. But in order to build an entire big-budget, big-ticket-price show around the dance, producer Moya Doherty and director John McColgan had to do some fancy footwork themselves. And what they came up with is a confounding, mushy mishmash of Irish folk dance, vaguely Irish-sounding music, other folk dance from all over the globe and a voice-over storyteller given to huge mythic-sounding statements about Irish history that are laughably melodramatic.
The show, which appears to want to be some sort of salute to Irish culture, begins with stereotypical Celtic pagan images. Painted on an enormous scrim is a big, round, yellow moon floating in a river of clouds. Robert Ballagh's set also includes mammoth faux boulders that fall together, creating gaps from which the dancers enter and exit. Think Stonehenge meets Vegas. Lots of vapory fog floats around the stage. And blinding flashes of lightning let the audience know that what they're about to see is big and dramatic and most of all, worth all the dough they laid out for their tickets. These pyrotechnics are heart-racing crowd pleasers even if they don't have much substance.
Just in case the audience misses the point, a disembodied narrator with a low, imposing and emotionally overwrought voice lets the audience in on the fact that the Celts were pagan, saying such hocus-pocus things as, "The sun is our lord and father" and "out of the dark, out of the night" we came. Actually, very little is known about ancient Celtic culture. Everything that gets sold in New Age book stores and silly theatrical ventures is speculation and mythmaking. But it's kind of fun to suspend belief for a while and live in this world of spinning girls whose small feet pop up to the tips of their toes, then tap out a rhythm faster and more complicated than the eye can follow.
The dancing is wonderful. And stars Eileen Martin and Pat Roddy are as beautiful as they are athletic. It is the blatant athleticism of this dancing that makes it so different from most other kinds of dance. These dancers don't gyrate their hips, don't flap their arms, don't bend their backs a bit. Their arms stay pinned mercilessly to their sides while their chins and eyes remain dead level and weirdly void of much emotion (contrary to the practically shivering voice of the storyteller).
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As the show pushes forward, it moves Irish culture through the millennium. Often this move is indicated with the dancers meeting up with some new culture, some new dance steps. In Act I flamenco dancer Nuria Brisa pushes through a crowd of Irish dancers. The gorgeous eroticism of Brisa's long body, the curve of her neck, and her lovely hands and fingers that snake up and down to a sultry dark rhythm are in stark relief to the almost chilly, straitlaced quality of the Irish dancers.
During Act II the Irish make their way to America. The dancers' vests suggest they have come off the boat sometime in the late 19th century. They encounter a trio of African-American tap dancers (Toby Harris, Rolondas Hendricks and Karen Callaway Williams) and begin "Trading Taps." This hip-hop-filled dance is completely anachronistic, but this show doesn't care much about logic. Besides, the tarty, fluid and inventive moves of the tappers are the scene-stealers of the entire production. Irish folk dance is stiff in comparison to the slink of the flamenco or the humor of hip-hop.
Even though the Irish dancers are not as creative, or sexy, or wild as their brethren from other cultures, there is something undeniably thrilling about the way these young people spin across the stage. And that thrill must have something to do with the standing ovations they received during the evening. Like all great athletes, they had the fans on their feet, cheering every triumphant leap, twirl and tap.
Riverdance -- The Show runs through June 27 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, (713)629-3700. $40.50-$69.50.