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Flash Review 1, 3-18: Fusion
Mixing it Up with Trinity at the New Victory

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Fusion is a funny thing. When it works, it's a marriage made in heaven. When it's a mismatch, you know right away. Examples of both results--as well as some in-general winningly high-spirited dance vivacity--are on view at the New Victory Theater, where Trinity Irish Dance opened a 10-day run Friday night.

But first, a disclaimer. This Flasher is definitely mismatched when it comes to adequately reviewing the traditional Irish step dancing which is the base for Trinity's creations. I can't even claim a dilettante's expertise. So if I focus on the two most adventurous fusion experiments, it's not because they took up most of the program, but because they best match my dance knowledge. In particular, my awareness of the Pilobolus/Momix/Iso line, and of that constant surprise of a polyglot that is Sean Curran.

The Pilobolus-y, Momix-y, Iso-y contribution came from Ashley Roland, a co-founder of Iso, former Momix star, and most recently co-founder of Bodyvox. You'd recognize the Momix from the get-go even if you didn't know Roland was the choreographer, when her 1999 "O'Reely" begins with a soundscape of radio channels being switched, intercut with other sounds like laughter. A screen drops upstage, and a smaller orange curtain drops about halfway downstage. The curtain ripples with life, and veteran Momix watchers will know what's coming: Suddenly some pairs of hands appear from beneath the curtain, step-dancing like feet. This is clever, but not as successfully executed as it might be by Momix; we can clearly see the dancers behind the curtain, somewhat diminishing the magic. (This may be more an effect of inexact lighting management, but don't quote me on that.)

Then the curtain comes up, and we're feted to a run of Pilobolan intertwining of limbs and Pilobolan lifts (the meathook among them, for you authorities out there), in colorful Pilobolan body suits, no less. The oh-so modern dance costumes seem artificially and awkwardly placed on these bodies, which have previously been skirted. Then come the droll expressions. Pilobolans and Momixians are just droll enough to carry these ultimately inane facial experiences off; in less clowny hands, the facial phrasing seems inanely cloying (cloyingly inane?), the dancers not entirely comfortable with such gestures. (Important distinction: I'm NOT saying the dancers were cloying-they're VERY honestly joyful, these performers-just that it seemed that way, probably because this more fluid facial style is unfamiliar to them.) More important, their bodies don't seem at home in the Pilobolan-Momixian phrases overall. Or it may be that it was too much to ask them to absorb this, while at the same time/in the same piece step-dancing. The two don't naturally meld, at least not as Roland has concieved this piece.

Enter the 2000 "Curran Event," choreographed by Curran with the dancers. Can I just say, when it comes to fusion, Sean Curran is THE man. When most people aim their choreographic chops at fusion, I--being a world beat man--yell, "Stop that man/woman!" or "Quick Mamie, hide the children!" But when Curran's at the fusionary helm, it becomes a visionary magical mystery tour, and instead I shout, "Everybody! Quick, come see! Alchemy is afoot!"

Curran earned my trust in this respect a couple of years back with "Symbolic Logic," a piece created on his own company to the music of Sheila Chandra. This voice of this Indian-born, London-residing artist has been used as shorthand for exotica by other choreographers, notably Stephen Petronio, and I was expecting the same from Curran. But far from a generalized piece of exotica generally set to the music, Curran found the universal patterns of the music--simply put, the math--and explored that geometry very specifically with angles and patterns he put his dancers through. In the Trinity piece, working to match original percussive Afro-Celt Sound System-like music by Kila and body percussion, Curran has built onto the dancers' step dancing lower bodies upper bodies mobilized inna modern dance stylee. We see this particularly in the right angles shaped by their arms. We also see it in the longitudinal and diagonal patterns, and in the street-tough "Yeah--ya gonna do something about it?" facial expressions with which he replaces their previously glistening smiles. The long uniformly curly hair pieces of the more traditional dances are gone, too, replaced by the dancers' varying natural hair; the exception being spunky soloist Sinead Kimbrell, who has greenish dreads threaded through her mane.

You can clearly see Curran's body in the phrases, yes, but more important, the dancers' own bodies seem utterly and totally engaged here. Where their upper bodies were more or less immobilized (on purpose, by the way) in the previous numbers, here Curran has mobilized them. With the confidence that comes from Curran's letting them keep their step-dancing base, they have been able to sally forth into modern territory, and make it look natural for them. There's even a very cool entrance by four dancers which nicely suggests, in the ferocity of the foot stomping, snakiness of the hands, and even witty turns of the heads--Flamenco.

The most brilliant example of fusion, tho, comes with a musical tour de force by percussionist/flautist Stone. He starts this solo interlude by playing the flute and bongos; then takes a mouth break to take a swig of water, only to turn that bottle into another wind instrument. Next he expands the mouth contribution by blowing, didgeridoo-like, into a lengthy tube. At one point he is at the same time blowing a wind instrument as playing a foot drum and symbol. Think Grateful Dead drum set.

With the caveat stated above, i.e. that I don't feel equipped to judge the more traditional Irish dance (I use 'judge' on purpose, because, from what I understand, a lot of this is world championship-level competition dancing, and I don't say that in a derogatory sense), let me perhaps offer a general spiritual response to the less fusionistic dance which comprised most of the program.

It's about 25 degrees in Manhattan as I write this. Yesterday it snowed on the short-skirted high school band performers making their way up 5th Avenue. They must have felt a chill. But in the New Victory Theater last night, these 20-odd mostly female dancers were on fire--to the point where I thought their feet were going to make the stage combust--ultimately warming us up. So many feet, so many legs, beating the stage floor at the same time--and yet, in a very controlled fashion, those torsoes remaining poised--become mesmerizing after a time. The champion of mobile legs and feet and static upper body was Darren Smith. His torso, face, and even smile were so isolated from his lower limbs, they really could have been someone else's legs. And what legs they were: loose and tight at the same time, from the knees down so fast and sharp they left a trail in the air, jet-plane like. If I have one complaint here, actually, it's that we did not see enough of Smith. No Cortez or Flatley he--he's content to be an in-between course for the women.

....And the kids. Last night's performance also featured six young women from the Lynn Petry School of Dance in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, one of several area schools, the New Victory publicist tells me, which exist solely to produce championship-caliber Irish (step?) dancers. Ranging from 10 to 15, they were Dorothy and Teresa Bailey, Caitlin (love that name) and Meghan Floyd, Annie Hager, and Elizabeth Newman.

Another reviewer in attendance last night scoffed (okay, slight exaggeration) when I asked for the names of the kids, "If you name all the kids, you'll have to name all the company, and that's as large as Church County."

I love a challenge. Here comes the rest of the county, which I list not to goad that reviewer but because they all danced with a vivacity to deserve the mention. They are, in addition to those already cited:

Deirdre Faughnan, Norine Holleck, Sarah Irwin, Diandra Jones, Patricia Mahon, Deirdre Mahoney, Shannon Malee, Ryan Marie Morris, Ashley Purl, Alisa Ranum, Colleen-Kate Robinson, Meagan Therese Rohan, Maureen Shea, Marie Short, Natalie Sliwinski, Joe Smith, Cathy Sobieski, Sadie Stotmeister, and Katie Wright. Heck, lets also give a shout out to the other musicians: Brendan O'Shea on guitar and vocals, Paul Woodiel on fiddle, Christopher Layer on flutes and pipes, and Sean Ryan on the same.

Trinity Irish Dance continues at the New Victory through March 26.

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