Darrah Carr Dance entered the stage like sunlight pouring gently into a sleeping room: a wave of bodies stepping onto an empty stage softly but swiftly conquering the space with exuberance. Seán Curran and Darrah Carr’s “Céilí,” which premiered in the new state of the art Irish Arts Center in Hell’s Kitchen, refers to the Irish word for a house party. The set (by Mark Randall) is an outline of a house, with golden-brown roof beams hanging from above, a window positioned stage right, and wooden benches lining both sides of the stage. A collaboration between the two Irish American choreographers and their companies, “Céilí” is a joyful celebration of community.
Curran and Carr are old friends. Both choreographers began their companies in the 1990s and they have collaborated on dances before. Though both came from Irish step backgrounds, it is really Carr whose focus remains on the traditional form, using it as a primary language from which to build contemporary choreography. It is Carr’s dancers who do most of the stepping in “Céilí.” Curran’s company, on the other hand, uses postmodern vocabulary evidently influenced by the choreographer’s award-winning time with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company.
If the Carr dancers entered softly as a sunrise, the Curran dancers entered like a gust of wind. Entering from the audience (the Irish Arts Center theatre has raised seating on a flat stage, and the dancers entered from either side of the raised audience), these dancers flew in, jumping and swinging their arms, transferring their weight in huge shifts that teased falling off balance. The word ‘céilí’ also refers to a set of dances with spatial patterns derived from Celtic knotwork. The whole piece plays with this idea in form, in space, and in terms of social interaction: At one point, two of the Curran dancers link hands and swing their arms back and forth. Suddenly, fellow dancers begin to feed in and through, like a continuous game of “London Bridge.”
An Irish ‘céilí’ is equal parts dance, music, and storytelling. Joining the dancers onstage were two excellent musicians, fiddler Dana Lyn and guitarist Kyle Sanna, who opened the evening with a prelude and interacted with the dancers and each other throughout the performance.
The dancers also provided percussive music, with stepping and body percussion, and an especially exciting rendition of “Box Tops,” a duet composed in 1985 by Tigger Benford and Martha Partridge, which features two dancers seated atop wooden boxes facing each other. Beating on the boxes, stomping their feet, and clapping hands in impressive syncopation, dancers Benjamin Freedman and Lauren Kravitz challenged each other playfully yet with intense focus.
There is no verbal storytelling in “Céilí,” but narratives do emerge, particularly from several solo and duet moments. Kendal Griffler danced with crisp and clear hard shoe steps, gliding across the room and welcoming the partygoers like a hostess. Freedman and fellow Curran dancer Jack Blackmon signaled an old friendship or a blossoming romance in a duet of mirroring, unison, and weight shifts. Returning for his own solo, Freedman used some of the same movements from the duet and of previous sections, but this time, instead of transferring weight playfully off balance, his shifts appeared more like sighs and his turns like questions, maybe even despairing.
The party concluded with more group dances, featuring, as a special treat, both choreographers who stepped right in to the intertwining spatial patterns. Like a good céilí, their appearance was accompanied by whoops and hollers from the crowd.