The Joyce Theater celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with a riveting and rhythmic run by the midwestern Trinity Irish Dance Company. The company, under the direction of founding artistic director Mark Howard, claims to be the birthplace of “progressive Irish dance,” a genre which uses traditional Irish step dance in contemporary choreographies alongside both traditional and contemporary music. The company presented a number of short pieces, mainly by Howard, as well as one new commission by tap stars Michelle Dorrance and Melinda Sullivan.
The program opened with dancers dancing a cappella in and out of spotlights, immediately establishing percussive precision. Soon, we saw the shadows of musicians in the background—guitarists, a fiddler, and a drummer—that quickly came to focus as colored lighting (by Al Crawford) scanned the audience like a rock concert. The band started loud and fierce, and the dancers moved at lightning speed: On heels, on toes, and with feet crossing in the air, they glided across the floor with straight backs and broad smiles.
Music is central to Irish dance, and so to this production. The dancers are musicians, and equally, musicians are given opportunities to take center stage. In between dance pieces, musicians Christopher Delvin (guitar and vocals), Jake James (fiddle and bódhran), Steven Rutledge (percussion), and leader Brendan O’Shea (guitar and vocals) interluded with contemporary and traditional Irish songs. At one point, James and O’Shea had a duo in playful competition, challenging each other with accents and dynamics. Demonstrating the natural-occurring relationship of the sister art forms of the evening, James and O’Shea, who laughed and grinned as they played, couldn’t help but dance.
Later, James, who is an all-Ireland fiddle champion, was featured again alongside dancer Ali Doughty in her solo, “Sparks,” which she choreographed with Howard. In sparkling blue and black, Doughty floated in and out of the space and around James on her toes, elegantly skimming the stage and then stepping firmly into it with excellent footwork. With Doughty, as with all of the dancers, it is impossible to tell where, exactly, all of the intricate sounds are coming from. We see their feet moving clearly, but it’s almost like the percussion is resounding from some other inconspicuous source, in some other secret place hidden from view.
The second act featured one of the most virtuosic displays of technique with “Push,” a series of complementary and contradictory duets and solos, which began with Associate Artistic Director Chelsea Hoy. Hoy had an especial maturity and command of her upper body in addition to a mastery of stepping. Five other dancers joined Hoy, and after their respective features, they danced together in a circle around the lively musicians. As the program note read, it was “percussive power on equal footing.” Following “Push” was Dorrance and Sullivan’s piece “American Traffic,” which was made for the company in 2020 but had its New York City premiere that evening. “American Traffic” blended Irish step and American tap and gave the dancers an opportunity to swing, both in their rhythms and in their bodies, as they loosened their arms and legs, giving more weight into the floor, though still maintaining their held Irish dance posture.
Throughout the show, the audience was thoroughly engaged, hollering and applauding, stomping and clapping. Before “Push” and “American Traffic,” O’Shea, who has been the Trinity Dance band’s lead singer for over 25 years, sang an original piece. Entitled “Listen,” it is based on the old Irish tune “Óró sé do bheatha abhaile,” which became an anthem of rebellion during the 20th century and translates to “welcome to begin again now that the summer’s coming.” Before beginning his tune, O’Shea announced its inspiration and said, “if you know it, sing along,” “I do!” someone exclaimed from the audience. Then, O’Shea began, and the whole theater burst into song.