A conventional history of modern Irish dance credits the 1994 Eurovision interval performance of Riverdance in Dublin for launching a phenomenon. It shot principal dancer and choreographer Michael Flatley to stardom and before too long there were spinoffs and imitators. But where did it go?
Healesville’s own Anthony Street (a former principal dancer of Flatley’s Lord of the Dance) brings his take on the art form with Celtic Illusion, which combines “contemporary Irish dance and music with grand scale illusions”.
A YouTube clip of Celtic Illusion was pretty snappy, and the blarney of the promotional material had me primed with anticipation of what an Australian mindset could bring to an established template. I was enthused by the opening. Street danced and postured his way around the crouched ensemble, female dancers coming to life and fixating on him as he passed. So over-the-top was the sequence, that when combined with the promotional images, I felt sure that we would get an opening parody of Irish dancing, particularly referencing Flatley’s vaunted appeal and appetite for women.
We didn’t quite get the irreverence or reinvention I was hoping for. It is unfortunate that some of the choices, such as female dancers wearing frozen grins like synchronised swimmers for many of their routines, work against differentiating one routine from the next and restrict the ability of the dancers to express character. While certain dancing formations or steps might suit the musical style well, interest can be doused over time by their repetition. Against this, there were scenes that departed from gamboling woodland nymphs, taking on an unexpected, and more interesting, urban attitude.
The magical tricks that were supposed to provide the point of difference for this show weren’t remarkable by modern standards, as the somewhat tepid applause showed. It seemed elements of the show had been conceived without consideration of what else is happening in popular culture. For example, we can watch a show like Australia’s Got Talent and see the group Soul Mystique punch out more impressive costume changes.
I might have been more enthused if there had been a story to hang on to. Unlike some of the offerings of Lord of the Dance, Celtic Illusion doesn’t make too much of an attempt to connect the dance to the musical interlude or the magic. However, when I think back to other episodic shows I’ve enjoyed – the innovation of Tap Dogs from about ten years ago, or the riveting Stomp’13 last year – I can’t find the same enthusiasm for this well-mannered performance. It seems that I prefer shows with a bit of mongrel in them.
From a production standpoint, this is a slick outing. The array of colourful costumes are a treat for the eye,and the live bodhrán, flute and violin bring feeling to their segments. Street, principal dancer Peta Anderson (Riverdance and Noctu) and the ensemble maintain energetic performances and display impeccable timing, particularly in the tapping sequences.
If you missed the peak of the craze or like Irish dance already, then Celtic Illusion seems to be a largely faithful tribute to its predecessors in a family-friendly show.