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Nashville Scene Washed Up

Loud music, multicultural muddle in "Riverdance"

By Maureen Needham

MARCH 29, 1999:  By now, most everyone is familiar with Riverdance, the Irish dance production that helped spark a revival of interest in Celtic culture a few years ago. Nashvillians are finally getting their chance to see what all the fuss is about in the touring production of Riverdance, running through Sunday at TPAC.

Even though Riverdance came just in time for St. Paddy's day, nobody wore green on opening night. Most everyone onstage was dressed in black tees, black leather shoes, and black jeans or short skirts with black stockings. The apparel seemed more appropriate for a rock concert.

In fact, the whole undertaking had an arena-rock feel: The dark sets in the first act were brightened by an elaborate golden eye posed between Stonehenge-like columns, which looked for all the world like scenery designed for the Rolling Stones, or Spinal Tap. The music, composed by Bill Whelan, had its share of dark tones too. Cranked up to tinnitus-inducing levels, it beat a militant tattoo that could not be overshadowed even by the harsh prerecorded taps of some three dozen dancers.

Except for the two stars, nobody smiled. Where was the fabled Irish twinkle, let alone any kind of agreeable eye contact with the audience? The solemnity shouldn't be that surprising, though, since Irish step-dance is a rather severe dance form, highly restrictive in its movement. The dancer is expected to carry the upper body in as rigid a fashion as possible. Arms are held clenched tightly to the sides. The head looks straight ahead, and the torso is held stiffly.

Not much of the body is left free for action, but Irish step-dance does make the most of what is permitted: Feet tap at rapid pace, legs kick high, knees lift and twist about. Partly because it is so stereotypically masculine, traditional Irish dance is actually quite exciting, albeit from the hips down.

Even so, if anything enlivened this show, it was the infusion of other dance forms, such as tap, which allowed for much more fluid movement onstage. True, the American art of tap owes something to Irish step-dance, but it is truly an African American invention and so reflects the sophisticated characteristics of African dance. Arms gesture elegantly, torsos shake and undulate, heads punctuate the action. All these movements were fully evident in "Trading Taps," when several Irish dancers challenged three African Americans to a duel. Tap dancers Van "The Man" Porter, Martin "Tre" Dumas III, and Parris Mann proved favorites of the audience as they engaged in carefree one-upmanship against Kevin McCormack, the uncharismatic male star of the show.

The program also offered a look at another contrasting dance form when Rosa Manzano Jimenez performed several solos in a Spanish style. Unfortunately, Whelan's heavy, thudding music countermanded the subtlety of Jimenez's expression. She had to perform her entire solo full-out to be heard over and above the music. It is a tribute to her artistry that Jimenez managed to convey some of the passion and drama of Spanish dance, for the overweening production values of Riverdance did everything to flatten her dancing.

The second act provided a rudimentary dramatic frame that rhapsodized about immigrants arriving in a new land, presumably America. But the narrative simply did not hold together. At one point, the curtain rose unexpectedly on three African Americans who began to tap playful improvisations. Meanwhile, Irish dancers continued to do their thing, even in "Heartbeat of the World: Andalucia," a segment featuring a Spanish dancer. "Morning in Macedonia," with its Russian folk dancers, was no less baffling. The production never quite explained how these diverse cultural traditions fit together--even in the melting-pot context.

A continuity of sorts was provided throughout Riverdance--The Show by the talented and extremely beautiful Niamh Roddy, the female leading dancer. She added the glamor to the production while the Riverdance Singers, an exquisite ensemble, contributed the real poetry to the show. If not for these elements, Riverdance would be a bore--a thematic muddle, with too much flash and little sense of style.

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