Bairbre McCarthy is the kind of artist who can lead her listener to imagine the fantastic. With her singsong brogue and her radiant demeanor, she is a storyteller you would love to invite into your home, seat her alongside your hearth and beg her to spin an endless stream of fanciful Celtic tales.
Choreographer Ellen Sinopoli, always on the outlook for talent, recognized McCarthy’s gift to engage and invited her to narrate for her modern dance ensemble. Their first creation was “Selchie,” the mysterious and joyous work based on the myth of the Irish sea creature. From that success grew “Celtic Footprints,” which was seen this past weekend at the Arts Center of the Capital Region.
It started out as an Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company vehicle for schoolchildren in which students would learn of the historic Celtic migration through Eastern Europe and into the United States, while at the same time learning to appreciate dance and myth. It was so popular, it was expanded for an adult audience. The result is a fun, silly and instructive evening of stories and dance.
Against the backdrop of a map that traced the migration with footprints and shamrocks, McCarthy and the dancers told stories of Marika, who was captured by goblins, a farmer who visited the northwest wind and the children of Lir, who were turned into swans by their evil stepmother. Standing off to the side, McCarthy’s words flowed. The dancers gave shape to those words in imaginative and amusing ways, and by hamming up the trials and triumphs of these characters.
Sinopoli’s veterans engaged as they put on many of these childlike personas. Laura Teeter was adorable but determined as Marika, the girl with no story until she was kidnapped. Melissa George was feisty as the farmer who wanted to tangle with the wind. And Jennifer Yankel appeared hard and heartless as the conniving stepmother and then mischievous as the adventurous boy Jack.
The other dancers filled in the tales by fashioning themselves into a gold-bearing donkey, a flock of chickens, a field of crops and a herd of unicorns. Not only did their configurations heighten the action, they also spoke of Sinopoli’s ingenuity as a choreographer. Her cleverness carried the viewer along.
The evening’s highlight was the showing of excerpts from the uplifting “Selchie.” George appeared engimatic and gracious in the all-important opening scene. She sold the work with her elegance and thus kept eyes focused on the beautifully inspiring dance that followed.
Holding it all together, between shifts in costumes and music, was McCarthy. Her presence was so charming that one could easily forget to anticipate the dance. And even though there were moments that she spoke to the audience as if we were children, it was forgiven. McCarthy cast a Celtic spell from which no one is immune.
Sinopoli must have been imbued with the luck of the Irish when she found her.