There was a time, about 20 years ago, when an Irish step dance spectacle would easily fill theater seats. But judging the Proctors crowd on Thursday night, the thrill is gone.
The theater presented “Rhythm of the Dance,” one of the many lower grade, copycats of “Riverdance — The Show” and “Lord of the Dance.” These big, arena-style shows had one thing in common: Michael Flatley. The Irish dance superstar, who can be single-handed credited for the surge of popularity of step dancing from the Emerald Isle, had a distinctive style that no one can duplicate.
But shows like “Rhythm of the Dance” make it a goal to do just that. And that is where it falters. Replicating someone else’s artistic vision is never wise. Going out on a limb to be authentic, even if it fails, is always better.
“Rhythm of the Dance” did have its charms. The 19 dancers were warm and friendly, and the five-piece band with flute, fiddle, Irish accordion, drum and guitar, played with enthusiasm. Three male tenors provided interludes of well-known Irish tunes including “Danny Boy” and “Red is the Rose.” All this was placed in a backdrop of an ancient stone ruin.
But as soon as Stephen Walker, the male lead dancer, appeared center stage, it was clear that its creators were simply trying to lean on Flatley’s success. All the trademark moves where clear — running backwards while clicking the heels mid-air, the arrow arm and the command of the taps of every other dancer that lined the stage. Choreographer Doireann Carney even had Walker pattern Flatley’s onstage flirtations.
Certainly, Flatley was an innovator. He was the first to have Irish step dancers lift their ramrod arms away from their rigid sides. For this great breakaway to continue to intrigue audiences, more choreographic innovation is vital. Irish dancing must not remain doing the same old thing once again. That’s a guarantee it will remain on the fringe.
The storyless “Rhythm of the Dance,” like “Riverdance,” hung on the sentimentality of the Irish diaspora. Old footage of Dublin and New York were projected above the heads on the performers. The singers, who did not harmonize well together, sang the songs of old. Yet their renderings were on the mechanical side, and thus surprisingly unmoving.
The dancers, including Arlene McVeigh, who played the colleen, and Emma O’Sullivan, the lead soloist, were skilled and alluring. With smiles, they led the ensemble with sweetness. At one point, and this was the only original number in the whole show, the soloists broke away and the ensemble busted out into the Charleston. While the piece was finally moving the show in its own direction, the shift didn’t fit the bill, nor last.
Throughout, the dancers donned sparkly costumes adorned in Celtic-inspired spirals laid out in rhinestones and sequins. While they glittered, the show didn’t. My Irish prayer would be this: Hire a choreographer with an original thought.