INISH dance steps it up

Those who went into this past weekend’s INISH performance with ideas of bright, sequined polyester dresses were in for a surprise, because what they saw was anything but. Eire na Mna, or Ireland of the Women, avoided any Irish stepdancing cliché in its study of Irish women through song, dance and poetry. Introducing the production as an “exploration of the power of the female figure in Irish history, myth and legend,” INISH artistic director Holly Silva encouraged the audience’s clapping and tapping, a suggestion in keeping with the communal nature of the dance form.

The performance opened with a number titled “The Naming of Ireland.” This hardshoe dance told the story of the Tuatha De Dannan, who were, according to myth, the original inhabitants of Ireland. Three principal dancers represented the three De Dannan queens, after whom the Milesian poet Amergin promised he would name the island. The auditory effect of the shoes hitting the stage combined with the upbeat music to create an energetic opening number.

The next sequence, titled “Queen of the Sidhe,” was another number about the Tuatha De Dannan that was performed by just the musicians, or Ceol. A medley of traditional jigs, this piece showcased the talents of the musicians performing on a variety of instruments, including fiddles and handheld drums.

The following dances provided contrasts with the first: the softshoe piece called “The Children of Lir” featured more lyrical movement and a theatrical element in the role of the wicked stepmother, played by Mandy O’Connor ’10; “The Rivalry of Maebh and Aillill” illustrated another celebrated Irish tale, this time about the mythological king and queen whose marital bickering eventually leads to war. Hinging on a lively and playful rivalry, this last work, created and performed by Meghan Rose Donnelly ’11 and Charles Soucy ’09, balanced his mocking drumbeat and her forceful, demanding hardshoe footwork; in “At the Crossroads,” the Ceol’s traditional jigs accompanied softer dancing by Danielle Zentner ’09 in a tribute to the outdoor dances popular among young people before they were banned in 1935; and “The Muse of Carolan” continued the more historical bent, depicting the story of the blind harpist Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738) and the love he could not marry but never forgot.

Placed in with the music and dancing, spoken performances offered yet another aspect of Irish culture. “Why the Weariness of the Blacksmiths Falls Upon the Cowherds” had the tone of a parable or a bedtime story and reflected both a strong folk culture and the Christian influences in the presence of the Virgin Mary. The song “Mother Machree,” performed by Soucy with musical director John Sauer accompanying, followed to an enthusiastic audience response. Telling the story of a widow, the piece touched on the role of the mother and of the widow in Irish and Irish American communities.

The next pieces returned to dance and an exploration of more legendary Irish tales. “Mna na Heireann” included both music without singing and singing without music in a pleasant pull and tug, and “Sionna and the Salmon of Knowledge,” the evening’s strongest dance, highlighted the program’s strengths. The dancing was sound both individually and all around, and the choreography particularly highlighted the stage presence of Sionna (Brenna Baccaro ’09).

The closing dance, “Grace O’Malley, She Pirate of Irish Seas,” continued with a strong and energetic tone. Both company and dancers displayed an impressive vitality, and the audience responded, clapping along to the music. After taking bows, the ensemble closed in the communal spirit Silva mentioned in her introduction, inviting the audience to join them in singing the traditional Irish song, “The Parting Glass.”