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Topping themselves is a formidable challenge for Jean Butler and Colin Dunne, who achieved international celebrity as lead dancers of the hugely successful and seemingly ubiquitous "Riverdance."  They now star in a new, $2.3 million Irish stage show, "Dancing on Dangerous Ground," arriving at Manhattan's Radio City Music Hall today and remaining through March 12.  Ironically, the show's U.S. debut competes with "Riverdance on Broadway," now just a few blocks away.

But Ms. Butler, who left "Riverdance" in 1996, is unconcerned. " `Riverdance' is very presentational, more of a spectacle than a story.  Our show has a narrative, based on Irish legend, and tries to make Irish dance emotive.  We want to get the audience to feel for the people on stage as characters rather than just as dancers."

A poster for the London premiere in early December, showing a bare-torsoed Mr. Dunne with his arms wrapped around what appears to be a bare-torsoed Ms. Butler, certainly suggests a more `emotive' approach than that found in either "Riverdance" or "Lord of the Dance," which now have multiple companies touring the globe.  "We're portraying two of Ireland's greatest lovers, so there's bound to be passion in the show," says Ms. Butler.  The young lovers are a dashing young warrior, Diarmuid, and a beautiful, willful princess, Grainne.  Both are chased by her jilted, aging suitor, Finn MacCool, leader of a fierce army, the Fianna.

Irish dance was transformed in 1994 by an intermission performance called "Riverdance" at the Eurovision Song Contest, seen by an estimated 300 million TV viewers worldwide. Suddenly, stiff-armed Irish stepdancing in kilts and wool costumes had given way to freer, more fluid movement in custom-fitted pants and slinky black dresses. Two years later, Michael Flatley went even further, introducing bare midriffs and a baby-oiled chest (his) with "Lord of the Dance." Expectations for Irish dance have risen accordingly, but Ms. Butler believes "Dancing on Dangerous Ground" will meet them.  "It's Irish dance as you've never seen it before," she says confidently.

Unfolding through Finn MacCool's eyes, the narrative begins in the afterworld, where characters awaken and then play out key events in a classic love triangle.  A cast of more than 30 dancers enacts this drama on a stark, bilevel set. "We studiously avoided the trite, shamrocks-and-shillelaghs approach often taken with this legend," says Ms. Butler.

The story offers rich material for music, which has been composed by Seamus Egan, who wrote the score for the 1995 hit movie "The Brothers McMullen" and is a founding member of the acclaimed Irish-American band Solas.  Rooted in the Irish tradition but revealing many modern touches throughout, the music progressed in stages for the 30-year-old composer.

"Usually I'd write to a brief from Jean and Colin about a certain scene they had in mind, and I'd make a demo." Mr. Egan explained from the London studio where he was recording an album of the show's music. "They'd choreograph to the demo, then come back to me about tempo and length, where it worked and where it didn't."

With added percussion and, at times, taped orchestral backing, Solas performs more than 20 of Mr. Egan's compositions in the show. Included are two songs written by Scots musician Johnny Cunningham and Mr. Egan, who with Sarah McLachlan previously composed the song "I Will Remember You" that just won her a Grammy for best female pop vocal performance.

Despite this abundance of creative talent, "Dancing on Dangerous Ground" received mixed reviews in London.  The response didn't rattle Mr. Egan. "A show with this many parts to it often takes a while to fully jell," he says.

Ms. Butler agrees. "To be honest, I think we got to about 60 percent of where we wanted to be by opening night," she says.  "There are teething problems with any new show, and there's bound to be retooling with a show starting from scratch. I mean, `Riverdance' opened in Dublin, and it changed dramatically by the time it hit London.  Until you have an audience responding to a show, you don't realize where it really needs tightening or strengthening."

Most of the retooling since the London run of "Dancing on Dangerous Ground" has been made in its story line. "We needed to make it easier to follow," says director Jeremy Sturt. "About 30 percent of the show has changed as a result."

The show itself ends a three-year absence from dance for the sylphlike 28-year-old Ms. Butler, who began lessons in ballet, tap dancing and Irish stepdancing at a very young age in Mineola, N.Y. Her parents, an Irish-American father and a County Mayo-born mother,
had advised against abandoning "Riverdance," but Ms. Butler had made up her mind.  "Has Melissa Gilbert ever really been known for anything other than Laure Ingalls Wilder in `Little House on the Prairie?'" she says.  "I didn't want that to happen to me in `Riverdance.' I had been with the show from the start, and I didn't think I was doing myself justice anymore by staying in it."

In 1996 Ms. Butler made her film debut in "The Brylcreem Boys" and later auditioned for "Meet Joe Black" and "The Postman."  Making the rounds of casting agents in Los Angeles and New York, however, wore thin. "I found myself cemented in a box with the word `dancer' written across the top of it," she laments.  "I'd get all these scripts for the redheaded Irish girl who can jig, and that's a bit frustrating."

She is still the redheaded Irish girl who can jig - and much more - in "Dancing on Dangerous Ground," which she conceived, produced and choreographed with Dunne.  Her commitment to the show is for at least 18 months, taking her through the Radio City Music Hall engagement, a U.S. tour and possible stops in Asia, Europe, South America, Africa and Ireland.

After that? "I don't really look down the road," she says.  "I'm going to finish this, take a break, and see what happens next, just as I did after `Riverdance.'"

Copyright © 2000 by Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted in Celtic Café by permission of Earle Hitchner. Article originally appeared in March 8, 2000, issue of The Wall Street Journal. Besides The Wall Street Journal, Earle Hitchner writes regularly on music for the Irish Echo newspaper and has also contributed articles and reviews to Billboard, Details, Irish Music, New Choices, and The Oxford American magazines. Earle has written liner notes for nearly 40 recordings, including last year's Grammy-nominated "The Celtic Album" by the Boston Pops Orchestra. In 1999, he wrote six essays for the widely praised reference book "The Companion to Irish Traditional Music," co-published by Cork University Press and New York University Press. He also consulted on four film documentaries of Irish traditional music broadcast on public television.

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