Ragus The Show at the Vicar Street, Dublin - August, 2001


When a friend from England tipped me off that Gillian Norris was dancing in a show in Dublin for the summer season I did not trouble to find out more but just went along to see it as soon as I could. As usual I found myself in a whole new world of my heritage at Ragus the Show in the lovely Vicar Street Theatre, not far from Guinness's Brewery in Dublin. As soon as the evening was just partway through I was thinking how great it would be to do a Celtic Cafe feature on the show, little knowing that the always informed Bernadette was already setting it up and hoping I would work on it! So almost instantly it was arranged with the show's director, Michael Ryan, that Celtic Cafe would present a feature on the show, and Gillian Norris kindly agreed to give me an interview.

Ragus began life on the rugged Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland in 1998, a group of musicians, singers and dancers showcasing traditional music, song and dance of the area, and it has become so successful that is now consists of three companies, with a fourth in the pipeline. From Aran the show has expanded onto the mainland and now is about to travel to Abu Dabi, Dubai and Katar! There are no boundaries any more where Irish music and dance are concerned.

The word Ragus (pronounced rah-goose) is an Aran Islands word for 'desire' or 'urge', and our host on the show, producer, accordianist and singer Fergal O'Murchu, tells us with a big twinkle in his eye that we are free to apply the term as we wish! The company is small, a group of musicians reminiscent of a young Chieftains band, plus five or six female and two or three male Irish dancers, all of top world class calibre. The dancing cast varies, and for some performances a female singer is featured also. With a simple but evocative set of semi-transparent drapes and netting suggesting sails of fishing boats and perhaps waves or clouds to create an appropriately Aran Islands feel, it is a perfect show for a small, intimate theatre. It is a totally different appeal to that of one of the big Irish shows, yet just as rich and passionate in its own special way, and while the music and dance are closer to being traditional it still has a very up-to-date atmosphere. I doubt that it would have been created quite as it has been if the great explosion of our culture had not taken place, and if not for that I certainly can't imagine any Irish shows would be receiving the reception they are from quite such far-flung places around the globe!

Since following the big Irish shows I have become accustomed to feeling a sense of anti-climax going to other shows, and I don't usually have any wish to see one twice, but as soon as I was halfway through my first evening at Ragus I knew I wanted to experience it again. I loved the music, the dance, even the very sad songs, and there was just the right touch of humour there too.

Musically, Ragus takes us throught the full spectrum of traditional Irish music, from the fastest jigs and reels of the fiddle, uilleann pipes and accordian, keyboards and guitar, to the soulful sounds of the low whistle and the pipes. Then there is the bodran, the Irish skin-drum. However brilliant the other musicians - and they include the famous founder of the band Stockton's Wing, fiddler and composer Maurice Lennon, who composed two terrific new pieces for the show - Brian Garvin's wizardry will always stand out in my mind. He can literally make that bodran talk! To hear him play rythmn games with the males dancers in their amazing acapella number was mesmerising enough, but his unexpected solo routine has to be heard to be believed. When I met Brian after the show I was surprised to find he is so young, still in college, but not surprised to learn he has been playing the bodran (and fiddle) almost since he could walk, as the complexity of speeds and the range of sounds and tonal subtleties he could conjour from that drum are extraordinary. In his hands the deceptively simple instrument becomes a whole orchestra. And of course the crowd love it!

In song, the first night I was there Aileen O'Connor sang two ballads, long, sad tales of the sea. I suppose some might find them too gloomy, but they were set in among very upbeat numbers and I rather enjoyed them; they evoked the islands so well. The other songs, and on a couple of other nights I visited, all the vocals were offered by Fergal O'Murchu, and featured the very traditional, unaccompanied Sean Nos singing, which I love. I found those songs presented in Ragus haunting and powerful.

The dance numbers are scattered liberally through the evening, a rich mix of hard and soft shoe pieces to explore all the dancers' talents. One set of costumes serves for the evening, designed by leading Irish couturier Paul Costello, whose work is internationally acclaimed. His designs for this show are superb, modern, elegant, with just a hint of sparkle and colour. The backline dancers he has given slinky black-gold lame tops, off one shoulder and just showing a little bare midriff above the burnished gold, short circular-cut, box-pleated skirt. The lead dancer's costume is a very subtley designed dress, in fact made in two pieces, top and skirt, though at first glance in the stage lights I imagine most of the audience are unaware that it is so. It has a tight bustier top hugging the figure, made in a wonderful pewter shade. The skirt is in the burnished gold shade, with a self-frill around the hemline to give it weight. With Gillian Norris's dark colouring the effect is dramatic, sophisticated and very chic.

All the dancers showed their world class standards from the first entrance, treating the audience to wonderful displays of hard and soft shoe steps, the slick, sharp footwork of traditional dance married perfectly with modern polish and stage presence. There is no stiffness in this performance and the joy of the dancers radiates from all of them. The men play tap games with one another and with the bodran; technical flash and humour abound. For most of the nights (with just a week's break when he was out with the Galway troupe) Michael Donegan had the edge as star of the male show, a rather familiar passionate joy (which I confess I don't usually feel except from the work of the Master himself, Michael Flatley) emanating from his incredibly athletic performance which made him stand out even in such excellent company. However, that is not to take any credit from Donnacha Howard and Kieran Maguire, who lit up the stage with their skills on the nights Michael was absent from the Dublin stage. Some of the dancers, Donnacha, Kieran, and of the ladies, Karen Halley, are veterans of Riverdance and To Dance on the Moon, so know all about performing on the world stage. I was quite amazed, however, to learn that the female dancers were so young - fourteen and fifteen, with one of the backline dancers over the age of twenty! All are extremely mature and sophisticated in both their appearance and performance.

For me Gillian Norris, now just twenty-two herself, will always be one of the top stars created by Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance and Feet of Flames (Hyde Park), unique in her interpretation of the temptress's role and in her stage presence. I have seen other top class dancers perform her role but no matter how good they are, none of them replaces her. For while she danced the 'bad' girl's part she always had that touch of mischief in her eye that prevented the character from ever appearing 'sleazy' -- she managed to play the vamp with class. I find it extraordinary that she should have achieved so mature a performance even in the beginning, at the age of just sixteen.

In Ragus the Show Gillian returns to the stage all grown-up, a dramatically beautiful young woman whose performance has grown with her. She is a star on the stage, whether gliding and sliding in dainty soft shoe sequences or rapping out dazzling hard shoe steps, the execution seemingly effortless, wonderful high kicks tossed off as if without thought. She has a sensuality in her stage presence that is the crowning touch to the show. I hope indeed that her contribution to Ragus the Show will be recorded formally on video.

Audience participation is the icing on the cake for this show, encouraged from the first minutes of the show, out host 'teaching' the crowd about 'whooping' and testing them before going on with the show! As the evening progresses, of course more and more 'let go' and join in the 'craic'. By the end the atmosphere is full of enthusiasm and joy. There is a video available of the original Aran Islands production of the show, which I have not yet seen, and I am sure both it and a newer version (which was being talked of) would make great viewing, but nothing could beat the live performance and I would recommend anyone interested in any aspect of Irish culture to go see one if they can.

by Annie of Dublin

Web Design: Alexander Servas
VideoClips: Tonda

We thank Ragus for allowing Annie to photograph and videotape the show expressly for this feature.

© 2001 by CelticCafe.com