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