The Heartbeat of the Tiger
It begins with sound, and rhythm pattern. Always.
In the mind of the master, creation begins with sound. How will the feet strike the floor? How will the story be transmuted into the steps and patterns and rhythms and sounds of the dance? Where will the feet speak, and where will they be silent? How will the feet speak the story to be told?
The show begins with a heartbeat: the first sound heard even before birth, the sound of a heartbeat has always brought a sense of oneness and connection, drawing all those who hear it together into a common awareness of life, of humanity, of our common blood. A visual image accompanies the sound, as the beats are blazed across the big screen; the heartbeat speeds up – a well-known technique for building excitement, as old as the sound of drums – and with a roar, the show leaps into being.
Dancing in the Dark
The first number begins not with the visual image but an auditory one: in darkness as total as can be achieved in an arena setting, the feet are heard, rows of tapping feet in hard-shoe in a complex rhythm so precise the number of dancers is unguessable. The piece recalls Michael’s description of techniques he developed years ago: literally composing dance steps in darkness to focus entirely on the sound; then, to train the dancers in the absolute precision and tight synchronisation his choreography required, turning off the studio lights and rehearsing the troupe in the dark, concentrating only on the uniformity of sound until dozens of dancers sounded like a single person.
Within the rough historical arc of Act I, this is the first appearance of the Celts on the stage of world history: not as a clearly perceived image, but as a sound and a distant rumour. Although archeology traces the Hallstatt culture back to ca. 1200 BC, well before the date legend gives for the founding of Rome (753 BC), the loose collection of tribes known as the “Keltoi” only slowly grew on the awareness of the Mediterranean cultures. Onstage as well as in history, the glimpse slowly coalesces into a coherent image of a warrior people.
Strobe lights give way to stage lights, and the troupe comes into view at last – not savage painted tribesmen but warriors in Roman-style armour, Michael at the front in an a cappella number placing an historical context around the “reviewing the troops” theme of such pieces as Warlords. In another change from previous shows, the warriors are not men only; the women dancers have joined the battle lines. The Romans feared the Celts, men and women, for their prowess in battle and as a threat to Roman dominance, and only overcame them after decades of bloodshed and a long process of assimilation. In this they were aided by the lack of unity of the Celtic tribes; however, conquered and co-opted but never entirely absorbed, the Romanised Celtic tribes retained elements of their own culture and art while their warriors brought new vigour to the legions, and were prized as mercenaries throughout the Mediterranean world. Outside the borders of empire, Ireland remained free.
To those already familiar with Michael’s work, the stunning impact of this first number hits on another level when certain familiar tapping rhythms are recognised. In the 2000-01 tours, the culmination of Michael’s choreography and performance style crystallised in the extraordinary complexity of the Feet of Flames solo. In the very first number of the new show, those once-unsurpassed rhythms are tossed off almost casually; the audience might well wonder where the show can possibly go next, having begun where the previous pinnacle of the art form once stood.
The 4,000-year-old Kilclooney More dolmen looms on the big screen as this question is answered: the number moves between contrapuntal patterns and call-and-response interchanges of unprecedented complexity, culminating in an entirely new tap effect that should be a virtual impossibility: an abrupt and dramatic ritard executed in flawless unison. This passage of deceleration is almost a fermata performed in tap, an even more breathtaking technical tour de force than the perfectly synchronised tempo shifts and accelerations showcased in the predecessor shows. Still with flawless precision, the number literally turns on its heel – on seventy heels – picking up speed again and racing to a triumphant climax.
Tradition gives 432 AD as the year in which St. Patrick “banished the snakes from Ireland” and brought Christianity to the country. The “snakes”, a metaphor for the pre-Christian Celtic religious beliefs, are represented in this number by sensuous women clad in scarlet lace unitards, confronted not by a single individual but by barefooted monks. The still-young Christian faith is embodied in young male dancers in flowing white robes; enraptured by the vibrant music of the Angelus, they disdain the temptation before them, physically casting the women into the “pit” of the stage trap.
The interpretation into dance of this confrontation is another sharp departure from Michael’s previous work, in which conflict has generally been presented through the metaphor of driving hard-shoe dance. Here a specific traditional Irish event is presented in dance that is neither Irish or traditional; the moves and steps are interpretive – not even modern dance, but timeless.
And there is a layer of sharp irony under the triumph of the new faith. Christianity in Ireland has provided a core element of the country’s character since the fifth century, and the monastic strongholds are credited with preserving key elements of Western heritage through tumult of the Dark Ages. At the same time, the Catholic church has been one of the restrictive powers in Ireland, proving specifically hostile to Irish dance – the revolution in expressive movement that Michael first launched in Riverdance has flown most emphatically in the face of Catholic strictures on the form.
Perhaps this is recognised in this number – the women are driven, not into the sea or offstage, but underground, even as Irish legend holds the Tuatha de Danann were driven into the hollow hills – from which, perhaps, the underlying sensuality and celebration of life in Ireland may one day re-emerge.
The Sleeping Tiger
Each act of Celtic Tiger has its own particular energy, its own emotional and historical theme, and its own musical signature: “Sing Me an Irish Song” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Each song is essentially modern, but deeply rooted in older tradition. For now, focus remains on the past, as the big screen runs through nostalgic views of the Irish countryside. Like the show itself, The Sleeping Tiger calls upon the hearer to look to the past for understanding of the present and of the self.
Just look how far we’ve come, with our true colours unfurled –
Warriors, poets, and dreamers, the envy of all the world.
As with all of Michael’s shows, Celtic Tiger continues to be treated by its creator as a work in progress, subject to ongoing refinement and adjustment. Changes and developments made since the launch of the tour have particularly involved the musical interludes: this first vocal number, “Sing Me an Irish Song” by Ronan Hardiman and Frank Musker, was initially performed for the preview show and DVD taping in Birmingham by Eimear Quinn, Ireland’s 1996 Eurovision champion. The song was afterwards given to the male vocalist, a particularly successful change, as the piece lends itself superbly to the tenor voice. Paul Harrington, who also provided the vocals for the “Angelus” in Saint Patrick, performed the song and played keyboards for the first leg of the tour, after which the male vocal role was taken by Brian McEnteggart, who is also one of the dancers. Paul Harrington and his partner Charlie McGettigan were Ireland's Eurovision victors in 1994, the same Eurovision that launched Riverdance and Michael’s international career.
The Vikings terrorised the Irish coasts through the ninth and tenth centuries, controlling Limerick and raiding far up the Shannon, aided like the Romans before them by Ireland’s lack of unity: with the island divided into feuding kingdoms, the invaders found allies in some areas while others suffered the brunt of the attacks. With Ireland finally united under the High King Brian Boru, Norse power in Ireland was ended at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Boru, who died in the battle, is regarded as one of Ireland’s greatest heroes, and it might be expected that a dance number about the Viking age in Ireland would focus on this conflict, given how well Irish hard-shoe dance adapts to dramatisations of conflict and battle.
Instead, a completely different scene unfolds. The Viking legacy in Ireland goes far beyond clan warfare: Norse raiding turned to trading and settlement, and the assimilation process that Rome had once used on the Celts of Europe was reversed. Many of Ireland’s greatest cities, including Dublin, Waterford, Limerick, Wexford and Cork, began as Norse settlements. And the Vikings and the Irish share a key maritime accomplishment: long before Columbus, both cultures successfully crossed the Atlantic to North America, accomplishing the feat in much smaller craft and at far more dangerous northern latitudes.
On the stage, music grand enough for any epic is heard and the interpretive dance style returns as women in white, with winged headdresses, evoke the inhuman beauty and danger of the sea. Views on the big screen of a turbulent grey ocean recall the courage and fortitude that must have been needed for the voyages to the often stormy Irish coast. Male dancers advance across the stage with paddle and sail, a slow pantomime that might seem absurd were it not for the stern dignity of the performers. As in many points of the show, strict historic accuracy takes a back seat to recognisable imagery: the Viking costumes feature the instantly identifiable stereotype of the horned helmets.
The scene shifts to Ireland and the time signature of the music shifts to slip-jig, as Hardiman’s music for the first time assumes an undeniable Irish form: the women of the troupe appear and begin the first ceili-style number of the show. The spirit of the Irish women is unfazed by the appearance of the invaders: instead of battle and bloodshed, or even confrontation through dance, the encounter takes an unexpected turn. In another innovation, the tempo of the music does not change when the men enter the dance; it continues as a slip-jig, a tempo traditionally restricted to women’s dance. The interaction of men’s hard-shoe and women’s soft-shoe draws the Norsemen into the dance, absorbing them into the metaphoric community. As history goes, this is a long view and an idealised one, of course; but that is the nature of dance drama.
With Ireland safe for the moment at least, the historical sequence is given a break as the energy of the show shifts into high gear with a return of the live band performance number. As Jason Duffy presides from the upper scaffold level on the drum set, Cora Smyth and Niamh Gallagher on fiddle (the early performances of the tour, particularly the first European performances, featured no less than four fiddle players), John Colohan and Aongus Ralston on guitar and bass, and Michael on flute take the stage in an electrified blaze that fuses the traditional musical forms with modern instrumentation and timeless energy.
One aspect of Michael’s genius has always been his unmatched skill in arranging the type, intensity and sequence of the different numbers; although the shows never stray far from the essential core of dance, the palette draws on other resources of the folk music traditions, using vocal and instrumental interludes to vary the build and flow of dramatic energy, stepping up the pace after softer numbers or easing the intensity after the more dramatic passages.
Celtic Tiger differs markedly from Michael’s previous shows in how these interludes fit into the show as a whole; the interplay between dance and alternate forms is more tightly integrated than ever before, becoming inextricably interwoven in the second half of Act I.
The Garden of Eden
Michael has often used women’s soft-shoe in general and slip-jig in particular to express themes of peace, purity, and innocence. Here the dancers are costumed as flowers, butterflies, bees, and other denizens of the meadows and fields; despite its Biblical title, this is a classic pastoral number, a romanticised and idealised view of a world in perfect natural harmony. In one figure, the dancers wield clusters of ribbons in gestures reminiscent of Morris dancing, another dance form associated with the countryside; in others, they weave ceili-style patterns, their movements forming a living interlace as complex as the tree-of-life patterns from the Book of Kells, as interconnected within the dance as the living natural world is in truth.
The number has been criticised for its length, although it is far from the longest piece in the show; rather it is the dance’s pace that is unusual. There is less of a clear progression through the figures of the dance than has been seen in the slip-jig pieces of the predecessor shows, and when the music goes through a break, this can be mistaken for a “false ending”, as the dance changes but does not actually stop. The number is as lazy and dreamy as a ramble through a sunlit meadow, all the more so in contrast to the rest of the show.
During the Celtic Fire flute jam preceding The Garden of Eden, the lively downstage activity also provided cover for one of the evening’s few shifts in the physical scenery. The two smaller screens that served as backdrops to the upper tiers of the scaffolding are flown to the centre, joining into a secondary layer in front of the main screen. For this scene, the double screen forms a “picture-in-picture” effect that adds an additional layer of complexity to the backdrop. As the scene ends, the larger screen transforms to show a backdrop of the sky while the “smaller” screen – still the size of a two-story building – transforms into a cottage, complete with a working door at centre stage that provides an exit for the dancers.
A single fife is heard playing “The British Grenadier” as the show’s antagonists enter, a troop of bewigged British soldiers in red uniform coats. The imagery of the piece is particularly familiar from other shows: the rigid posture, perfectly crisp men’s hard-shoe footwork and immobile arms and upper torsos serve again as a metaphor for the unyielding, the militant, the oppressor. But these soldiers sport no villainous masks and are not led by a gesticulating tyrant; instead of oozing with threat and brooding rage, the music is in a major key and seems almost light in tone – until the soldiers burst into a chorus of “Rule Britannia” all the more shocking for the carefully built-up layers of incongruity.
The brief vocal is followed by the soldiers’ dance, itself another incongruous image, since the British occupying regime was as repressive of Irish culture, including dance, as it was of Irish politics, language, liberties and rights. But the British had their own hard-shoe dance style, the hornpipe, adopted by the British navy by the 18th century and eventually brought into the Irish traditional dance repertoire, probably by returning Irish mariners. Michael has used hornpipe before as a style distinctive to the antagonistic force, contrasting with reels for the protagonists.
The soldiers’ dance is crisp, precise, technically flawless, and somehow cold-blooded – the faces are stolid, blank, and unemotional, the rigid posture determined and implacable. The masked villains of Warriors reveled in their badness; these soldiers are faceless on a deeper, more troubling level, conformists following a routine, ready to carry out orders without involvement in or concern for their surroundings. When a shift in time signature kicks off the characteristic jump in tempo at the conclusion of the dance, there is no triumph or joy in it.
The English intrusion into Ireland began in 1169, long before the era represented by the soldiers’ red coats and wigs; but from the beginning it followed a pattern of colonisation, dispossession and repression that varied little from the British colonialistic practices on other continents in later centuries. From Colonial-era America to the India of the Raj, the Redcoats represent a particular insitutionalised brutality, arrogance and racism felt first and longest in Ireland; and the visual image of this costuming has resonance in every former colony.
Throughout the soldiers’ dance, the images on the double-layer backdrop of the video screens remain unchanged save in one detail: behind the thatched cottage , the green fields and hills of Ireland have gone red, scattered with the gaunt black forms of blasted trees. Now the dramatic potential of the screens comes into full play: as the troop leader sets a torch to the cottage, flames dance in the thatch and glare out from the windows. One soldier kicks in the cottage doors, and smoke follows the dancers as they stagger or are dragged out a few at a time, ragged and desperate. The sky behind the cottage turns black, and attenuated spirit faces are seen rising like smoke from the blighted land. As the programme book details, the population of Ireland plummeted after the beginning of the Famine in 1845, with some two million people dying or emigrating in less than a decade, and another three million over the next half century; the current population is still only half its former total.
The choreography in this piece is free-form and interpretive – there are no formal figures or measured steps in a national disaster. The dancers, mostly in couples or small groups, give passionate and powerful performances as the music cries out their despair through pipes, drums, and chanted Gaelic prayers. In a magnificent choral arrangement, the voices of the desperate and the dying plead without avail for aid and mercy.
Throughout the number, the soldiers watch unmoved; when the ragged dancers approach them, appealing for help or seeking escape from the circle of starvation, they are pushed roughly back. Although the British rulers of Ireland did not directly cause the famine, during the years of starvation the country produced more than enough food for its inhabitants – produce that was sold overseas to the enrichment of mostly Protestant English landowners, while administrative bungling and intractable policy failed to address the suffering or prevent the devastation.
Last to emerge from the cottage is Michael, dressed as a Catholic priest, carrying a rosary as he prays over the dying flock with a voice-over recitation from the Lord’s Prayer:
. . . as we forgive those who trespass against us; and deliver us from evil.
The soldiers encircle the priest and shoot him; as he falls, the stage lights go to black on the music’s final crescendo. This is not Lord of the Dance: the priest’s murder is not the defiant last stand of a shining hero. Nor does it reflect a specific event in history, any more than the burning of the cottage should be viewed literally. In a land at war, events move all too easily from tragedy to atrocity, setting the stage (literally) for future intractable violence.
There is an additional irony to this scene: to create this stage picture, one of the world’s great dancers cast himself into a non-dancing role. Moreover, the scene makes use of the age differential between Michael and the rest of the cast: on more than one level, he appears as a father figure, unable to help his children save to offer spiritual comfort.
Four Green Fields
Throughout this section of the show, the numbers segue directly from one to the next, with even the vocal interludes integrated into the flow of the storyline. The secondary backdrop screens return to the side scaffolds, and the big screen now carries the audience over the green Irish countryside, as the tenor returns with an impassioned performance of “Four Green Fields”.
In this song, one of the most sublime laments ever written about the Troubles, Ireland herself speaks in the voice of a “fine old woman”, lamenting the fate of the four ancient kingdoms of Ireland – Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht. The song, written by Tommy Makem in 1967, does more than merely grieve over the deaths from famine and war and the pain of a dismembered nation. At this point in the show, historical sequence begins to blur: in three simple, perfect verses, the song places past, present and future together, longing for the day when true change will finally be achieved.
This number is the only element in the show that looks ahead to the Troubles of the later twentieth century: Ulster, the “fourth green field” of Northern Ireland, remained under British rule after the formation of the Irish Republic. The images on the big screen pass through poignant views of a graveyard before returning to the green vistas and the wild seacoast, as the vocal interlude segues directly into the next scene.
My fourth green field will bloom once again, said she.
A single Gaelic football player in a green uniform appears at center stage; the departing singer fields a ball and passes it to him as he exits.
The music trails off and the dance ceases, unless it can be said that a football player dances with the ball. Here the big screen changes from scenery to an active performer in the show, as the cheering crowds of Croke Park appear on the screen behind the footballer, dissolving into the looming image of an approaching tank.
The notorious “Black and Tans” raided a Gaelic football match in Dublin in 1920, firing indiscriminately into a civilian crowd, an event variously known as Bloody Sunday or the Croke Park Massacre. (Another riot in 1972 is also referred to as Bloody Sunday.) The Croke Park raid, intended as a reprisal against Michael Collins’ rebel forces, left thirteen Irish dead and further inflamed the country.
The scene is brief, although it seems to stretch on endlessly: the aperture of the cannon gapes larger and darker behind the oblivious innocent. At last he turns to see what is approaching behind him; the ball falls from his hands and bounces away unheeded. Even after the build-up, the blast when it comes is a shock; in the silence that follows, nervous laughter can often be heard from the audience, quickly fading again into silence.
As with several other points of the show, the scene has been criticised for inaccuracy, as no tanks were present at Croke Park. This complaint misses the point: ever since Tiananmen, the sight of one young man faced with an oncoming tank has been burned into the world’s mind as an internationally recognised image of brutal oppression. For that matter, the scene is actually out of historical sequence, placed as it is before the Easter Rising number; but the show is not presenting the Irish struggle as a literal and linear process. This is the stormy Irish past, held in common by all that land’s descendents; for the bearers of that legacy, all its events are held together within shared memory, and all the memories interweave and relate to one another.
Croke Park still exists in Dublin, and continues to host events eighty-five years later: the arena has even been suggested as a possible venue for a Dublin performance of the Celtic Tiger tour. The stadium is certainly on a grand enough scale for the show (it holds over 80,000 spectators); the historical aptness cannot be disputed.
A Call to Arms
After the shock of the cannon’s roar has died down, a different voice is heard: Michael’s voice, reading the first lines of the Easter Proclamation (a copy of which is printed in the programme).
Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.
The stage lights strengthen to discover Michael, dressed in rough workman’s clothing, standing alone in a circle of opponents. The piece that follows presents the first real solo dancing he has done in the show: a series of individual exchanges with the British soldiers, rapid-fire and aggressive; the individual soldiers are plainly outclassed. The mood is far more somber than such pieces as Hell’s Kitchen or even the Duel: Michael’s facial expressions and body language have gone beyond intensity into wrath. Although the exchanges follow the now-classic choreography of hard-shoe dance steps playing off against emphatic drums, the dance itself is almost incidental: the number is a study in raw confrontation, as the face of the great tiger appears on the screen again, red eyes blazing.
Although the timeline has moved forward, the British soldiers still wear their white wigs and red uniform coats. Historic veracity is not the object at this point: the moment is a cross-section in time, a pattern that has remained the same over centuries. The image of one man standing alone against the foe is a key one in the history of Ireland, or indeed in the history of any repressed people. Again and again through history, the turning point – the call to arms – comes after an individual has found himself standing alone against the oppressor, and has found the internal courage and fighting spirit to resist. Often multiple attacks must be withstood – physical, verbal, legal, emotional, spiritual – until the example of courage and determination, even of stubborn refusal to submit, turns the lone fighter into the rallying point for the next stage in the struggle for freedom.
In the show, the turning point comes when a final thunderous stamp of the foot calls lightning from the sky of the big screen; Michael breaks free of the circle and, moving upstage, takes up a bodhran. The music – silent since Croke Park, save for pounding drums and the sounds of storm – returns with the strains of “The Rising of the Moon”, one of the great calls to battle from the Irish folk repertoire. Michael’s bodhran adds its own rolling call, and the summons is answered as the rest of the men’s troupe appear, dark silhouettes against the hills and fields of Ireland, renewed and green again.
After this brief solo turn, the show shifts back to its essential ensemble nature: rather than leading his followers into battle, Michael exits as the show segues into the next number. The show overall, particularly this sequence, is about the spirit of a people, not the actions of a person, a point which makes descriptions of the show as a star vehicle all the more absurd.
The 1916 Rising
With the Easter Rising of 1916, the Irish struggle shifted again from the slow grind of political negotiation to violent confrontation, as so often on the long road to independence for the Irish. From his base in the General Post Office of Dublin, Patrick Pearse announced the creation of the Republic of Ireland. Behind the dancers, the Post Office now appears on the big screen, and the digital fire of artillery shells and explosions form a chaotic backdrop to the number as the common men of Ireland face off with the British.
From the first, Irish men’s hard-shoe has lent itself so naturally to the dramatic portrayal of conflict and combat that the battle sequence is almost a standard in dance shows, making innovation in this area a longer stretch. The dancing, as always, is crisp and aggressive, the movements emphatic; a new level of energy and ferocity has been added, but as the number progresses another impression emerges. The image of the embattled Post Office eventually fades, leaving only fire and explosions behind the combatants. The choreography evolves from stylised group confrontation to direct, one-on-one fighting, and then to bitter anarchy.
The show throughout has tended towards a grittier, darker, less archetypal portrayal of events than its predecessors; just as “no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”, so this fight sequence ultimately abandons the stylised sense of order. The struggle for freedom is desperate rather than glorious, with no clean victory. Like all the Risings in the centuries before, the Easter Rising was swiftly crushed by the English, and Pearse and his fellow leaders were executed; but public sentiment turned and England lost its grip on the country. On stage, as the final explosions roar, the combatants of both sides leap at each other one last time, only to fall and lie sprawled in indiscriminate death.
Over the field of the dead appears the hovering figure of the banshee, a spirit from Irish folklore whose wailing is traditionally held to be a warning of imminent death, although older versions of the tale hold that the keening of the bean sidhe eases souls in their passage to the afterlife. In a departure from folklore, this apparition is not an old woman in rags, but a lovely young woman with long golden hair wearing flowing white robes, played by Katie Pomfret.
The similarity to a classical angelic figure is too close for the ambiguity not to be intentional; but this is neither angel nor ghost, rather a spirit of lamentation for both the dead on the field and the immeasurable losses to come. Yet this banshee’s keening, a vocal track performed by Sylvia O'Brien, does not evoke grief alone; it is a true requiem, a song for the rest and repose of the dead.
A Nation Once Again
Can the dead rest in peace unless Ireland is free? In another departure from the classic pattern, the first act ends not with a dance number but with a vocal performance, in another seamless segue from the preceding piece. Beginning with a single young man’s voice, the chorus of “A Nation Once Again” rings out in hope. The entire company appears on stage, singing, including the football player of Croke Park, now wearing a white uniform, as the Irish flag ripples across the big screen; Ronan Hardiman’s magnificent choral arrangement swells into glory, calling on the hopeful and defiant spirit of the land. The Redcoats are gone, and men and women alike are dressed as the common folk of Ireland, with Michael at their head singing as emphatically as the rest.
The Republic of Ireland gained its independence in stages, becoming a sovereign nation again in 1937 and finally achieving full independence from the British Commonwealth in 1949, a century and a half after having been relegated to the status of a province, and nearly eight hundred years from the date of the first English conquest.
Click here to continue to the Act II commentary.
Author: Louise Owen