Like other forms of folk – or, if you will, ethnic – dance, traditional Irish step dancing doesn’t transfer easily to the stage. Its vocabulary, limited and inexpressive, is meant for doing, not viewing. Once step dancing moved out of the realm of social dance within its native community, it flourished largely in competitions – parochial affairs focused on skill, not imagination. This was only natural, since the form doesn’t inherently lend itself to the development of narrative and character, the elements on which a persuasive theatrical experience is often built.
Today’s practitioners and enthusiasts of the genre appear to be undeterred by these realities. Right around St. Patrick’s Day, elaborate stage presentations sprung from step dancing proliferated, from Brooklyn College to Carnegie Hall. I skipped Riverdance, the spectacle that beats its audience to a pulp and that engendered the even more garish Lord of the Dance; seeing it once was plenty. But, remembering the luminous Jean Butler, the original female star of Riverdance, I went to Dancing on Dangerous Ground, in which she and her onetime Riverdance partner, Colin Dunne, starred and, as its conceivers, blessedly corrected the more extravagant errors of the earlier show.
For all its flashing lights and deafening sound, for all its knock-your-eye-out costumes (some of which are actually quite beautiful), for all the miscegenation created by its borrowings in pursuit of variety (flamenco! Broadway jazz!), for all its absurd pretensions to historical meaningfulness and high culture, Dangerous Ground lets you see dancing. Marvelous dancing, dancing that comes first and foremost.
The show, built to the lavish scale of Radio City, where it was housed, purports to enact an old Celtic tale along the lines of Tristram and Isolde: A venerable chieftain takes a lovely maiden as the bride befitting his rank and valor. Acquiescent at first, the lady soon finds her husband’s young lieutenant – vigorous and ardent – more to her taste. The eloping lovers are savagely pursued and destroyed, their society enforcing its legal and moral code. But their passion lives on in legend: It was not their fault; it was their fate.
Dangerous Ground conveys this perennially satisfying story partly through plummy voice-over narration, partly through picturesque set pieces in which the lovers and a marvelous backup ensemble illuminate key points in the saga. The most beautiful of these scenes is the fateful wedding, which records a believable gamut of emotions; the wittiest, the training of the medieval army in a mix of contemporary gym exercises and Rockettes-routine patterns. Throughout, there is ample opportunity to see the pure essentials of Irish dancing: the frankness of the frontal self-presentation (no torque, no contrapposto, no seduction); the calm neutrality of torso, arms, and pelvis set against footwork as keen as a flickering flame; the blithe verticality maintained in the body even as it sails across space. Such is the simplicity and verve of this material, the very air around the dancers seems to freshen.
The chorus is youthful and mettlesome, impressively precise yet never mechanical. As the betrayed husband, a “walking role” without words or dance steps, Tony Kemp maintains an elegant, melancholy dignity that gives the show ballast. Colin Dunne, who gets the girl and death in the bargain, is more of an antihero than a hero type. His technical ferocity and his glowering, gritty presence suggest “pirate” rather than “prince.” So he’s not an ideal match for Butler in the role of the heroine. Her purity and radiance call for an Apollonian escort. To a spectacular technique and unassuming beauty (willowy figure, auburn tresses, air of imperturbable innocence), Butler adds the dimension of soul, a quality of temperament and projection that distinguishes the very greatest dancers no matter what their genre. She’s the finest step dancer I’ve ever seen, but when I look at her, I think ballerina.