Trinity Irish Dance Company breathes crossover rhythms Into traditional forms for leap day dancing at the Auditorium

You can count on Trinity Irish Dance Company (TIDC) to be on the move, delving ever more deeply into the roots of Irish dance while leaping into a future of expanding forms. 

Trinity returns to the Auditorium Theatre, fittingly, just in time for Leap Day this Saturday, Feb. 29. 

“Mark (founding artistic director, Mark Howard) is always reaching for something new,” associate artistic director Chelsea Hoy said in a recent interview with See Chicago Dance. 

Since TIDC's inception in 1990, Howard has breathed new life into Irish dance, pioneering a true concert dance idiom, separate from its culturally-specific identity as craft or commercial spectacle.

This season’s line-up brings three strikingly different world premieres plus a Chicago premiere to its one-day-only downtown engagement, blending crossover rhythms and sounds from Africa, India, New Orleans and New York with historic Irish dance and music traditions.

The biggest dance news-maker on the program may be the collaboration between MacArthur “Genius" fellow Michelle Dorrance and TIDC, but the three other premieres warrant equal attention.

Live, onstage music has been an integral part of TIDC from the beginning. “This year, Mark goes a step further,” says Hoy, not only integrating the company’s four musicians more fully into the performance, but asking them to dance as well in Howard and Hoy’s newest collaboration, “Home.” Not to be outdone, the dancers, Hoy and company dancer Michael Fleck make music with the musicians’ percussion instruments.

“Home” explores how different rhythms “make people feel like they’re at home,” Hoy explained. They're “pulling meanings of home from all different places,” one of which is historic Congo Square in New Orleans, the birthplace of American jazz and the blues, where enslaved Africans were allowed to play music and dance. Attending a concert there while on tour, Hoy said, “You could feel the energy through the rhythms.” The body percussion section of “Home,” performed on a table, came directly from this experience. “It’s a dance with chairs,” Hoy said of the simple set/prop pieces. The rhythms of “all the different homes” come together as chairs finding their way to the table. 

“Stomp” veteran Seán Curran found an inspirational source in Indian dance, music and mythology for “Goddess,” which he created for the company in 2004. While Curran’s tribute to the company’s women quickly became a touring favorite, this will mark its Chicago premiere. 

“Goddess” combines a blend of East and West in its fusion of Irish and Indian foot percussion, rhythms and upper body movement. Hema Rajagopalan, artistic director of Chicago's Natya Dance Theatre, loaned several of her dancers to assist TIDC with traditional Indian movement in rehearsing “Goddess,” which is dedicated to Rajagopalan’s father. Two soundtracks from fusion composer Sheila Chandra’s “Raqs” comprise the two sections of the piece, with a score that incorporates the vocalized syllables of Indian tabla drums, a rhythmic language all its own.

In the rehearsal process for “American Traffic,” co-creators Michelle Dorrance and Melinda Sullivan discovered that American jazz “scat” and Irish “lilting” were perfect languages for communication between the tappers and Trinity dancers. Both scat and lilting are forms of rhythmic vocal improvisation with wordless syllables.

“Finding the similarities in how we think about rhythm and how we can communicate” was transformative for Hoy, who will be performing in "American Traffic." In both tap and Irish step dancing, “we are singing with our feet,” she said, but the vocabularies are different. “In tap, it’s more about gravity and letting the floor do the work for you. In Irish dance, you hold everything really tightly controlled.” Hoy found “a new rhythmic sensibility” in the swing dance section of “American Traffic,” while achieving those sounds “in an Irish way.”

I caught Michelle Dorrance for a phone interview as she was flying out of rehearsals for a new musical, "Flying Over Sunset," by James Lapine, which she is choreographing with Melinda Sullivan for a spring 2020 opening at Lincoln Center, their upcoming Broadway choreographic debut. 

Dorrance spent her teenage years studying and performing with the North Carolina Youth Tap Company, where she was exposed to Irish step dance. In 1998, she was in a show with Irish step dancing. Flash forward to 2016 when she encountered Mark Howard at an APAP (Association of Performing Arts Professionals) convention, and Howard proposed a collaboration. “I so admired (Trinity’s) skill set,” she said. Today, she is “thrilled for the opportunity to work with them….We’re just touching the surface of something, the beginning of what could develop more,” she said.

“American Traffic,” co-commisioned by the Auditorium Theatre, celebrates what Dorrance calls “true American forms,” of American jazz, tap, and Irish/American dance, with 13 dancers dressed in brightly-colored sport coats walking down the street. “I almost wanted them to feel pedestrian,” she said, quoting tapper Honi Coles’s saying, “If you can walk, you can dance.”

“We were using their vocabulary, but with different rhythms and our vocabulary, until they were swingin’!” Of her first collaboration with Trinity, Dorrance says, “It’s a relationship that will continue!”

Hoy marveled at how working with Colin Dunne on “Listen,” his first piece for a repertory dance company, “changed our sensibilities about the way we’re thinking about our bodies, our shoes and the floor, how you hold your weight.” She calls Dunne “the Baryshnikov of Irish dance, probably the best percussive dancer to have ever lived.”

Dunne’s departure from “River Dance” led to contemporary dance and introspective solo work, what Hoy calls “a de-constructing of Irish dance.” As its title might suggest, “Listen” is a quiet piece, “really rich,” Hoy reflected, “culled around seeing someone dancing around the hearth. We are eight women listening to our own rhythms…the beauty is what’s at the root of Irish dancing…The power is in the silences in this piece.”


Trinity Irish Dance Company performs two shows Feb. 29 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr. Tickets are $35-$78, with hot deals available by clicking the event page below.