Trinity Irish Dance Company: Making ancient roots matter today

Trinity Irish Dance Company brings a powerhouse program with a unique blend of traditional and innovative Irish dance and live music to the Auditorium Theatre’s “Made In Chicago” series for one night only Feb. 2. 

Founded by artistic director Mark Howard in 1990, Trinity Irish Dance Company (TIDC) ignited a global love affair with the infectious movement, rhythms and music of traditional Irish dance. The company’s 1991 appearance on The Tonight Show, hosted by Johnny Carson, premiered "Johnny," Howard’s retirement gift to Carson. The nationally-televised performance of "Johnny," which will be performed on Saturday’s program, gave Trinity the broad exposure it needed to bring its message of “connection” to the world stage, inspiring the formation of more commercial enterprises, such as “Riverdance.”

Unlike the highly commercial off-shoots that have capitalized on the craze with an emphasis on glitz-and-glam spectacle, Trinity remains faithful to its authentic roots.

Preserving the integrity of classic Irish dance, while creating contemporary works that honor those traditions, remains a critical mission for Howard. Saturday’s program reflects that mission with nine choreographic works and three musical interludes that include two world premieres, tried and true company favorites, and original and traditional live music, all featuring a company of 20 award-winning dancers and the Trinity Irish Dance Company Band.

“All the pieces look incredibly different,” says Chesea Hoy, associate artistic director and company dancer, explaining that while “everything we do is connected to our ancestors, we are also pushing the boundaries to make our art form matter in the contemporary world.”

Trinity Irish Dance Company, photo by Lois Greenfield courtesy of Auditorium Theatre Saturday’s program highlights the world premiere of "An Sorcas," (The Circus), Hoy and Howard’s first-ever choreographic collaboration, along with contributing choreographer Michael Gardiner. It is the company’s most ambitious work to date. The piece uses costuming, lighting and TIDC band member Brendan O’Shea’s original music and lyrics to symbolize the conflicting forces of commercialism and authenticity. The dancers’ journey from spectacle and the idolatry of materialism to empathy and the raw honesty of the self begins backwards, according to Hoy, with bows. Initially, the dancers wear jackets constructed of remnants of glittery Irish dance dresses. Gradually they shed their glitzy outer layers to reveal their true selves. Hoy sees "An Sorcas" as a representation of the ongoing battle the company wages between substance and spectacle, legitimately pushing the boundaries but maintaining integrity.

"Drunken Sailor," also a world premiere and choreographed by Howard, features Paige Turilli and Ali Doughty, who between them have won six world titles. TIDC fiddle prodigy/dancer Jake James squares off with the ladies, along with company dancers Michael Fleck and Aaron Wolf.

"A New Dawn" (2018) and "Push" (2014) also celebrate the strength and power of women, a common theme for Howard, whose company roster weighs in at eighteen women, two men. More commercial Irish dance tends to emphasize the male “savior” figure against a backdrop of women in revealing costumes, according to Hoy. Howard sees it as part of his mission to present women on an equal footing with men, showing female empowerment through movement. “The women bring the thunder,” he is quoted as often saying.

Howard’s "Soles" (2018), which premiered at the Joyce Theater in New York, opens the program with an exploration of tribal rhythms in the simple, honest joy of non-stop dancing.

"Black Rose" (2004) goes “from a whisper to a scream,” says Hoy, centering around a giant, 120-year-old Irish drum called “Big Horse,” and integrating both soft and hard elements of Japanese Taiko drumming.

"Communion" (2014), presents a synthesis of body percussion and step dance by Howard and co-choreographer Sandy Silva, and in "Curran Events" (2000), choreographer Sean Curran’s playful classic Irish dance meets STOMP.

Interspersed between danced works, three musical interludes by the TIDC Band fill the stage with both traditional and original Irish music, performed by a core ensemble of guitar, voice, bass, drums and fiddle, with fiddle player Jake James doubling on the Irish bodhran drum and even occasionally lapsing into the very traditional old style gaelic hoofing called sean-nos.

The virtuosic rhythms, technically skilled Irish dancing, and musical solos from the on-stage band explode with creative energy that fuels this company’s pioneering spirit and invigorates its audiences wherever they go. Amidst a busy touring calendar that kicks off its spring season in California and winds up in Princeton, New Jersey, Trinity Irish Dance Company appears this Saturday night at the Auditorium Theatre for their first solo engagement in 20 years.

Trinity Irish Dance Company performs at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 2 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr. Tickets start at $29, with more information and discounts available through their See Chicago Dance event page.