Dreams, Passions, and Naked Truths

Principal dancers Callum Spencer, Peta Anderson and Nick O’Connell in Breandán de Gallai’s “Noctú” at the Irish Repertory Theatre through October 2.

Movement vocabulary articulates Irish step dancing in Eriu Dance Company’s “Noċtú”

BY GUS SOLOMONS JR.  |  The small stage of the Irish Repertory Theatre seems an unlikely setting for a dance spectacle, but the Eriu Dance Company’s “Notú,” which opened there September 12 for a three-week run, worked surprisingly well.

This production from Ireland, conceived and directed by Riverdance alumnus Breandán de Gallai, is an attempt to let us “under the skin of those who perform in the dance world” to understand the passion that drives them. “Noċtú” is informed by the backstories of the three principals in brief monologues presented in a confessional spot — a grid of light on one wall (Michael O’Connor’s lighting making the most of a limited stock of equipment).

As with other popular folk forms like hip hop, “Noċtú” turns Irish step dancing, popularized by Riverdance and then Michael Flatley’s “Lord of the Dance,” into a movement vocabulary that can express a full range of emotion, not just virtuosic display. The intimacy of the theater suits the production, even though its small stage limits the amplitude of the high-legged prancing. Many of the big group formations face head-on, shoulder to shoulder, like canned sardines, but solos and smaller groups are more three-dimensional.

The dancers stroll onstage in bright colored rehearsal clothes — shorts and tank tops or T-shirts — chatting with each other. They stretch their quads and hamstrings and do an aerobic warm-up class — there is, after all, a lot of jumping and hopping in Irish dance.

Next, they strip off their practice togs and don black kilts and fitted tops (costumes by Nikki Connor), giving us tantalizing glimpses of their nicely toned physiques. They’re young, fresh-faced, and strong-legged. Oddly, considering their prowess in the Irish styles, only seven of the 16 dancers are natives of that country.

The first big dance, “Senior Celli Invention,” crams all 16 onto the bite-size stage doing brisk, kaleidoscopic formations. Their close-order, unison precision is as impressive as the accuracy of the intricate, lightning-fast footwork. Strangely, they keep switching instantaneously from dour faces to beaming grins for no apparent reason, but with precision choreography.

Emotions carom somewhat randomly in subsequent sections, too, from “Anxiety” to “Violently Happy” — danced to music by Björk. In “Shadow Dolls,” seven waifs in white tunics and masks dance as one. A repeated motif has them freeze momentarily on one foot and fix us with a menacing stare from their featureless faces. Then, Callum Spencer dances to hornpipes by Sean O’Brien, blasting from a boom box, while Nick O’Connell sits motionless in a downstage corner.

The attempted “human interest” feels superfluous; in this case, wonderful dancing doesn’t need text to enhance its emotional impact. The crackerjack skill of the ensemble and its disarming charm drive the show.

There are solos and a trio — including a brief pillow fight — for the three principals — Peta Anderson, ugly duckling turned swan; Spencer, the kid who’s taunted by rugby-playing mates for wanting to dance; and deer-in- the-headlights O’Connell, who speaks volumes with his tautly held trunk and spectacular legs.

De Gallai’s eclectic musical taste ranges from traditional Irish music to Cake, Kate Bush, and Leonard Cohen. Traditional Irish steps fit the contemporary rhythms like a glove. And in the finale, the ensemble even takes on the “Infernal Dance” from Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” as well as pulsing, high-powered original music by Joe Csibi, with a pounding and ferocious tribal intensity that’s pretty irresistible.