‘Irish Christmas’ dance show coming to Livermore’s Bankhead
By Lou Fancher
Unbridled joy, amazing athleticism and Celtic music that makes a person yearn to yank out a plank of wood, drop it on the floor and perform an Irish step dance are the hallmarks of Los Angeles-based Kerry Irish Productions.
The 16-member traveling troupe founded and directed by Margaret O’Carroll returns to the Bay Area this year with “An Irish Christmas.” Featured in the Tri-Valley appearances will be award-winning Scott Doherty (“Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance”) and Tyler Schwartz (“Magic of the Dance” and 2013 senior men’s world champion).
Of course, there’s no denying the equal star-power of the show’s four musicians, three vocalists and the dancers who include Keara Osborne, an Irish step dancer since age 6. Osborne is transitioning from 28 years onstage to behind-the-curtain opportunities as dance director but in the meantime has lost none of her fleet-feet skill. The show, she says in a phone interview, emphasizes speed, strength, grace and dancers’ ability to suspend themselves midair.
“We do leaps, the height and length of which make a skilled dancer look like they’re hanging in the air. It’s an optical illusion,” she says.
There’s nothing illusory about the sound, however. The dancers, when not bounding buoyantly in soft ballet slipper-like shoes, wear hard shoes that convey an old-fashioned-newfangled dichotomy: thick, clunky heel leather shoes with sleek, fiberglass toe taps.
“How fast can we move and how loud? A lot of shows compete to be faster and louder,” says Osborne.
The shoes’ stiffness allows dancers to rise up on their toes like ballet dancers or toss one leg in the air and exchange it with the other, one heel click — sometimes even two — along the way. Shows like “Riverdance” have paved the way for the art forms’ increasingly aggressive athleticism. The competitive Celtic dance world shows no signs of waning, Osborne says.
“It’s gone from a recital in the back of a Catholic Church hall to whole convention center competitions with hundreds of groups and new creations. I still see the traction going up with global growth popularity. It used to just be people of Irish descent, now it’s everywhere.”
Indeed, Tri-Valley-based McGrath Irish Dancers has a youth group and offers classes in Pleasanton, San Ramon and through the city of Dublin at the Dublin Heritage Center. Bankhead Theater spokesperson Roberta Emerson says Celtic performances “typically do pretty well” and attract local Irish dancers, musicians and their families. Although O’Carroll’s “Irish Christmas” is close to selling out, Emerson says there are a few dozen last-minute walkup tickets available. O’Carroll is growing accustomed to sold-out shows. From its origins, she says response to the Celtic production has outpaced even her own expectations.
“I have a history in classical music and family interest in the work. When I looked around Los Angeles where I live, there was nothing Irish represented. I went to El Camino College’s 2,000-seat theater and talked to the director and said I’d like a date to put on a Christmas show. They said yes. I did no advertising. It was a rainy Friday night: 1,750 people showed up. It was amazing.”
Amazing, yes, but understandable because the show’s layering of story, instrumentation, vocals and rhythmic dance combine to bridge community and craft from the past with contemporary culture and youthful exuberance. Included in the show are “Ding Dong Dedero,” a shoemaker’s work song; “The Day of the Wren,” a dance involving chasing a wren on St. Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26) that has a long, intriguing backstory; and the “half door” dance traditions that had Irish folks removing the small door in the front of their homes and placing it on the floor to use as a sound-enhancing stage surface.
O’Carroll with her eight brothers grew up with a mother she says was “a modern renaissance woman: a trained organist, a brilliant pianist, a voracious reader.” She recalls taking breaks from studying. “My brothers would pick up an instrument and play for an hour to get away from the world. I’d sing songs, some of which are in the show.”
Maintaining authenticity, she says, comes as a result of her background and is imperative: A percussionist provides essential rhythmic energy on a bodhrán, a traditional, goat-skin frame drum; Scottish Highland pipe playing is all about excellent elbow action.
“We’re the protector of the past,” O’Carroll says. “We have a fiddler who plays “The Mason’s Apron,” and the audience roars and goes nuts. It’s an energy that takes people to another place. It’s spirit to spirit. You touch people.”