In ‘Atlantic Steps,’ showcasing an old form of Irish dance
If the sharp, angled footwork and high-stepping ensemble precision of Irish step dancing is like a tightknit Broadway hoofing routine, the even older Irish dance form of sean-nós is akin to jazz tap, a more intimate and traditionally solo form improvised to music in the spontaneity of the moment. And in the way that “Riverdance” popularized Irish step dancing in a theatrical context, a new show called “Atlantic Steps” may help spread the excitement about sean-nós. With six dancers and five musicians, “Atlantic Steps” sails into the Berklee Performance Center for two shows Saturday as part of a US tour, and as the title suggests, it’s a production that has creative roots on both sides of the ocean.
An international touring adaptation of the popular Irish show “Fuaim Chonamara,” “Atlantic Steps” is the brainchild of its charismatic 27-year-old star, Brian Cunningham, whose Connemara family of young dancers has been on the forefront of the sean-nós revival. Compared with the more regimented steps and stylized upper body of Irish step dance, sean-nós is more casual, loose-limbed, and spur-of-the-moment, playing off the energy, mood, and rhythms of the music while creating a vibrant rhythmic tapestry in the footwork. The influence of sean-nós (which literally means “old style” and is pronounced “shawn NOss”) can be seen in American forms such as clogging, jazz tap, and soft shoe.
Within the past decade, young dancers like Cunningham have been on the forefront of a sean-nós resurgence, committed not only to preserving the steps and traditions, but to reinvigorating the style with new energy and fresh ideas. Cunningham describes himself as a man on a mission. “I want to tell the story and do my family proud,” he says from Chicago, where he has taught Irish dance for the past two years. His brogue is thick and his thoughts come fast and furiously, a young man’s enthusiasm for his passion evident in his cadences. “This is not just about me and about Connemara, but about the story going back 250 years, the culture, the people who lived on an island, were religious, and believed in each other and worked hard. They created their living off the land, and what kept them going was music, song, and dance, and that’s sean-nós.”
On this side of the Atlantic, Irish-American dancer Kieran Jordan has been a major figure in the US revival of sean-nós, a form that girls and women have begun to dance only recently. A longtime fixture of Boston’s lively Irish music and dance scene as a performer, teacher, and choreographer, she is co-director and choreographer of “Atlantic Steps.” Jordan, who is also co-director of Boston Percussive Dance and dance director for “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” started Irish dancing when she was 5 and danced competitively growing up. A Philadelphia native who studied in Ireland as well, she has developed a distinctive personal style that combines traditional Irish step technique with improvised percussive dance, an innovative aesthetic that dovetails with the improvised style of sean-nós. Jordan choreographed the ensemble numbers in the show and assembled the six dancers for the tour, including step dancer Kevin Doyle and tap dancer Ayan Imai-Hall. The musicians include vocalist Máirín Uí Chéide and accordionist Sean McComiskey.
Vincent Crotty, Jordan’s husband, created the set design for the show. He’s originally from County Cork, Ireland, but has lived in Boston for the last 23 years, and his “Atlantic Steps” imagery traces the history and import of Irish dance, from early village social life through immigration to America, with its host of international influences. Converted to digital images, Crotty’s paintings are projected to set different scenes for the show: ocean waves, dawn on the turf bog, the interior of an Irish cottage, the deck of a steamship. “The paintings really help to convey the traditions and stories of sean-nós dance, bringing the audience right into the places where sean-nós dance did, and does, occur,” Jordan says.
But Cunningham himself is the real draw and the undisputed star of the show. Known for his style, skill, and athleticism, he is also celebrated for his commanding presence and animated personality. “He’s a rock ’n’ roll man,” Jordan says. “There’s a touch of Elvis there. He loves that wildness and passion. And he’s so much fun. We’re all laughing from beginning to end.”
“I couldn’t be any happier than when I dance,” Cunningham says. “I love life and I love people, but when I’m dancing is the only time I’m 100 percent happy. You get lost in what you’re doing. You just be yourself. It’s so natural. It’s about the culture, the rhythm, the energy, not just us but the audience.”
When they were growing up in western Ireland, dance was always part of the fabric of daily life for Cunningham, his brother, and his three sisters. On weekends, the family would take their boat to tiny Blue Island for picnics, music, and dancing, Cunningham’s father twanging a mouth harp as his children took turns dancing on an old half door laid on the ground. “We danced every day for fun,” Cunningham recalls. “It was very casual. We never thought we were going to be dancers. I never went to any instruction or workshops. I just learned from watching my father.”
He also learned from watching other older men at family and community gatherings, dancing steps that they had learned from their fathers. He especially remembers one regatta, though he was only 6 at the time. “There was an old man dancing, about 75 years old, with his hat on his head and his hand in his pocket, just tiptoeing and dancing around the stage, and people were just wild about it. I remember everything, from the music to the dancing to the style of it. . . . I knew I wanted to do it.”
He and his siblings started putting “odd steps” together and creating ensemble routines in their kitchen. Before long, dancing became a kind of calling for the family. They’d skip birthday parties and all kinds of special occasions to travel around and dance at various functions, with the parents in the background managing sets and costumes, repairing shoes. “When I was 16, there were very few people doing sean-nós around Ireland,” Cunningham says. “It was a dream I wanted for us, but at the time, to think we’d make a living with sean-nós was crazy.”
At 20, however, Cunningham got really serious about his dream. “I got into it full time,” he says. “It turned into a business for me.” In 2009, he and his family presented their show “Fuaim Chonamara” as the headline act of Galway’s Volvo Ocean Race spectacular. “Atlantic Steps” is Cunningham’s new, more elaborate version of the show. “I just knew that if we can put this out there and keep it as it is, keep it real, and put it onstage with the imagery and the right people, this is something that will work.”
He seems to be in it for the long haul. “It’s a tough, hard road, but when business gets quiet, you can still always go out and meet with friends and do a dance,” Cunningham says. “That’s the one thing in the world that’s 100 percent real to me. It’s who I am and what I am.”