The international smash Riverdance is referenced in Pirate Queen's advertising, press materials and interviews, so there is a natural expectation that the new musical tale of 16th-century Irish chieftain Grace O'Malley will be filled with "riverdancing," as Irish dance is incorrectly and broadly called these days.
Preview audiences at the Hilton Theatre prior to the show's April 5 opening have been cheering the use of Irish dance in The Pirate Queen, particularly in three humanity-rich sequences depicting the milestones of a wedding, a funeral and a christening.
"The Irish dance in the show is there to explain the time and place of Grace O'Malley," Carol Leavy Joyce, the show's Irish dance choreographer, herself a veteran dance captain and associate director of Riverdance, told Playbill.com. "It's an expression of that period. Riverdance is a dance show — about coming in to see the art form that Irish dancers have brought to us. In The Pirate Queen we use dance as an expression the same way as, in our culture, we use poetry and music — to tell about our lives."
In the Frank Galati-directed musical by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Richard Maltby, Jr. and John Dempsey, members of a boisterous Irish clan (most of the cast, in fact, including principals Stephanie Block, Jeff McCarthy and Hadley Fraser) spin in a joyous free-wheeling wedding celebration; four men in hard Irish shoes clack out a military-style tribute at a funeral; and the ground is stamped so violently during a christening it seems to cleanse the very earth that the baby will one day walk.
"That was always the idea: That the dance would be there as part of telling the story," Dubliner Leavy Joyce said. "I hoped you would never come upon the dance and say, 'Oh, here's the dance number,' or — for some people who call Irish dance 'riverdance' — 'Oh, here's the riverdancing.' I would hope the dance would go in and out as seamlessly as any of the scenes. That's probably the high point for me, that the integrity of the dance is there — it's organic." One of the things the collaborators learned in the fall 2006 Chicago tryout of The Pirate Queen was that Irish dance was thrilling the audience and could be exploited more.
Graciela Daniele (Ragtime, Once on This Island) was brought aboard to create fresh musical staging after Chicago, and she partnered with Leavy Joyce to energize the show.
"Graciela and I spoke a lot about the dance, the rhythm and the percussion," Leavy Joyce said. "In Chicago people came out of the show, and they said they loved the dance and wanted more."
In New York the wedding dance is larger, the christening is more elaborate and the launching of the ship, called The Pirate Queen, is new, depicting an oar-swinging male ensemble, percussively stamping to the thrum of a drum.
While the wedding of Grace O'Malley is seen as a loose, joyous, slightly dangerous experience, the funeral sequence of a chieftain is more naturally subdued. The four men of the eight core Irish dancers in the troupe beat their feet in an almost ponderous fashion at the funeral.
"He was a chieftain, so there is the huge ritual of a funeral — the chieftains and clans would have traveled from all over his kingdom for his funeral," Leavy Joyce said. "There's a sense of military about the four Irish guys who come out and — rather than with gunshots — they give their tribute in the form of the footwork and the steps."
Are the dances historically accurate?
Leavy Joyce explained, "The wedding is a celebration, and it's what dance might have been in 16th-century Ireland — but much freer, much looser. There's very little reference to dance, which is the same for all of our culture — there was very little written down in Ireland around that time. But you see references to it in other stories — round dances, circle dances. We used all of those traditional formations, but I think what we brought to it [was] infusing the Irish and the acrobatic, fluid style of the modern."
She observed, "In parts of Ireland today, not maybe that much on the east coast, but in the west and south of Ireland, a wedding would still use traditional music and dance formations. We wanted to reflect Grace's period, but at the same time, anybody from the Irish Diaspora who comes to see The Pirate Queen will associate with what they see performed in the wedding."
In the christening scene in the Chicago world premiere last fall, "the four guys used to dance around the baby, and that was like stomping goodness from the earth into the baby," Leavy Joyce said. "Then we felt, that is a sort of ritual that was done, so why don't we make the whole community do that? At that moment, everybody joins in. That's new to New York."
Although the show has a backbone of eight Irish dancers, four men and four women with competition background and Riverdance credits, almost everybody in the troupe of 40 — notably not Linda Balgord, who is corseted as Queen Elizabeth I — jumps into Irish dance at one time or another in the show.
People with tap background had it a little easier in the learning process, Leavy Joyce said.
"The Irish dance does focus on a different part of the foot, how you distribute your weight," Leavy Joyce explained, adding that she will never forget the day all the "modern dancers" got Irish dance rehearsal shoes.
"It was," Leavy Joyce said, "fantastic — the sound."
And although Graciela Daniele was brought onto the project late in its gestation period, Leavy Joyce said creating the choreography was a joyous collaboration. (Original choreographer Mark Dendy is now credited with additional choreography.)
"I just found Graci absolutely wonderful," Leavy Joyce said. "Her brilliance as a choreographer is one thing, but her appreciation and her love of the Irish dance was a great inspiration for me. When I would put on my shoes and we would do rhythms, she'd laugh and bang out her rhythms. She felt the Latin rhythm and Irish rhythm are so alike. That's what we've worked in, that's what you see on the stage, that kind of collaboration of the two styles. I guess you would say it's a Pirate Queen sound."
(Kenneth Jones is Playbill.com's managing editor.)