The 19th Annual New York City Irish Dance Festival, presented by the Irish Arts Center NYC, took place on Sunday June 7th. But, of course, this was the first time ever that it was held virtually!
Indeed it was very fitting that the festival, originally conceived by Artistic Director Niall O’Leary ADCRG out of a lost performance opportunity right after 9/11, was still held this year, despite the challenging times we are all going through. Once again New Yorkers have been displaying the resilience for which they are famous. Top marks to the team at the IAC NYC for all the ‘man behind the curtain’ work: the talent on display made all their efforts worthwhile. This event, celebrating the best dancers and dance groups in NYC, is usually held on a pier on the westside of Manhattan in scorching sunshine…however his year’s ‘virtual’ event was mostly indoors.
First off, there were workshops by the famed Donny Golden, Darrah Carr, Niall O’Leary and rising star percussive dancer Danielle Enblom. While Donny gave expert tips on learning and perfecting the basics, Darrah presented her signature ‘ModErin’ style, combining the best of modern dance arm and torso moment with Irish dance footwork, Danielle explained Connemara sean nós dance steps, and Niall taught a workshop in ‘Celtic Tap Improv’, taking percussive dance combo’s from different styles and improvising over a rhythmic structure. These workshops were not like going for a swim in an Olympic-size pool: rather they were more about dipping your toe in the water, with a view to diving right in at a later date!
There followed a panel discussion where the four workshop leaders enthused about the way forward for Irish dance, surmising about a future where all Irish dance schools the world over are connected and working together virtually AND in-person! When asked about their influences, each of the workshop leaders spoke glowingly about some of the greats who had taught and inspired them: Cyril McNiff RIP (Donny), Tim O’Hare RIP (Darrah), Kevin Massey RIP (Niall) and Peggy McTeggart RIP (Danielle).
Then we were treated to some fabulous performances by the following groups: Aherne Sheehan School, Niall O’Leary School, Donny Golden School, Darrah Carr Dance, and the Niall O’Leary Irish Dance Troupe. Each of the groups went to great lengths to rethink what a virtual Irish dance performance can be in times where dancers cannot travel, cannot meet up, and cannot dance closer than 6 feet from each other. There were professional-level dancers in all the presentations, but each of the school performances also featured up-and-coming dancers of all ages.
Some of the most memorable moments included former Mid-Atlantic Region Oireachtas champion Caitlin Ward and current MAR champion Noel Spillane (both Donny Golden School) dancing their competition set dances in tiny spaces, a tap-infused percussive solo by former World Champion Trent Kowalik and Melissa Padham-Maass dancing in a lush forest in Warwick, NY (both Darrah Carr Dance), the finale of the Niall O’Leary School performance, with many of the dancers performing in front of iconic NYC scenes, the Aherne Sheehan School number with music by ‘Come From Away’ Broadway fiddle star Cailtin Warbelow and beatbox whizz Jason Oremus of Hammerstep, and a new group work entitled ‘COR . . .’ by the Niall O’Leary Irish Dance Troupe (Cautiously Optimistic Reel . . .): there was also a surprise guest appearance by the effervescent Cara Butler with her husband Jon Pilatzke on fiddle!
The music throughout this thoroughly uplifting event was fast paced and varied: there were specially-commissioned pieces by top whistle player Joanie Madden of Cherish The Ladies, accompanied by Gabriel Donohue, and stand-out New York fiddler and bodhrán player Jake James (‘Firewood’ solo CD, released in 2018), accompanied by stand-outside guitarist Padraig Allen, who many readers will recognize as the leader of the popular NY-based McLean Avenue Band: they entertained all week at last year’s World Championships in Greensboro NC, USA. Niall O’Leary’s spoons also had a turn in the final blast of reels!
Overall, the IAC NYC Irish Dance Festival 2020 was a massive burst of positivity, not just for all the brilliant dancers, musicians and videographers who were involved in creating the various pieces, but also for all the dancers and viewers who participated on the first Sunday in June.
We will all remember 2020 as a year when we realized that the joy of dance is something that we value more when it is taken away from us, and we can’t wait to resume in-person Irish dance experiences!