When the piece begins, we hear the dancers’ voices recorded in a conversation about belonging to a community and their feelings of alienation and difference. One at a time, then gathering in small groups, they enter and do brief phrases that begin with big gestures and whirl into locomotion. They line up in a shaft of light, in individual freeze poses, with a different dancer at the head of the line each time. A man stands still in a black bikini and lets five women dress him in old-fashioned clothes that a farmer might wear to town in the 1850s.
Then there’s a series of dance tableaux evoking families, farewells, combat and comradeship. Two men do a grotesque riverboat shuffle that turns into a wrestling match as the others egg them on. Someone speaks of a house divided, as a woman and two men link arms, struggle together, hold each other, fall apart.
I tuned out the oratory most of the time, but the dancing was fervent, modern-dancy — like something inspirational Martha Graham might have made in the depths of the Depression. There was no overt reference to the current election, but you couldn’t help hearing contemporary implications in the elegiac tone and the affirmations of unity in diversity.
The previous weekend, James Devine brought his Celtic Tap to the ICA, courtesy of CRASHarts, and that illustrated another form of cultural mingling. Devine, an Irish stepdancer who started his career in contemporary shows like Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance, now eschews these flashy incarnations of the traditional forms. His dance combines the fast footwork of Irish step with the rhythmic imagination of American tap. He didn’t try to be a star or dazzle the audience with his brilliance. He and his partners just came out and acted like, well, here’s what we do, pretty good isn’t it?
Celtic Tap is actually a three-way merger, with the parts remaining quite distinct stylistically as they work in a state of amiable coexistence. Devine, his sturdy frame clad in T-shirts, black pants cut off just below the knee, and high-top boots, focuses his energies down into the ground. He dances unaffectedly, with the easy swing of knee and ankle that can produce all kinds of slaps and flaps and crossover steps as well as a rapid play of heel and toe elaborations. He’s won contests for the most taps per second, but you don’t want to be counting them when he flings himself into a supersonic Flight of the Bumblebee.
Although his rhythms could be variable and intricate, he didn’t have a lot of dynamic subtlety — louds and softs, long and short intervals, speed-ups and slowdowns. So his variations often came across as a consistently loud, regular beat, even though you could see and hear he was doing a lot more than that.
Scottish percussionist Paul Jennings seemed to have a lot of jazz and especially African rhythms in his background. Sitting on a wooden box, he bent over and drummed with his palms and fingers on the front panel, pulling whole handfuls of texture out of his homespun instrument. He could even change the pitch of the drumbeat by sliding one hand up the panel. This is a technique I’ve seen African drummers use on the taut leather heads of congas. He’d often start a set with a syncopated rhythm for Devine to embellish or answer.