Ethnic dance has two sides.
The internationally renowned Kuban Cossacks Russian Dance Ensemble sees its purpose as preserving traditional Russian culture.
The award-winning Trinity Irish Dance Company, on the other hand, though it retains its Celtic roots intact, is stretching the limits of dance and experimenting with performance art. Both performed last weekend at the Vail International Dance Festival, kicking up a storm.
With the grace of ballet dancers and the stamina of acrobats, Kuban evokes the military splendor of the Cossacks, who traditionally guarded the nation in border outposts. Their warlike tribal customs are still reflected in amazing sword dances, fantastic spins and leaps, and dagger-tossing.
"Russian culture is poly-ethnic - there are many influences," says artistic director Victor Zakharchenko. "One of the border outposts was in the Kuban River region. Our Kuban culture exists in villages and settlements to this day...."
The company maintains a school for 1,000 children in Krashodar City. "They work very hard, study ballet as well as folk dance. But the real work is in rehearsal," he says.
Like the Russian company, the dancers of Trinity begin their lessons at five or six years old.
Elaborately embroidered costumes, bright as tropical birds, matching white, calf-length socks, and soft, laced black shoes make Irish step dancers stick out in a crowd. But it's the "rubber ankles," the highly structured intricacy of the steps, and the amazing perfection of synchronous movement that engage the viewer's imagination - all those women moving as if tied by wires. That and the straight-arrow torso, arms firmly placed at the sides, which emphasizes effectively the movement of the feet.
Many Americans have seen "Riverdance" on TV or in the theater, and that commercialized, high-tech entertainment has given Irish step-dancing a boost. But the real art of the dance may lie elsewhere - in a company like Trinity that has made a genuine effort to place itself in the high art, rather than commercial, venues.
Artistic director Mark Howard studied Irish step dancing at the same school that produced Michael Flatley's "Lord of the Dance." But he has taken his company in another direction, away from theatrical spectacle and toward innovative theater pieces.
Born in Yorkshire, England, Mr. Howard was raised in Chicago, and launched the Trinity Academy of Irish Dance at 17. His academy has won 17 world championship titles for the United States, and most of the members of his dance company are gold-medal winners. Like the Kuban Cossack dancers, the Trinity Academy teaches 1,000 students (up from its original 20) and company members have appeared on PBS and ABC specials.
Progressive Irish dance, Howard says, started in Chicago. And while his company is engaged in the preservation of culture, in order for a dance form to survive as something more than craft, it has to seek new expressiveness. So the dilemma is to keep the genuine article intact and still allow it to blossom.
"We do for Irish-American dance what Alvin Ailey does for African-American dance. We've been fighting the whole Celtic craze thing. We have increased our vocabulary with pieces like "The Molly McGuires" [a multimedia performance piece about Irish-American coal miners], we borrow from other media, but we have to be really careful. There's no word for what we do, it's experimental....
"We took [traditional Irish dancing] and reintroduced it as a performance art.... Like any art form, it needed to move and breathe and not be static. It has substance to it."
Howard has been inspired by Mexico's Ballet Folklorico and Japan's Kodo Drummers, with whom Trinity will collaborate next summer when the company tours Japan, and by African-American groups, with whom the company has collaborated. He points out that American tap-dancing is a combination of the Irish jig and African-American boot dancing.
"I've always been drawn to world music," he says. "There's so much good in everything. But you don't want it all to become homogenized either. It's still important to have a [core] identity.... There's nothing like movement and dance to transcend all communication."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society