“We’ve coined it American Irish, because it’s a training concept first and foremost,” says Patrick Brown, technical director for the American Irish dance company Solas An Lae. “And in performance, that training comes through. These dancers learn strictly traditional Irish dance – both the tap, hard-shoe aspect of it and the soft-shoe slipper – but they’re also trained in ballet and contemporary movement, so these things all kind of mesh together and they have that versatility when it hits the stage.”
The Solas An Lae American Irish dance form was developed by the company’s artistic director, Deirdre Lowry. “It has really been her mission since she began all this in 1998 to bring Irish dance to a performance platform that isn’t what people assume it will be,” adds Brown. “It isn’t just steps. There’s an artistry to her choreographic style, a dynamic and a flow to it.”
And combining Irish dancing with ballet makes sense, says Brown. “They go well together in the training process. They’re similar in their posturing and in the rotation of the feet and straight legs. Both require a great deal of work: years and years of training until the dancers can even begin to master the complexities. There’s also a lot of physical power that needs to go into it.”
The half-dozen dancers who make up the Solas An Lae company are between the ages of 15 and 18. Most have been with the studio since they were young children. Some are of Irish descent, and Lowry herself is from a first-generation Irish family in America; but the American part of all this is inseparable. “We’re here in America,” says Brown. “This is not to say that this doesn’t incorporate very traditional Irish dance movement, but we bring our own personalities and our own cultures into this.”
The Solas An Lae performance season for 2016 begins at the Center for the Performing Arts at Rhinebeck on Friday and Saturday, March 18 and 19 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 20 at 3 p.m. Each show will feature a trio of numbers. The Irish American tradition will be celebrated in a repertoire piece, Reels: The American Legacy, which loosely follows Irish immigrants as they arrive here in the 19th and 20th centuries and begin building the infrastructure of this country. The narrative is abstract, but touches lightly through dance interpretation on the major movements made by the Irish as they assimilated.
Another Solas An Lae repertoire piece, The Celtic Soul of Van Morrison, will return in abridged form and with entirely new choreography. The original piece in 2009 encompassed the entire evening, but this version will be shorter, Brown says, covering Morrison’s more impressionistic work and the symbolism in his second studio album, Astral Weeks. The newly revamped tribute to Morrison will also delve more into his “blue-eyed soul stuff,” Brown adds. “It flies by pretty fast.”
The third number is a debut of a new Solas An Lae work called An Ghaeilge. Inspired by the resurgence of interest in the Gaelic language from young contemporary composers, the piece is “hard to describe,” notes Brown. “We do a concert series every year in the studio, with Gaelic singers and musicians, and we’re incorporating that into a full set. The score is sung in Gaelic, but it’s not traditional a cappella Gaelic singing; it’s done with contemporary musicians and it’s pretty cool. There are all these incredible Celtic composers out there these days who are adding classical elements to their music, and all types of fascinating dynamics of rhythm. All the scores are very contemporary; and as a lyrical voice, the Gaelic language sounds beautiful.”
Solas An Lae American Irish Dance Company, Friday/Saturday, March 18/19, 8 p.m., Sunday, March 20, 3 p.m. $20, Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck, 661 Route 308, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-3080, www.centerforperformingarts.org.