Tl;dr The moment of change in this piece is built through the nexial connections between performer, movement, and sound. Energy builds, which creates a suspicious value system that suggests modern and sexy is desirable and that this is the opposite of “traditional”
This is a longterm project that uses choreological theories (of which I am not an expert) as a framework to apply discourse analysis to dance. I am using this video as a guinea pig and source. Here are the earlier parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
In part 3, we were looking at the nexial connections of different strands of the dance medium. In short, strands effect and interact with each other and these form connections. As a quick reminder, the most common nexial connections are:
The performer-movement connection
The performer-sound connection
The performer-space connection
The movement-sound connection
The movement-space connection
The sound-space connection
I discussed the connections in italics in the last post, looking at the role of shoes. I will discuss the bolded connections in this post, about the moment of change that happens in the middle of the piece.
The overlap is obvious and worth noting – we are really looking only at connections that don’t include space. While it could say something about genre, I can think of examples worth discussing around this piece and space. I believe the reason this is the case is because this video has less space choices which connect to what I have chosen discuss. That does not mean space is not a strong player in this video, the piece, Michael Flatley’s work in general, or Irish dance as a whole.
So, the moment of change. What is it? It’s super obvious – the dancers dramatically rip off their clothes, music and lighting change, and the type of movement the dancers are doing shifts. But, while I say it’s obvious, that’s important to question: What is it that makes the change so obvious? What causes the change? What is the change saying?
I would additionally question: What are the paradoxes in these changes?
Let’s look at some nexial connections to get a better idea.
Movement – sound
Before, I discussed a very direct movement-sound connection in which movement produced sound through the use of hard shoes. This time, we are looking at a moment in which a change in sound occurs at the same time as a change in movement. I do want to reiterate, however, that movement accompanies the music in the standard way for Irish dance throughout the entire piece.
Here’s what I said about music before:
“There are two parts of the music. The first part is slower and features a flute, light, airy, and sweet. This highlights the “innocence” of the section and is in direct contrast to the second part, which starts with an electric guitar while the tune is played on a fiddle. The use of electric instruments for a “traditional” form makes everything a bit edgy.”
The change in sound here is one from something generically Irish (“traditional”) to something on electric instruments, modernized to feel a little edgy.
What about the steps? All the steps in this dance are heavy jigs (the “heavy” refers to the shoes, and for music people, jigs are in 6/8). But it gets faster! The first part is slow treble jigs. These are most common in competition settings – the music is slowed so that the dancer can double time their sounds and make more intricate rhythms. The second part is made of steps that are sometimes referred to as “fast treble jigs”, “double jigs”, or, to get my point, “traditional jigs” or “beginner jigs”.
I went down a rabbit hole trying to find a source for what I’m about to say and, sadly, with my current resources, I was only able to find wikipedia. So, to quote wikipedia:
“Beginners will do a treble jig at traditional speed (92 bpm), while more advanced dancers will dance the non-traditional (slow) treble jig at 72 bpm.”
The slow treble jig at the beginning is a newer, “non-traditional”, flashy dance while the faster jig is not only traditional, it is now usually only danced by beginners (ie. You start learning traditional things and then get to progress into the present day, contemporary dances). This is the paradox: while the music goes from “traditional” to “edgy modern”, the dance goes from “non-traditional/flashy” to “traditional/beginner”.
Keep in mind, though, that the average Lord of the Dance audience member knows fuck all about the difference between different types of jigs. Excitement here is built through speed, which is something most people can recognize, whether or not they know a lot about Irish dance, as opposed to technical skill, which would require the audience to know a little bit more about the steps they are seeing.
But, there is one exception to this pattern, and that’s the sexy shoulder roll step. The step itself actually doesn’t break Irish dance form as much as you’d expect – the big leg circles echo back to a lot of circling and sliding motions that have existed in Irish dance for a long time and we’re always big on stamping – but the shoulder rolls do break form. They reference much more the “commercial dance” of music videos than Irish dance, in which we don’t really do things with our shoulders at all. So, even while traditional steps are used to allow for speed and an increase of excitement, the edgy modernity of the electric music is still reflected in the dance through this one step.
Sound – performer
Costume is the other major element which shifts during the moment of major change, along with the movement and sound. In this video, the dancers are wearing simple dresses with celtic knots on them. They are not the full-on Irish solo dress, but the shape and designs do reference the standard Irish dance costume. It’s hard to see with the lighting, but I believe the dresses are also green, a color often used to symbolize Ireland, bringing us once again back to the idea of this being a way to present Irishness.
Our soloist, however, starts out in white, a common Western symbol for purity. When the dancers take off their clothes, they are casting away symbols of Ireland/tradition and purity/innocence. This is reflected as the music goes from sweet and light to driving and switches from “traditional” to “modern”. However, while the sound is simply a switch from one to the other, the performers actively remove one costume for the other, suggesting agency and choice in the decision (I’ve already vaguely discussed the fact that these dancers all appear to be women and are taking their clothes off under the direction of a man).
This agency, which recorded music cannot express, emphasizes the change and adds to the excitement of the moment, much as the increase in speed does.
Performer – movement
The change in movement discussed before is as much in relation to the change in costume as it is to the change in music. When the performers take off their first costume (symbols of purity) to reveal a “sexy” (ie. some skin shows) black (sparkly!) costume is when the movement changes and includes our awkward shoulder roll.
However, the soloist does “coy” and vaguely sexy movements with her arms throughout the whole dance. Blanketed by the illusion of innocence that comes with the costume, the movements don’t appear edgy, challenging, or modern, but sweet and naïve. When she strips away the costume, revealing her secret, sexy appearance, the same movements take on a different meaning.
Note the value system in place: the moment of change is an energy build, it’s presented as positive. It’s saying – modernity is good, moving beyond tradition is good, sexiness in Irish dance is good. This is desirable. Even while Flatley positions himself as an ambassador of Irish culture, he is also critiquing it, suggesting that Irish dance would be better by adding in electric music, revealing costumes, and awkward shoulder rolls intended to be sexy.
I may have some opinions about that.
In the end, it’s these three strands combined that make the moment of change what it is – the movement, sound, and performer both reflect and challenge each other, changing at exactly the same time. This builds energy and creates a value system in which certain choices are presented as desirable or better. Ouf.
Order is super important here. In general, energy and excitement build in any piece as it progresses. This doesn’t always lead to marking one thing as desirable and one thing as lesser, as in this example. However, it does mean that we would be seeing something completely different if the first section was second and we saw the second section first. Movement would go from “traditional/beginner” to “non-traditional/flashy”, the music would slow down instead of speed up and also go from electric and edgy to sweet flute music, and performers would be putting on their costumes instead. What would that say?
Next up, we’ll stop looking at the strands of the dance medium and get more nitty gritty about the movement.