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JIG Offers Fresh Take on Traditional Irish Music and Dance
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The Trinity Irish Dance Company will perform JIG in Ketchum on Friday and Saturday. PHOTO: Paul Marshall/courtesy of TIDC
   
Tuesday, February 13, 2024
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

The group is called Trinity Irish Dance Company. And the show they’re bringing to The Argyros in Ketchum is called JIG.

But don’t expect to see a rehash of Gaelic step dancing or Irish Riverdance. The show that Mark Howard and Brendan O’Shea, the leader singer and songwriter, are bringing combines elements of traditional Irish dancing and music with a modern spin that includes some rock ‘n roll and other contemporary music.

“We create a sound that is, hopefully, a little different than you would hear in an Irish pub,” said Emmy Award-winning choreographer Mark Howard, who founded Trinity Irish Dance Company. “We grew up with traditional Irish music, and we are aware of its impact on the world. But we also have a responsibility to bring it forward and create a sense of Irish music that comes from us rather than purely the tradition.”

Trinity Irish Dance Company, which was founded in 1990, will perform two shows in Ketchum—at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 16, and at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 17, at The Argyros. Tickets start at $25 and are available at https://theargyros.org/calendar/jig-a-trinity-irish-dance-production/

Howard said the show is a dance for music lovers and music for dance lovers. It’s not a dance show and it’s not a music show, he said. It’s both in equal measure and it’s a celebration of the company’s ability to connect people, based around the personality of Brendan O’Shea, a native of Killarney, Ireland, who now lives in the Woodstock area of upstate New York.

“Ireland is a very progressive country,” said Howard. “It’s not the shamrock and leprechaun place people thought it was years ago. Now, it’s a melting pot of cultures and contemporary influences from everywhere. We take the Celtic traditions of our ancestors and take it in imaginative directions designed to put smile on people’s faces. It’s more of a happening, more of a vibe, than a show—a vibe we ‘re hoping will reverberate long after we’ve left. A continuum of hope that things will work out. That’s something that both of our Irish mothers told us: ‘Things will work out.’ ”

Howard made his acting debut as a toddler on the Queen Mary as his parents immigrated to the United States from Yorkshire, England. His mother dressed him in a white t-shirt and diaper and kissed him all over, her red lipstick marks symbolizing that he was her little lover boy. She won $100 for her performance, and Howard caught the eye of Pat Boone, who was the ship’s guest celebrity.

Settling in Chicago, his parents enrolled him in a step dance class at the Dennehy School of Irish Dance when he was 8. Though not enamored of dancing in a kilt, he began teaching the steps when 17. He launched the Trinity Academy of Irish Dance at 20 and coached the first American team to win a gold medal at the World Irish Dance Championships in 1987 when he was just 25. It was the first of 18 championships he would claim.

Trinity Irish Dance Company has performed on the Johnny Carson show, and it’s performed for the Royal Family of Monaco, as well as Irish and American presidents, Japanese royalty and even Indian meditation masters. Howard has been also appeared with Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Live with Regis and worked with the likes of Ron Howard and Disney Universal, even serving as the personal dance coach for Sun Valley homeowner Tom Hanks on “Road to Perdition.”

“As an Irish-American, I grew up in search of an identity. and I became an artist through happy accident. I feel I’m very rich in terms of what I get to do every day,” he said.

Howard and O’Shea will bring four band members and 8 to 10 dancers from a roster that includes two male dancers that Howard says are the best Irish dancers who have ever lived in Mexico. The music will include that of two-time All-Ireland fiddle champion Jake James and lead singer Brendan O’Shea, whose latest album “Midatlantic Ghost” is a beautiful acoustic record full of songs of love and leaving.

There is an art to the dance of life, Howard said, and he hopes the show reflects that.

“That delicate balance of movement and dance in a beautifully lived life can be extraordinary. Brendan took a risk by coming to this country, just like my parents took a risk coming from the Old Country. It’s about survival on some level. They came and conquered. My mother would say the same thing Brendan says, ‘What more could you want after a nice cup of tea?!’ ”

Howard was in Queens, N.Y., where he had just finished up three performances when he was inspired to create JIG. It was the day before New York went on lockdown because of the COVID pandemic, and he paused as he saw O’Shea with two other musicians standing around a singular lightbulb—a ghost light—singing O’Shea’s lastest song.

“They were not plugged in and it was so understated and beautiful,” Howard recounted. “I filmed it, put it on social media and people reacted so positively.”

As they formulated the new show, they went down the rabbit hole of Laurel Canyon where folk and rock music cross-pollinated in the 1960s with the likes of Neil Young and Crosby Stills and Nash. They then doubled down on sharing the band and its gifts with the audience, surrounding them with half as many dancers as were in the repertory show.

The result is an “impossibly complex” show that stretches the limits of what Irish dance can do aesthetically and rhythmically, according to reviews in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune.

“We’re a company that believes in individuals,” said Howard. “I’m not a fan of sameness. There’s no energy in sameness.”

Both Howard and O’Shea hope that their performance resonates with people who may be lonely or searching for what’s important.

“We argue over things we don’t agree on and we don’t know where to place anger,” Howard said. “We make bad decisions when we’re under stress. We hope that JIG can be transformative for people, that they can spend time connecting on a human level.”

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