So, you’ve read my plot summary. You’ve probably got some ideas about what I liked and didn’t like about the show. Now let’s look at it more closely!
Lord of the Dance is a classic good vs evil story, but that doesn’t mean it’s not problematic, and actually, this production was one of the most sexist productions I’ve ever seen. Okay, maybe “sexist” is too strong a word — misogynistic? Nah, let’s stick with sexist, because I can actually spell that.
Irish dance is a wonderfully unisex activity. Yes, so the girls get the crazy dresses and bizarre wigs, and yes, at most classes you’ll find a lot more girls than boys, just as with any dance form. And there are differences: girls have light shoes with the criss-cross laces, while boys have shoes much more like jazz shoes that still have a heel, so even while they’re doing the soft shoe dances, they can still do clicks and things. I get it. There’s a difference.
But you know where there isn’t usually a difference? Hard shoes. Also known as heavy shoes or jig shoes.
I loved hard shoes when I was an Irish dancer. I like light shoes too, because they were more like the ballet that I’d done when I was younger and leaping in them made me feel like I could fly, but I liked heavy shoes more. Loved that you got to stomp as loud as you could, loved that our teachers motivated us by telling us we were trying to intimidate the audience. Loved that the whole point was to be loud and brutal and there was something so terrifically violent about that. I was good at it, too, perhaps because I was older than most of the people in my class and therefore heavier and therefore louder.
There was a serious, serious lack of hard shoe dances for the girls in this production. Even when they were in hard shoes for the big ensemble numbers and for Freedom, they were modified from the traditional unisex jig shoes. They had a higher heel and no visible toe-taps as far as I could see, and even with the prerecorded taps that drowned out the actual sound of the shoes, they were a lot, lot quieter than the guys.
Saoirse’s hard shoe solo, the Dance of Love that Bernadette Flynn did so awesomely in 1998 in Feet of Flames and in LotD in 2010 when I saw it last, was completely absent. (YouTube link for that.)
The girls’ dances were about elegance and they were also about seduction. Throughout the show they were there to provide backup for the male warriors. The only two female characters to actually have any bearing on the plot were the Little Spirit, who has very little agency and is simply pushed around and captured by the Dark Lord before being rescued by the Lord, and the Morrighan, who uses her skills of seduction to lure the Lord out of safety and to rob him off his power.
Okay, we get it. Sex is coded as bad. Right. So why are all the good guys shirtless again?
The contrast between the power and strength of the male hard shoe dances (and the single male soft shoe dance from earlier productions, Siamsa, was cut and its replacement had them in hard shoes) and the soft elegance of the female ones was just… ugh. This is meant to be Celtic, right? Where’s Medb, where’s Boudicca, where’s Scathach? Why am I being shown women whose only power is in their beauty when Celtic history and literature is full of badass female warriors?
Why doesn’t the Lord have any women in his troupe? Trust me, I knew female Irish dancers who could do all that formation stuff without trouble. Our whole-school performance in Essence of Ireland in 2010 basically involved us doing something exactly like that. All in a line. All in black. Looking intimidating. If a bunch of adolescent girls can do it, why is this an all-male environment?
And that’s always been a feature of the show ever since the 1996 version I used to watch repeatedly on VHS, but in those productions at least the girls had proper hard shoes and were able to do some powerful dances of their own, instead of being reduced to a more delicate high-heeled version of an Irish dancer. No wonder a couple of them had smiles that looked very forced.
Still, that’s a very negative way of looking at the show, so let’s move on to what I liked. I mentioned that the aesthetic of the show could best be described as cyberpunk. That’s what it was. Cyborgs, full-on robots, spaceships. Leather jackets, ripped-up hoodies over camo pants; spikes on the shoulders, the Morrighan’s cropped hair with red and black streaks… I’m a bit of an aspiring punk who is way too small and delicate ever to pull off the look successfully, and I was delighted by this.
Did I mention that the costumes were, for the most part, awesome? Apart from the Turtle Disciples. Wasn’t so keen on them. Leaving behind the tightly-curled hair/wigs of the Irish dancing world, most of the dancers sported a far more natural look, and even makeup was kept to a relative minimum, with the exception of characters like the Little Spirit who are supposed to look inhuman, and the grey skin and wiring across one cheek of the Dark Lord. (That was cool. That was where I was glad to be at the front, so I could see it.)
The show was clearly more modern than previous versions, leaving behind the pretence of tradition or history that filled earlier productions, although the dresses for the start of Freedom were very similar to 1998’s production and are designed to look like old-school feis dresses. Apart from that, it was Lord of the Dance for a technological generation, and I liked it. It gave a sort of immediacy and vitality to an art form that many people see as “traditional” and relegate to the little-remembered realms of “folk dance”, suitable only for festivals where the average visitor age is over 60.
The music … well, my attitude to the music was mixed. Some was awesome. Some of the time you could feel the bass going right through you until you weren’t sure what was your heartbeat and what was coming from the speakers. It was loud, I’ll give it that, but then I was right at the front and as a result, very close to the aforementioned speakers. It was full of energy, and it blurred the lines between modern and traditional.
But it wasn’t the score I’m familiar with, so I’m always going to be biased. Ronan Hardiman’s Lord of the Dance soundtracked my life for about three years solid, always playing in the background when I was writing, helping me practise for dance classes… and this wasn’t that. So my brain went, “But this is what used to be Warriors and the music’s all wrong!” That doesn’t mean it was bad. I’m the same when I go to see a production of a musical where I’m very familiar with a particular recording and it just doesn’t sound the same.
I liked it, and I’d like to obtain the soundtrack, but it’s never going to overtake Hardiman’s version. Sorry about that.
I guess in the end, it’s kind of hard to say how I felt about the production. It was exciting, the dancing was wonderful, and the music gave me energy so that I almost felt like I could get up there and dance too. I almost want to dig out the early novels / fan fic that I based on a world where there is a Lord of the dance and he fights the Dark Lord etc, rewriting them to reflect my improved abilities and also, possibly, to bring in some of the sci-fi aspects, because of how cool they were.
But the increased division between the male and female dancers, creating a difference there never used to be, only heightened my awareness of the inherently sexist story where the female characters’ only agency is through their sexual allure, and you know what, I’m glad that this isn’t the version of the show that I saw when I was an impressionable thirteen-year-old. I’m glad that I saw a version where the female dancers were able to display just as much physical strength as the men, and where they weren’t relegated to more delicate dancing.
Because if that was what I’d seen in 2009 when I was first introduced to Irish dance, I don’t know if I’d have taken it up. I don’t know if it would have appealed any more than ballet did at that stage (it was two and a half years since I’d quit). I don’t know if I’d have seen something in it and thought, “I want to do that.”
So in that aspect of the show, I’m seriously disappointed, and that frustrates me. It was a wonderful afternoon and I had a great time but I’m concerned about the message this production is sending: that girls don’t get to be strong, they don’t get to save the day except by helping out a guy, and that their worth is in their beauty.
Fix that, and it might have had a chance of overtaking the earlier versions in my list of ‘favourite LotD productions’ (it’s competing against 1996, 1998, and 2010). But as it is, it just can’t even compare.