DANCE REVIEW; A Celtic Legend Told Through Feats of Footwork
Jean Butler and Colin Dunne were the best thing about ''Riverdance: The Show'' when that Irish dance extravaganza was first seen at Radio City Music Hall in 1996. Now these superlative dancers have returned to Radio City with their own and infinitely more creative spectacle, ''Dancing on Dangerous Ground.''
Congratulations are in order. For what Ms. Butler and Mr. Dunne accomplish through their choreography is exactly what ''Riverdance'' does not, which is to channel Irish step dancing into genuine artistic expression.
They have come up with one terrific show, filled with a consistent integrity that does not look down on popular appeal. A full house greeted the New York premiere of ''Dancing on Dangerous Ground,'' which opened on Wednesday night for a run through Sunday.
As the saying goes, you don't have to be Irish to understand the narrative thread that weaves so convincingly through the evening. Whether or not you are up on Celtic legends, it is as clear as the crystal-pure sound of the dancers' stamping steps that the story line is about forbidden love. Grania is the young bride of Finn McCool, elderly leader of the Fianna, an ancient Irish army, and runs away with Diarmuid, Finn's trusted lieutenant.
One suspects that this modern-dress retelling in a bare-scaffold setting gives the original legend a loose and schematic treatment. Yet the tale is more than a pretext for a sensational performance by a young company, carefully directed to color its technical dazzle with a dramatic edge: the dancing always carries the story forward.
''Dancing on Dangerous Ground,'' then, is not a variety show like ''Riverdance'' and Michael Flatley's ''Lord of the Dance.'' It has the same pop production values (amplified music, rock-concert lighting), but there is a genuine and successful attempt here at artistic expression. Like Spanish choreographers who stage a narrative ballet in a flamenco idiom, Ms. Butler and Mr. Dunne (Michael Smith did additional choreography) have extended a traditional dance vocabulary into a theatrical dimension. The music by Seamus Egan, recorded or played onstage by his group, Solas, works smoothly to the same purpose.
To see Mr. Dunne in his astoundingly swift and light trademark style is to see his skimming traveling steps as part of a chase scene or a triumphant entrance. Similarly, the extraordinary spring that Ms. Butler gives to a traditional leap, one leg extended forward, another bent, becomes a joyful outburst. They are especially refined dancers, equally at home in the percussive dancing done in so-called hard shoes and in aerial steps in soft shoes.
Ms. Butler, an Irish-American from Long Island, and English-born Mr. Dunne, a champion on the Irish-dance competition circuit, do not bring a narrow view to the lexicon of dance. Purists might suggest that the choreography occasionally turns into tap dancing, flamenco clapping and even tango images.
But these borrowings are absorbed into the basic Irish-dance vocabulary. When, believe it or not, the Fianna trains for battle onstage, the men respond in regimental formation to a tapped dialogue and later tap their toes while doing pushups. Jeremy Sturt, the director, makes allowances for humor. Love blooms when Ms. Butler and Mr. Dunne meet in a singles bar: the denizens sit on stools and in an old tap-dance act, stamp out their rhythms. When the men are tied up by their women to give the lovers getaway time, their inability to move their arms becomes an in-joke about the rule that arms stay close to the body in step dancing.
Tony Kemp, an actor, has a fine Sean Connery cool as the betrayed Finn in what is essentially a mime part. The recorded narrative, credited to Johnny Cunningham and spoken by Stanley Townsend, tells us what he is thinking. The dancing, actually, says it all.