The epic begins with the portrayal of the passion of the
Irish spirit in a fight for freedom. The journey begins
before Christianity and chronicles historic events that
depict the power and courage of the indomitable Irish spirit
throughout centuries of hardship and oppression.
From a darkened stage, the pulsating sound of taps signal the opening of a production that superlatively combines music, choreography, staging and costume design. Images from history fill the first half of the show, culminating in the birth of Ireland, the nation state, and a people emerging victorious from the jaws of defeat.
1: The Heartbeat of the Tiger
The heartbeat: the first sound heard even before birth, the sound of a heartbeat has always brought a sense of oneness and connection, drawing all those who hear it together into a common awareness of life, of humanity, of our common blood. A visual image accompanies the sound, as the beats are blazed across the big screen; the heartbeat speeds up and with a roar, the show leaps into being.
2: Dancing in the Dark
In darkness as total as can be achieved in an arena setting, the feet are heard, rows of tapping feet in hard-shoe in a complex rhythm so precise the number of dancers is unguessable. The piece recalls Michael’s description of techniques he developed years ago: literally composing dance steps in darkness to focus entirely on the sound; then, to train the dancers in the absolute precision and tight synchronisation his choreography required, turning off the studio lights and rehearsing the troupe in the dark, concentrating only on the uniformity of sound until dozens of dancers sounded like a single person.
Scene 3: St Patrick
Tradition gives 432 AD as the year in which St. Patrick “banished the snakes from Ireland” and brought Christianity to the country. The “snakes”, a metaphor for the pre-Christian Celtic religious beliefs, are represented in this number by sensuous women clad in scarlet lace unitards, confronted not by a single individual but by barefooted monks. The still-young Christian faith is embodied in young male dancers in flowing white robes; enraptured by the vibrant music of the Angelus, they disdain the temptation before them, physically casting the women into the “pit” of the stage trap.
Scene 4: The Sleeping Tiger
Each act of Celtic Tiger has its own particular energy, its own emotional and historical theme, and its own musical signature: “Sing Me an Irish Song” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Each song is essentially modern, but deeply rooted in older tradition. For now, focus remains on the past, as the big screen runs through nostalgic views of the Irish countryside. Like the show itself, The Sleeping Tiger calls upon the hearer to look to the past for understanding of the present and of the self.
Scene 5: The Vikings
The Vikings terrorised the Irish coasts through the ninth and tenth centuries, controlling Limerick and raiding far up the Shannon, aided like the Romans before them by Ireland’s lack of unity: with the island divided into feuding kingdoms, the invaders found allies in some areas while others suffered the brunt of the attacks. With Ireland finally united under the High King Brian Boru, Norse power in Ireland was ended at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Boru, who died in the battle, is regarded as one of Ireland’s greatest heroes, and it might be expected that a dance number about the Viking age in Ireland would focus on this conflict, given how well Irish hard-shoe dance adapts to dramatisations of conflict and battle.
6: Celtic Fire
With Ireland safe for the moment at least, the historical sequence is given a break as the energy of the show shifts into high gear with a return of the live band performance number. As Jason Duffy presides from the upper scaffold level on the drum set, Cora Smyth and Niamh Gallagher on fiddle (the early performances of the tour, particularly the first European performances, featured no less than four fiddle players), John Colohan and Aongus Ralston on guitar and bass, and Michael on flute take the stage in an electrified blaze that fuses the traditional musical forms with modern instrumentation and timeless energy.
Scene 7: The Garden of Eden
Here the dancers are costumed as flowers, butterflies, bees, and other denizens of the meadows and fields; despite its Biblical title, this is a classic pastoral number, a romanticised and idealised view of a world in perfect natural harmony. In one figure, the dancers wield clusters of ribbons in gestures reminiscent of Morris dancing, another dance form associated with the countryside; in others, they weave ceili-style patterns, their movements forming a living interlace as complex as the tree-of-life patterns from the Book of Kells, as interconnected within the dance as the living natural world is in truth.
Scene 8: The Red Coats
The English intrusion into Ireland began in 1169, long before the era represented by the soldiers’ red coats and wigs; but from the beginning it followed a pattern of colonisation, dispossession and repression that varied little from the British colonialistic practices on other continents in later centuries. From Colonial-era America to the India of the Raj, the Redcoats represent a particular insitutionalised brutality, arrogance and racism felt first and longest in Ireland; and the visual image of this costuming has resonance in every former colony.
9: The Famine
Behind the thatched cottage , the green fields and hills of Ireland have gone red, scattered with the gaunt black forms of blasted trees. Now the dramatic potential of the screens comes into full play: as the troop leader sets a torch to the cottage, flames dance in the thatch and glare out from the windows. One soldier kicks in the cottage doors, and smoke follows the dancers as they stagger or are dragged out a few at a time, ragged and desperate.
The sky behind
the cottage turns black, and attenuated spirit faces are
seen rising like smoke from the blighted land. As the programme
book details, the population of Ireland plummeted after
the beginning of the Famine in 1845, with some two million
people dying or emigrating in less than a decade, and another
three million over the next half century; the current population
is still only half its former total.
Throughout the number, the soldiers watch unmoved; when the ragged dancers approach them, appealing for help or seeking escape from the circle of starvation, they are pushed roughly back. Although the British rulers of Ireland did not directly cause the famine, during the years of starvation the country produced more than enough food for its inhabitants – produce that was sold overseas to the enrichment of mostly Protestant English landowners, while administrative bungling and intractable policy failed to address the suffering or prevent the devastation.
Last to emerge from the cottage is Michael, dressed as a Catholic priest, carrying a rosary as he prays over the dying flock with a voice-over recitation from the Lord’s Prayer:
. . as we forgive those who trespass against us; and
deliver us from evil.
The soldiers encircle the priest and shoot him.
Scene 10: Four Green Fields
In this song, one of the most sublime laments ever written about the Troubles, Ireland herself speaks in the voice of a “fine old woman”, lamenting the fate of the four ancient kingdoms of Ireland – Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht. The song, written by Tommy Makem in 1967, does more than merely grieve over the deaths from famine and war and the pain of a dismembered nation.
Scene 11: Bloody Sunday
The notorious “Black and Tans” raided a Gaelic football match in Dublin in 1920, firing indiscriminately into a civilian crowd, an event variously known as Bloody Sunday or the Croke Park Massacre. (Another riot in 1972 is also referred to as Bloody Sunday.) The Croke Park raid, intended as a reprisal against Michael Collins’ rebel forces, left thirteen Irish dead and further inflamed the country.
The scene is brief, although it seems to stretch on endlessly: the aperture of the cannon gapes larger and darker behind the oblivious innocent. At last he turns to see what is approaching behind him; the ball falls from his hands and bounces away unheeded. Even after the build-up, the blast when it comes is a shock; in the silence that follows, nervous laughter can often be heard from the audience, quickly fading again into silence.
Scene 12: A Call to Arms
After the shock of the cannon’s roar has died down, a different voice is heard: Michael’s voice, reading the first lines of the Easter Proclamation.
Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.
The stage lights strengthen to discover Michael, dressed in rough workman’s clothing, standing alone in a circle of opponents. The piece that follows presents the first real solo dancing he has done in the show: a series of individual exchanges with the British soldiers, rapid-fire and aggressive; the individual soldiers are plainly outclassed.
Scene 13: The 1916 Rising
With the Easter Rising of 1916, the Irish struggle shifted again from the slow grind of political negotiation to violent confrontation, as so often on the long road to independence for the Irish. From his base in the General Post Office of Dublin, Patrick Pearse announced the creation of the Republic of Ireland. Behind the dancers, the Post Office now appears on the big screen, and the digital fire of artillery shells and explosions form a chaotic backdrop to the number as the common men of Ireland face off with the British. On stage, as the final explosions roar, the combatants of both sides leap at each other one last time, only to fall and lie sprawled in indiscriminate death.
Scene 14: The Banshee
Over the field of the dead appears the hovering figure of the banshee, a spirit from Irish folklore whose wailing is traditionally held to be a warning of imminent death, although older versions of the tale hold that the keening of the bean sidhe eases souls in their passage to the afterlife. In a departure from folklore, this apparition is not an old woman in rags, but a lovely young woman with long golden hair wearing flowing white robes.
15: A Nation Once Again
Can the dead rest in peace unless Ireland is free? In another departure from the classic pattern, the first act ends not with a dance number but with a vocal performance, in another seamless segue from the preceding piece. Beginning with a single young man’s voice, the chorus of “A Nation Once Again” rings out in hope. The entire company appears on stage, singing. The Redcoats are gone, and men and women alike are dressed as the common folk of Ireland.
A nation once again,
A nation once again,
And Ireland, long a province, be
A Nation once again!
of Ireland gained its independence in stages, becoming a
sovereign nation again in 1937 and finally achieving full
independence from the British Commonwealth in 1949, a century
and a half after having been relegated to the status of
a province, and nearly eight hundred years from the date
of the first English conquest.
Act Two: The second half is a celebration of modern Ireland, and new beginnings in America and across the globe. But the binding thread is the invincible spirit of the Celtic Tiger itself, weaving images into an exquisite tapestry of dance drama.
Controversial and innovative with breathtaking special effects, Celtic Tiger is neither stage show nor feature film but something unique in between. It sets new standards in presentation and choreography; the musical score alone is a quantum leap in arena-scale theatrical productions.
And it heralds another defining moment in the career of Michael Flatley. As creator and choreographer, his relentless drive converges with his vision of Irish heritage in a show that roars with defiant energy.
Scene 16: Freedom
Airplanes course across the screen as a female soloist in the uniform of an Aer Lingus hostess appears, performing what should be the truly impossible task of step-dancing in four-inch spike heels. Her dancing is restrained, almost awkward; the music of the jig lilts breathily and almost simpers on the edge of cliché, but not for long. Behind her, aircraft hangar doors roll open, the music makes a radical break to a modern rock beat, and the lords of the jungle prowl onto the stage: a troupe of pilots led by Michael, exquisite in a flawlessly tailored blue uniform and aviator shades.
The number is almost immediately handed off to the troupe again, the male dancers in airplane formation bearing the woman in flight across the ocean, flanked by soloists dancing in celebration of their own freedom.
Scene 17: A New World
The big screen parades through a montage of flag images from the different nations whose emigrés have found their way to the US, ending with the flag of Ireland. As the flags on the screen melt into one another, four dancers present huge banners on stage – not the flags of any nation, not even the US flag, but white banners, the blank page on which the future remains to be written.
18: The Last Rose
Even as the new world is embraced, there is still a note of nostalgia.One of the most common themes in Irish folk lyric is loves separated – by class or circumstance, by misfortune or mischance, by time, by loss, by the ocean only one has crossed, with only memory to reunite them. Here Michael gives this classic theme the most classical dance treatment of all: a ballet pas de deux.
I am strong
and brave, with the wings you gave me,
Now forever free, with you by my side
I can say with pride
I am free
a star, send your light to my world
You know I am yours, you are mine.
With love in my heart, unafraid of the dark
You showed me the hero inside.
You gave me my dignity
And made me all that I can be
And I'm forever free
I am strong
and brave, with the wings you gave me
Now forever free, with you by my side
I can say with pride
I am free... forever free.
Gone is the
When I live with the past
I can see my destiny at last
I am strong and brave, with the wings you gave me,
Now forever free, with you by my side
I can say with pride
I am free
you I am
Scene 22: Cowboy Cheerleaders
Act II’s romp through the dance landscape of the US continues with a whirl through the heartland of Americana. This ceili-style number features costumes modeled after the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders’, and dance moves and figures recalling cheerleading squad acrobatics, with recognisable elements from America’s own folk dance styles: square dancing, contra dance and country-and-western line dancing. The choreography flows effortlessly between styles, always finding common points on which to shift and blend, as the number of dancers in the interlacing figures steadily increases, and the changing stage patterns kaleidoscope effortlessly into even more complexity.
Scene 23: These Colors Don’t Run
For this interlude (the only number in the show not included on the DVD), the band launches into a driving rock number as the big screen makes its own pictorial journey from the struggles of the past to the accomplishments of the present. Beginning with blurred black-and-white photos of the Famine years, through a montage of literary, political, cultural and sporting figures, Irish and Irish-American, the sequence celebrates the US as a country that welcomed the Irish, giving them a fresh start and an open horizon for advancement. From Joyce and Yeats to Pierce Brosnan, Bono, and the Chieftains, from Éamon De Valera and Michael Collins to John F. Kennedy, the sequence, like all of Act II, can be viewed as simplistically pro-American; or it can be interpreted as bearing witness to how the Irish spirit, having moved beyond its own past, has encountered and enriched the cultures of the world in general and the US in particular.
24: Yankee Doodle Dandy
Yankee Doodle Dandy also hearkens back, idealistically, to an era in which patriotism itself was a simpler and more innocent emotion, free of partisanship, topicality or ideological agenda. This was Cohan's lifelong trademark, now difficult to recapture. In a world where patriotism is wielded as a weapon, we have all but forgotten what a simple, joyful feeling love of country can be. It is the heart’s pure love for a nation: not its leaders or politicians, not its ideologues, nor their causes and machinations. This is the love that is felt in the very soul of a land.
Scene 25: Celtic Fire II
In Celtic Tiger, the encore tradition returns to its own roots as the band comes downstage, tearing into an electric medley of traditional pieces. As with other band numbers, the lead is shared and traded off amongst the instruments, but with a key difference when the guitarist (John Colohan in the DVD, later replaced by Gavin Ralston for the North American tour) is given the stage to himself for a searing Jimi-Hendrix style solo. This solo – which was, unfortunately, truncated on the DVD – is one point of the show that deliberately varies according to performance and venue. For the US performances, the solo used “The Star-Spangled Banner”; in Canada, “O Canada”, played with equal verve, power and virtuosity.
26: The Celtic Tiger
After a pause, the sound of the guitar returns – but no longer playing lead. Instead, emphatic distorted chords lay down a rhythm guitar line only: the finale has become a pure rock and roll number, and the lead is carried by the percussion. But the percussion is not provided by the drum set: it is in the sound of the dancers’ feet. The music of the band supports, emphasises, lends build and power – but it is the percussive dance, the sound of the taps, that plays the lead and carries the piece, providing theme and variation, complexity and colour. In this last number, the live sound of the dance has been integrated into the very structure of the music; rather than the dancers following the music, it is the music that accompanies the dance.