Walkin' Tom became intrigued when Magnetic Music's Petr Pandula said that his Danceperados of Ireland step dance show is »in the fore front of a new movement striving to free the Irish dancing from the grip of the big production companies. It is not about playing safe and finding the smallest common denominator by going for a Las Vegas type of show. The Danceperados are going back to the roots and for an authentic and free spirited Irish feel.« Petr Pandula, accompanied by the show's singer and fiddler Niamh Dunne, gladly answered Tom's questions.
Walkin' Tom: Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, numberless smaller troups ... Irish step dancing is a popular genre. Petr, what has been the reason for yet another step dance show?
Petr Pandula: Irish step dance shows mushroomed in the last 20 years. In some cases some profit driven entrepreneurs with no cultural background saw the concept as a fantastic cash cow. Instead of the artistic quality, the highest return was their benchmark. Musicians and dancers had to mimic to a soundtrack. Naturally neither dancers or musicians were identifying themselves with such a concept and this was highly apparent during the performance. It is hard to believe that those producers got away with it so far. The audiences and media didn’t seem to mind and this encouraged those producers to lower the artistic level more and more. But an Irish step dance show still it is a fantastic genre if it is done right. So our inspiration was not to copy what is right now out there. We more or less ignored it and made a fresh start and went right back there where it all started.
So what is the particular difference of the Danceperados of Ireland compared to its competitors?
Petr Pandula: The motivation behind the project is freeing Irish step dancing from clichés and tricksters. The Irish step dancing phenomenon conquered the World and inspired millions over the last two decades. It put Ireland and its culture in the spotlight. But where there is light there is shadow.Those shows were supposed to be Irish shows but what was actually Irish about them? Are storylines such as “boy meets girl” and “good versus bad” telling us anything substantial about Ireland and its culture?
It is no surprise that culture will respond and come up with an alternative. Playing safe and falling back on playback is against the ethos of the Danceperados. Playback kills spontaneity and improvisation which is the beauty of Irish traditional music and dance. The media reviewing the Danceperados of Ireland reflect positively on the philosophy “keep it simple but live”. Show effects, expensive light show and a massive line of dancers take away the focus from what it is all about. It is about music and dance and a meaningful storyline. Once a show is performed live, the fire and passion embedded in the DNA of the dancers and musicians spread like wild fire. Twelve dancers stepping it out live match a cast twice their size.
By the way, who came up with the troupe's name and what does it mean?
Petr Pandula: It came to me one night just before I was going to fall asleep. The name is playing with the word Dance and Desperados. I made out of it Danceperados. Immediately I thought that this is really cool and so different to all the other names of Irish step dance shows. It indicates that we are "mad to dance".
Quite important is your insistence of accompanying the dancers with live music. Please tell me a little bit about the musicians!
Petr Pandula: We all know each other fore a long long time. For instance Geraldine MacGowan and I work together 30 years and Ian Smith and I at least 20. Beoga goes back to 14 years. Floriane Blancke, Eamon Ronney and Eimhin Liddy met me only in comparison to the others only "recently". This is 5 years. All of them, are seasoned performers and are used from their solo concerts to handle large audiences. They are not only brilliant players and arrangers. They all know how to address an audience and they have meaningful things to say. A lot of other dance show producers seem not to trust their artists. They let them play music or dance. But they have nothing substantial to say. But in the Danceperados I allocate to each of them a role like in a theatre piece. They love it as they can be more creative and shine. Of course they take over more responsibility and I need to trust in them. But the concept delivers a much more better bonding with the audience and also the intensity of our performance is much better than in other dance shows.
You are touring in the upcoming months with two different themed shows. In the pre-Christmas period you are focussing on the Spirit of Irish Christmas. What is so special about the Christmas season in Ireland?
Petr Pandula: The Danceperados deliver with their “Spirit of Irish Christmas show” some unique customs the Emerald Isle has to offer and leave their audiences with an overall positive impression about the Irish way of life. The „Spirit of Irish Christmas“ show reminds us that there was a different Christmas before the globalized World became dominated by the Anglo-Saxon or Walt Disney fueled images of Santa Claus.
One of those rare customs is the Wren Boys. Young men paint their faces black and dress in costumes made out of straw. The highlight of this outfit is a decorative straw mask. The Wren Boys go from house to house and chant special songs. They carry a dead wren and the purpose of their singing is collecting money for the bird’s funeral. Later they will of course drink the collection in the local pub, sing some songs and play some tunes. There is however a deeper meaning behind this. The wren symbolizes the old year coming to its end. The robin however stands for the New Year. Those rituals go back to pre-Christian times.
The „Spirit of Irish Christmas“ show reminds us that there was a different Christmas before the globalized World became dominated by the Anglo-Saxon or Walt Disney fueled images of Santa Claus. Every country had its unique way. For instance the candle was a mystical symbol going back to the times when the English suppressors banned Catholic mass celebrated in Gaelic. The candle in the window was a secret symbol for a safe place to enjoy a secret mass. There are ancient hymns and carols in the Gaelic language sung at Christmas only such as the Wexford Carol and the Danceperados made them part of the show.
How do you translate this spirit into a dance show?
Petr Pandula: It is the mix of narrators voice, multivision with images and how the artists comment the songs and dances. They give the audience the background why we picked a particular number. Looking on the great audience reaction it appears to be a winning formula. I might appear that it is actually a very simple formula. But the other dance shows do not do it the way we do it. This is why we are different and do well.
From the CDs I gather that there is quite a fraction of songs too. The Spirit of Irish Christmas show covers almost 900 years of songwriting, from one of the oldest existing Christmas carols, The Wexford Carol, to Shane MacGowan's Fairytale of New York...
Petr Pandula: We have even songs which were written for the show. We have in our ranks with Ian Smith a brilliant singer-songwriter. In the case we struggle to find a traditional song for a certain aspect of the show, we ask Ian to fill the gap and he does is very well. In comparison to other dance shows we have slightly more songs as they are essential to move along our story line.
From January to April 2017 you are touring The Life, Love and Lore of the Irish Travellers. What's this about?
Petr Pandula: The Irish travellers or “Pavees” - as they call themselves - are a nomadic minority with a distinctive way of life. They have unique rituals, customs and are highly superstitious. The thriving Irish folk and dance community of today would hardly have emerged that strongly in the sixties and seventies, if some travellers families would not have held onto their tradition. They demonstrated to the rest of the Irish and then the World how unique Irish traditional music, song and dance are. Some of the greatest Irish musicians, singers and dancers are from a travelling background. The Irish constitution granted in 2014 the travelling people of Ireland a status as an ethnic minority and the Danceperados are the first to mark this positive move with an artistic contribution. The „Life, love and lore of the Irish travellers“ show is a tribute to them.
The storyline takes the audience through the changing life of the Irish nomads over the past five decades. Due to radio, TV and internet, the nomads lost their status as messengers. With the invention of plastic, there was no need to repair broken pieces made of tin, copper and brass. The introduction of heavy machinery wiped out the seasonal work on farms. All this was the livelihood of the travelling community. The only thing a globalized society could not take from them is their music and storytelling. Some of those traveller families who stayed true to their roots are deservedly now legendary. However they and some of their lesser known fellow travellers paid a high price.
There are similarities between North American natives and the Irish travellers. Their nomadic way of life changed following their forced settlement into reservations or halting sites. They lost their traditional way of life and livelihood as an industrialized society didn’t require their skills. Depression, alcoholism and crime were some of the negative consequences. The settled community turned a blind eye on them and their problems.
The Danceperados combine songs, dances, historic recordings of storytelling and photographs to show how the life of the travellers changed over time. In particular the vivid multivision makes this more than just a dance show or a concert. It is a cultural extravaganza.
Ewan MacColl's BBC radio ballad from 1964 about The Travelling People immediately jumps to my mind. In fact, his Moving On Song (Born in the Middle of the Afternoon) is featured in the show. Did MacColl's work play any role by creating your show?
Petr Pandula: His song was for me one of the pivotal points creating this show. I wanted to show the injustice of a traveller eviction. He is a great singer songwriter and we are delighted that we could feature one of his great songs and pay tribute to Ewan's great work.
Again, how do you translate this subject into a dance show? It all kicks off with a musical session by the campfire ...
Petr Pandula: It could well be that it is the other way round. There is a strong story line and we bring the dancing and the music to it. But it is not difficult to do as the dancing, storytelling, singing and music are part of the traveler way of life. We start to show the life of the travelling people before they were forced to stay at halting sites. This is the more happy part of the show. It takes the audience with us and they built a feeling and understanding towards the travelers. Than the things start to change when they are forced to take camp in halting sites and the people quickly feel the loss of freedom the travelers experienced. But it is not all negative on from there. There is hope at the end. But I do not want to betray too much. You do not want to tell the people the end of a good movie.
One of the band members is Niamh Dunne of Beoga fame, who happens to be the niece of the legendary travelling musician Pecker Dunne. Two of his songs are featured in the show. Was Pecker Dunne sort of an inspiration for you?
Niamh Dunne: Pecker Dunne is an inspiration to me, absolutely, and has inspired many Irish musician and singers down through the years. He was at the heart of the tradition and made an impression on everyone he met, regardless of whether or not they were from the travelling community. His songs will stand the test of time and have become classics in a very shirt time frame and his legacy will live on for many years to come.
It seems that you are only touring Germany and its immediate neighbourhood. Are there any plans to extend this?
Petr Pandula: Because Magnetic Music has such a good network of contacts in Germany, it was natural to start there. But by now we already played some big summer festivals in France such as “Les Traverses de Tatihou” or the World renowned Nyon Festival which sells over 5 days 250.000 tickets and we went there a storm. We also translated the show to French and we want to do there more. We have in December another show in a French theatre and it sold out 4 months before we arrived. They asked us to do a second day and it sold out again within a week. So no wonder that we want to do more in France. But we also do shows in Luxemburg and Switzerland. We secured agents for Holland and Belgium. But there are also countries we do not really try to get involved with as they do not respect human rights and have strange political systems.
Thanks, Petr. There only remains to ask you what's coming next? Are there other subject-matters in the pipeline? Doesn't it call for a visual recording such as a DVD release?
Petr Pandula: Many good questions. First of all we have a lot of work ahead of us with 60 shows between end of November and April. Than we toured the Christmas and Traveller show twice and we need to come up with a new show. The new show is already in preparation and it will probably be called “Whiskey you are the devil”. It will be a show about the Irish people making whiskey and how that was effected by the political and social changes in the life of the Emerald Isle. It is also about the immigration to America where the Irish took the skill of making whiskey with them and how all that was effected by the prohibition.
Yes, a dance show calls of course for a DVD. But we are a very new show and we can only do one step at a time. Now we managed to get our 2 CDs recorded. Now we can start saving money and put it towards a DVD.
Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Danceperados of Ireland, (3) Geraldine MacGowan, (4) 'Spirit of Irish Christmas', (6) Floriane Blancke, (7) 'The Life, Love and Lore of the Irish Travellers', (8) Niamh Dunne, (10) Petr Pandula (by Magnetic Music); (5) Wren Boys, (9) Pecker Dunne (unknown).