Browsing Category

Arts

Arts, Music, News

Indian Dance and Irish Music Tell a Universal Story

"Ragas and Airs" debuts at The Irish Memorial on Saturday.

“Ragas and Airs” debuts at The Irish Memorial on Saturday.

When sculptor Glenna Goodacre created The Irish Memorial in Philadelphia, she intended to tell a specific immigrant story in bronze the color of anthracite, that of the Irish, fleeing starvation, and risking their lives to start over in a new land.

It was not Shaily Dadiala’s story. She arrived from India in 2000 to get her master’s degree in pharmacy. But when she saw the sculpture at Front and Chestnut a few years ago, it “gave me goosebumps when I saw what it was,” she says. “You see all the people descending from the ships, all leaving home and missing it for the rest of their lives. I understood that.”

And it sparked an idea. She’d long ago abandoned her study of pharmacy to follow her first love—dancing. Trained from the age of 4 in Bharatanatym, a classical dance developed as a devotional in the Hindu temples of Southern India, she founded Usiloquoy Dance Designs, a dance company that combines the percussive footwork and hand and facial gestures of what’s known as Indian ballet with cross-cultural music.

That is why, on Saturday, at the Irish Memorial, you will see this uniquely Indian dance performed to “Saucy Sailor,” by local Celtic performers, Burning Bridget Cleary. It is part of an unfinished dance called “Ragas and Airs,” which Dadiala is choreographing, in part with the help of a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

As she did with the Irish Memorial, Dadiala found common ground with Celtic rhythms. “Five or six years ago I heard this most melodious music, so complex and so similar to Indian classical music and I didn’t know what it was,” she says. “When I looked into it—it was Irish music–I realized that the folklore and stories that went with Irish music had an intersection with my own culture. I live in Fishtown and I had an epiphany. Here I was living in a place that was very Irish but very like me, so different, but so much the same in our constant nostalgia for our homelands and our desire to hold on to our tradition and our stories. The Irish here are holding on to something from two centuries ago.”

For Indians, like Dadiala, the nostalgia goes back a little further. As a dance form, Bharatanatyam is about 4,000 to 6,000 years old. But it can easily tell the universal stories Diadala wants to share through dance.

“We chose the song, Saucy Sailor, which is about the element of teasing back and forth between a girl who flirts with him and then is put off by him, and he backs off, telling her that ‘many girls I can have.’ So she feels abandoned and she wants him back. This is an old story,” Dadiala says, laughing. “It appeals to a large section of humanity because it occurs over all oceans. So many of our songs are based on Krishna, the blue-eye god, and his many admirers—it was never clear who he really liked.”

Dadiala also uncovered the work of a 17th century poet from Tamil Nadu in Southern India who wrote lyrics in Sanskrit, an Indian language, to music he heard while living under the rule of the British East India Company—music that ranged from waltzes, polkas, to Celtic jigs and reels. In fact, it spawned a new genre of music called Nottuswara Sahitya reflecting the cultural interaction between the east and west in the 17th century.

“The choreography pays tribute to the historically rich textile industry run largely by Irish settlers in the Kensington section of Philadelphia while acknowledging the divine feminine represented in the lyrics,” says Dadiala.

Usiloquoy is also performing to the music of Irish jazz musician Ronan Guilfoyle, a piece called Khanda-5 Cities, which he wrote and was performed in collaboration with the South India-based Kamataka College of Percussion and traditional Irish musicians. There will also be another dance based on Guilfoyle’s piece inspired by the parallels between Sadhbh and Fionn mac Cumhail (Saba and Finn McCool) and Rama and Seeta from the Hindu scripture Ramayana (among other things, a deer plays a role in both stories).

Dadiala said the moment she saw The Irish Memorial, she knew that where she wanted to mount her production. “I prayed, please, please, please can we dance here!” she laughs. She said much the same thing to the Irish Memorial committee which quickly said yes.

Dadiala plans two performances 30 minutes in length, one at 4 PM and the other at 7 PM at the memorial, which overlooks Penn’s Landing. There will be time for a Q & A and a demonstration of the Indian dance style—with audience participation welcome. “You don’t have to feel committed—you can just peek for a few minutes,” she says.

But what she hopes you’ll take with you is that no matter where you’re from, our fundamental stories of love, fear, courage, and life, are the same. “We are taking some artistic licence, but we’re telling the same story basically of all of us,” she says. “That’s our mission: Let’s build consensus and unite the world!”

Arts

Leading the Parade

Irish Thunder tenor drummer Bernie Murray loads his gear onto the bus.

Irish Thunder tenor drummer Bernie Murray loads his gear onto the bus.

At this moment, members of Irish Thunder Pipes and Drums are in Galway City, less than a day away from leading the parade that is the centerpiece of one of the largest and most important cultural events in Ireland: The Galway Sessions.

Irish Music Magazine, in an online promo story about the event, described Irish Thunder as “famed.”

Drum Major Pete Hand doesn’t know where that description came from, but he’ll take it.

Standing by the side of the bus that would take him, the rest of the band and family members from the Sacred Heart Church parking lot in Swedesburg down the Philadelphia International Airport, Hand said all of the pipers and drummers are looking forward to the honor.

Other pipe bands will be in the parade, too. “There will be a Scottish band and an Irish military band, as well.”

That performance is just one of many exciting moments the band expects to experience in Ireland during the weeklong trip.

Actually, they were scheduled to experience one exciting moment already, en route from Dublin Airport to Galway. “Of course, we were planning on stopping at the Tullamore Dew Distillery for a little break,” Hand said. He was grinning when he said that.

Another highlight: A visit to an Ancient Order of Hibernians hall in Derry for a night of fun with their AOH brethren.

“They’re holding a ceili that night (music, dancing, and all-round partying),” Hand said. “Their hall is a short walk from our hotel. And then there will be some entertainment at a nearby pub.”

Along with band members, a lot of folks who wanted to travel with the band (I’ve done it, and it’s memorable) are on the trip. Together with the band members, it’s a substantial crowd—about 120.

After Derry, the tour heads further north, where everybody will get a chance to see the Giant’s Causeway, one of Ireland’s true wonders, and the relatively nearby Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge from the mainland out to a little island. Both tourist sights are in County Antrim. A visit to the Titanic Museum in Belfast comes later.

After that, it’s back home to Philly.

Several families are making the trip together. One of the biggest is the Murray family.

“There’s a whole passel of Murrays,” said Bernie Murray, a longtime Irish Thunder tenor drummer.

This is Bernie’s second trip to Ireland. The first was in 2000, when the band played at the All-Ireland Pipe Band Championship in Kilkenny. He expects this to be an even better trip.

“I know more now than I did the first time,” he said. “Plus, I’m going to be playing a lot. I love it.”

Tenor drummer Bernie Murray loads up the drum case.Snare drummer Andrew Duncan and pipe sergeant Frank LarkinMark Ryan and daughterPipe sergeant Frank Larkin, wearing a traditional Irish Hawaiian shirtEd SweeneyAttending to last-minute detailsEverybody was wearing one of these.
Arts

Theater Review: “The Toughest Boy in Philadelphia”

tough boy
By Brian Mengini

Spoiler alert: Local playwright Andrea Kennedy Hart’s, “The Toughest Boy in Philadelphia, ” is based on a true story of “Whistling” Jack McConnell. It follows the life of Florence Gray as she struggles with the void of her absentee mother as well as her own gender confusion. Her turmoil leads her to adopt a male persona, “Whistling” Jack McConnell, who joins the Irish mob and indeed becomes “the Toughest Boy in Philadelphia.”

At the start of the play, in Philadelphia’s Luna Theater, Tessie Belle played by Michelle Pauls, opens with dialogue dressed in a tux. You are then taken to Florence’s (KO DelMarcelle) childhood and her early troubles with boys and her tough guy/girl persona start to emerge. Her grandfather (played by Susan Giddings—both male and female parts of the play are performed by women), struggles to keep Florence happy and well adjusted and the rest of the world at bay. They eventually leave Ohio for greener pastures and a fresh start in Philadelphia. It is here where Florence really starts to identify more as a male.

As Jack, she meets and falls in love with Lettie, herself a male impersonator though for Lettie it’s about show business not gender confusion. As happened in real life, Jack is only found out when she is defending herself in a paternity suit.

Having all the roles played by women adds another layer of compassion and insight to this play, a tale of women’s rights, human rights, love, and acceptance. Director John Doyle’s production is captivating and often funny and the use of simple sets and costumes allows this compelling story to take center stage.

“The Toughest Boy in Philadelphia” will run through June 29. Tickets are $20 and available via ticketleap.

Arts

The Surprising Secret of Philly’s Toughest Irish Mobster

K.O. DelMarcelle as Whistling Jack with paramour Lettie (Gina Martino).

K.O. DelMarcelle as Whistling Jack with paramour Lettie (Gina Martino).

Whistling Jack McConnell was one of the toughest gangsters in Philadelphia’s Irish mob in the 1920s. He got his nickname because of his habit of whistling when he was about to turn an enemy’s face into porridge with his tattooed right arm. He variously worked as a stable boy, an ash-cart driver, a professional boxer and was engaged to three women.

But it was a paternity suit was Jack’s undoing. The only way to win in court was to admit the truth.

Whistling Jack McConnell was a girl.

And he. . .she’s the subject of a new play by Villanova grad Andrea Kennedy Hart, “The Toughtest Boy in Philadelphia,” that will make its world premier on June 12 at the Luna Theater, 620 S. 8th Street in Philadelphia, produced by Iron Age Theatre, a Norristown-based theater company.

In the production, Michelle Pauls, who is managing artistic director of B. Someday Productions at Walking Fish Theatre in Kensington, plays a character based on another male impersonator, this one the English music hall actress and singer Vesta Tilley who dazzled audiences on the British stage in drag for more than four decades. In the Iron Age production, her character is known as Tessie Belle. (In real life, Tilley and Jack never met) But that’s not all Pauls does.

“In our production, five women play all the parts,” said Pauls, who is also onstage as Jack’s mother, a traveling entertainer who left her daughter behind for her grandfather to raise.

Whistling Jack was actually born Florence Gray in Ohio. Her gender-bending didn’t start until she moved to Philadelphia with her grandfather. (See a photo of the real Florence/Whistling Jack.)

“From the earliest age, she was the kind of girl who liked to beat up boys and do boy things, and get into a lot of trouble,” says Pauls. “Her grandfather, who was an academic, said, ‘Let’s move out of this small town in Ohio and go to Philadelphia where I can get work and start a new life.’ So that’s what they did. That’s when she became he.”

Her grandfather unwittingly provided Florence/Jack with a nickname that stuck. “He taught her to whistle to befuddle any opponents and Jack would whistle before he beat up street thugs,” says Pauls. “I read in actual newspaper clippings that he used to promote awe in all these other street thugs and mob members by his feats. He even swam the Delaware twice!”

Unlike Jack, her character, Tessie Belle, chose male impersonation as a profession rather than a lifestyle. “She dressed and acted like a man on stage, but sang like a woman and never gave up her womanhood, not like Jack McConnell. She ties all the scenes together, like a spirit guide for Jack. The play is all about artifice and performing. All of us in our daily lives take on many faces and many roles as we go about our business.”

The play also uses this century old true story to explore modern themes of women’s rights, human rights, love and acceptance.

And it’s also a bit of a musical. “I sing three songs that Vesta Tilley sang,” says Paul. “All the actresses also do the sound effects which adds to the vaudeville feel.” (You can hear the original Vesta Tilley sing on youtube.)

In the cast: K.O. DelMarcelle as Jack, with Gina Martino, Susan Giddings, and Colleen Hughes.

The play, which is directed by Iron Age founder John Doyle, will run through June 29. Tickets are $20 and available via ticketleap.

 

Arts

A Tale of Two Cities

The poster for Inis Nua's latest play.

The poster for Inis Nua’s latest play.

Tom Reing was education director for InterAct Theater Company in 2002 when, as part of a fellowship, he started working with a group of Catholic school kids in Gray’s Ferry, a traditionally Irish enclave in South Philadelphia that regularly ignited with racial violence because of its proximity to a low-income housing project known as the Tasker homes.

“A lot of my work involved using theater to teach conflict resolution skills. We would rehearse a confrontation and how to get out of it,” recalled Reing, now artistic director of the nonprofit Inis Nua Theater Company, in a phone interview this week. “The kids were dealing with feeling threatened by the African-American neighborhood surrounding them. We would create improv out of what they did during the day, I would record them, and then sculpt it into a scene. The Gray’s Ferry neighborhood is very territorial. You can tell you’re on an Irish block by the lace curtains and leprechaun Hummels in the windows. One of the great lines that came up was from one of the African American students who told an Irish student, ‘Your block is not a continent,’ meaning that it doesn’t drop off once you pass 29th street.”

In 2003, in Belfast, Ireland—also part of his fellowship project—he worked with a group of teens who were similarly living with daily violence, though sectarian rather than racial. “Of course at the end of the day, they were both groups that didn’t like one another, fearful because they didn’t know each other and didn’t want to know each other and both living with the fear they weren’t going to make it out,” he says.

He took those scenes he recorded—gritty dialogue and high drama—and turned it into a play. “High Noon in Gray’s Ferry, Twilight on Falls Road,” will debut on Monday at Inis Nua as five actors do a staged reading, each playing characters from both communities “so the same actor plays two parts with two different accents,” explains Reing. “It was a way to compare and contrast the two groups, with the same lines repeated in both worlds.”

The trip to Ireland—his first—produced more than a play. It sowed the seeds for what has become the Inis Nua Theatre Company, which produces plays by contemporary Irish and UK playwrights at the Off Broad Street Theater at First Baptist Church in Philadelphia. “I flew into Dublin and saw some theater while I was there. I saw some theater in Belfast too, and I really liked the work. I wanted it to come to America, but it never did,” says Reing.

There was no venue in the US for contemporary plays by Irish and UK playwrights, except for a few—the big ones, like Brian Friel, Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson. “The usual route for an Irish play was to go to the West End (in London), then to Broadway, then the regionals would take it,” says Reing, who got his MA in theater at Villanova and now teaches at Temple. “I went to other artistic directors and asked if they would do one of these plays and they said, ‘It’s not really in our mission.’ So I did it myself.”

Ten years ago, he founded Inis Nua to produce the kind of provocative new plays he now sees in Ireland, Scotland, and the UK on his far more frequent trips.

“I was naïve, but I would talk to playwrights and say, ‘would you be okay with me doing this play in America and if it isn’t too much trouble, can I get a script?’ I was working at the Abbey Theater one summer doing a theater-in-education program, saw a play, met the playwright, and the next day the script was waiting for me. At that point, we had a company that didn’t have two dimes to rub together and we maybe had a website. I was oblivious to the fact that they really want their plays done in America. We do a lot of American premiers of new plays. The last show we did was ‘Blink’ by Phil Porter, an English playwright. He emailed me last week to tell me that a production of ‘Blink’ was coming to New York, and we beat them to it.”

The success of Inis Nua surprised even Reing, who thought the best he was going to be able to do was bring one new play a year to the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. “I never though we’d get to 10 years with a three-show season in a permanent home,” he admits. “Right now I’m talking to you from living room surrounded by all my own furniture,” he says laughing, “not the bed from [the play] ‘Bedbound’ and the other stage props I didn’t want to spend the money to store somewhere. Now we have a rehearsal room, office space, and a place in the basement to build sets and store them.”

See a staged reading of “High Noon in Gray’s Ferry, Twilight on Falls Road” on Monday, January 27, at 7 PM, at the Off-Broad Street Theater at First Baptist Church, 1636 Sansom Street in Philadelphia.

“Trousers,” a play by Paul Meade and David Parnell, is set for a run of 16 performances starting on February 5. It’s a story about the friendship between two Dubliners—one a mailman, the other unemployed–who reminisce about the summer they spent in New York when they were in college.

To order tickets, go to the Inis Nua website.

Arts, News

The Artist Behind the Harp

Ellen Tepper and some of her artwork.

Ellen Tepper and some of her artwork.

 

Ellen Formanek Tepper’s little house in Ardsley looks like it’s been invaded by The Book of Kells.

It’s her artwork, minutiae from the illuminated Gospels created by 9th century Irish monks, painted on glass, which she is gathering to transport for a show at the Community Music School in Trappe, starting on November 9. It’s called Celtic Refractions, and she is still trying to come up with an artist’s description. “I call it taking minutiae and make them huge and bringing light to the Dark Ages,” says Tepper, who is probably equally well known for her work as a harpist and harp instructor as she is for her colorful translucent glass paintings.

Though she’s not Irish, she claims affinity. “I’m a proto-Celt,” she jokes. “My family came from the Rhine Valley and the Danube Valley where the Celts started before they came to Ireland.”

A native New Yorker, Tepper spent her formative years in Vienna, Austria, where her father was principal of the American International School. “We were school-homed,” she says, revealing the sense of humor she’s also known for, both onstage and off.

Her German-born mother, whose Jewish family fled Germany, was a psychologist and professor of education who loved museums, so she “dragged us [Ellen, her brother and sister] reading history along the way” on their extended vacations in Europe. Tepper not only absorbed the history, she assimilated the art, particularly the medieval works that now appear in her own creations. At school, she learned to speak German, to draw, dance, and play the harp.

“My father taught me how to embroider, which he learned from watching his mother,” she says. “When I was ready to go to college I didn’t know whether to go to music school or to art school.”

She went to Philadelphia College of Art—now the University of the Arts—but majored in music. She thought she could do both, but the music courses were so demanding “it was just too much work,” she recalls. But when she finally graduated, “the art just burst out.” She sat down and sketched an intricate and detailed embroidery pattern for a 14th Century Venetian harp she saw on a poster and started sewing. The embroidery won a national prize and, though it’s for sale, now hangs on a wall in her living room.

Sewing was her métier for many years as she raised three children, most of the time as a single mother. “When the kids were little I sewed a lot for them and I made pin money making these quilted vests.” She pulls several out of a plastic bag, tiny vests with rainbows and other toddler-friendly designs, some of which now fit her granddaughter. “I would make art during naptime then I would see my work running around,” she laughs.

Tepper’s glass art came much later, the result of the doodling she does to keep her hands busy when she’s not using them for the harp or other things. “I was doing spiral drawing on blank puzzles at The Shanachie [the now defunct Irish pub in Ambler] while sitting at the bar, listening to other people play music,” she recalls. “Then I started putting them on glass. It was all inspired by the bartender at the Shanachie who was also an artist and who I used to tip with art materials. One day he said that he had a friend who had just started painting on glass.”

She discovered oil-based markers and found herself gravitating toward the Book of Kells, with its intricate and ornate pages that marry Latin religious text with Celtic symbolism. And believe it or not, she takes her designs not directly from the book, but from coloring books, which both magnify and simplify the images. She copies, alters them the way she wants them, and enlarges them. Then she tapes her drawing face down on the front of the glass she’s using—often a discarded window—and traces it from the back, where she also colors it.

And no, it’s not cheating. “When I was in the Embroiderer’s Guild, this was known as ‘original adaptation,’” she explains.

Her pieces range from convoluted Celtic knotwork to figures like the Gospel writers and St. Brendan the Navigator on his ship heading for the “island of the blessed.”

What won’t be on display at her show, which runs through January 5, will be her dragons which she cooks up—literally—in her kitchen. They’re an outgrowth of the dolls she used to make, tiny sculptures of fairies, 14th century composers, and rock musicians she did for fun. The dragons—Tepper calls them her “lounge lizards”—are made from polymer clay which she rolls out of a pasta machine into sheets and cuts into gills, which she layers on a frame made from a coat hanger, aluminum foil, and 16-gauge florist wire, “like shingles on a roof.”

“I also have a dedicated garlic press that I used to make some parts,” she says. “These cooking utensils should never be used for food again.”

Once the lizard is the way she wants it, she bakes it in her oven, using empty cat food cans (she has two cats) to protect its limbs from the heating element.

When she’s not making art, Tepper is making music. A harp teacher, she’s also a popular gig artist. With singer-musician Terry Kane, she’s the other half of the Jameson Sisters. The two combine harp, mandolin, and guitar with vocals in both English and Irish, but they also do Baroque and early music, show tunes, and Christmas music. They’re usually at Molly Maguire’s Restaurant and Pub in Phoenixville every fourth Sunday of the month where they lead the session. Tepper also appears solo and does several programs on the history of the harp and of Christmas carols, accompanied by what she calls her “Tepper schlepper,”—whoever she can cajole into carrying her large pedal harp. She’ll be doing that program on November 29 at Glen Foerd Mansion on the Delaware, 5001 Grant avenue in Philadelphia, starting at 7 PM.

And when she lifts the harp off her shoulder, watch her pick up her sketchbook. “I know, I know,” she says with a grin. “I’m prolific. And I can’t stop myself.”

“Celtic Refractions” will be on display at The Gallery at Community Music School, 775 W. Main Street, Trappe, PA, from November 9 to January 5. You can also see Tepper’s work at the Water Gallery in Lansdale, 319 West Main Street in the Dresher Arcade.

Visit with Ellen Tepper and her art via our photo essay.

Arts, News

Magnificent Desolation: Tour the Divine Lorraine

The Divine Lorraine

The Divine Lorraine

It’s an imposing 10-story frosted layer cake of a building on North Broad Street, designed by Willis G. Hale and built around 1892, when North Philly was home to the stylish high and mighty. Anyone who’s driven past the once flamboyant Divine Lorraine Hotel knows that it long ago fell on hard times, with a crumbling interior, its sooty brick walls a high-visibility canvas for local graffiti artists.

None of which stopped Siobhan Lyons, executive director of the Irish Immigration Center, from wanting to see it. That’s just what she did earlier this year, and she wants you to have the same opportunity.

“I took the tour with Next City (a Philadelphia urban improvement nonprofit),” Lyons says. “That was the first time I realized groups were able to get in there. I’ve wanted to go inside the Divine Lorraine since I arrived in Philadelphia seven years ago. Who doesn’t want to see the Divine Lorraine? It’s one of my favorite buildings in the city. I first came across Willis Hale’s work when I worked at the World Affairs Council. One of his buildings is at Juniper and Chestnut—it’s a fantastic building, very ornate. When I saw the Divine Lorraine, I realized it was another building by the same architect. He did very fancy architecture that fell out of favor almost as soon as the Divine Lorraine was completed. He died a pauper. I really like his story.”

The Divine Lorraine’s story is pretty interesting, too. Initially conceived as a luxury apartment building, it became a hotel in 1900—the Lorraine Hotel. African American spiritual leader Father Major Jealous Divine—who claimed to be the almighty himself—purchased the building in 1948 for for $485,000. It became the first fully racially integrated hotel in the nation. Among his many dictates and pronouncements, Father Divine preached the virtues of celibacy—even among married couples. Perhaps not surprisingly, that “no sex” commandment had a limited appeal. Membership in congregation dwindled. The hotel closed in 1999, and Father Divine’s International Peace Mission sold it the year after.

The hotel lapsed into decrepitude, but now there’s new hope for a revival. And not just for storied hotel, but for the North Philly neighborhood. Visionary developer Eric Blumenfeld purchased the property at sheriff’s sale in 2012. He plans to rehab the building to include rental units, with restaurants on the first floor.

For now, work hasn’t begun—which means this relic of a grander time is open for tours appealing to the curious.

That’s exactly who Lyons hopes to attract, as the Immigration Center conducts an exclusive tour—20 people only—Monday, October 14, 2013 from 3 to 5:30 p.m. “I just thought, this is a great opportunity, and it could raise some money for the Irish Immigration Center. It all worked. When I first did the tour myself, a lot of my friends said they would like to do it if they ever had the chance.”

So, once inside, what’s on the itinerary? Well, you’ll have to watch your step-and you’ll be be expertly guided, so no worries—but the payoff, Lyons says, is the magnificent view. “You get to walk all the way up to the top of the building and look out over the city. That’s just beautiful. And down in in the basement they show you a store that used to be a speakeasy during prohibition. I don’t know anyone in Philadelphia who has walked by it and didn’t want to look inside it. So now you get to see.”

Want to satisfy your curiosity? Sign up here. Another tour is planned for the spring—but for now, better hurry. Tickets are going fast.

Arts, Dance, Music

Hammerstep’s Got Talent

Hammerstep, photo by Kristine Helliesen

Hammerstep, photo by Kristine Helliesen

It’s not every day that an Irish-Hip Hop dance troupe makes it through the auditions of “America’s Got Talent,” especially with these words of blessing from judge Howard Stern: “Your skill level is so high that you’re are too talented to ignore.” But that’s exactly how it happened on the June 25th episode of the NBC series, when Hammerstep got put through to Las Vegas.

Performing their routine garbed all in black and wearing gas masks, the group danced to “Exodus,” an original composition co-produced by Hammerstep and Pat and Sean Mangan. Riverdance, it’s not— although the two co-founders of Hammerstep, Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus, are both Riverdance alums.

“We started conceptualizing Hammerstep back in 2009. Jason and I had met touring with Riverdance, and we were actually off tour at that point. We were both working 9 to 5 jobs—not dead-end, but not really fulfilling work. We were pretty miserable, and realized we had similar visions for putting together a large-scale touring production. We found we had a lot of similarities and parallels in how we viewed the world and what we wanted to do with Irish dance,” Garrett Coleman explained.

What both dancers had in mind involved taking Irish dance beyond the mainstream, at the same time incorporating other genres that had been born out of oppressive cultures.

“It kind of started out as an experiment in melding these dance forms; a lot of people wonder why we chose the dance forms we chose to integrate. We’re both trained in traditional Irish dance, so that was our base. But we noticed that the art form had remained pretty stagnant since Riverdance launched; the same choreography, nothing really changed. And that was great in its own right—obviously we wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for people like Michael Flatley. But it was due for an infusion of something more socially relevant, something that would resonate with a younger audience.

“We saw the parallels from where the many dance forms come from as being a really strong thematic thread through all of them…Jason and I both come from similar backgrounds and upbringings in urban environments [Garrett is from Pittsburgh, PA, and Jason hails from Sydney, Australia]; we’re both huge fans of hip hop and urban culture. So, we took our social interests and tried to bring that into our dance and artistic and creative interests. We drew from tap and hip hop, and African stepping and body percussion. And the reason for choosing some of those is not just for the fact that they rhythmically work really well together, but also for the fact they’re all born out of previously oppressive social circumstances. Like Irish dancing arose as part of an Irish cultural resurgence in response to oppression by the British. And hip hop obviously was a huge unifier for impoverished communities in the Bronx and the other five boroughs of New York. It was a statement for the youth to come together around culture rather than being divided along gang lines and poverty.

“We have a heck of a lot of people from different backgrounds all coming together behind this project, and that was the basis for the piece with the gas masks—having a sense of anonymity throughout that piece, and then taking the masks off at the end of the piece and revealing people from different racial backgrounds, different genders, different dance styles. And then having that solidarity once we put the masks on, symbolizing a unification of cultures.”

The fusion that has taken root in their dance routines, and their ever expanding choreography, is only the tip of the iceberg for the larger mission of Hammerstep. They want to tell their stories, and the stories of the people they’ve surrounded themselves with, as part of a project with a much more socially significant message.

“The Hammerstep initiative,” Garrett defined, “is kind of like the umbrella organization that we’d like to launch a variety of things through. We have a Hammerstep Headquarters here in Brooklyn; it’s part living, part office, part dance studio—a massive dance studio that actually converts from a living room into a rehearsal space. The crew comes over here for the majority of our dance rehearsals, and we’re just getting into holding some community events here. We’re going to be launching a Hammerstep radio broadcast from here as well. Through the website, we’ll have a podcast/live stream of things that are happening here, like video footage of rehearsals. It’s a very creative space where there’s a lot of collaboration.”

Ultimately, they’d like to have a production company where they’d produce their own shows. The dancers work closely with musicians who like the idea of collaborating to make Hammerstep into a larger social movement, one that would include a Hammerstep foundation from which they’d launch outreach projects and dance workshops internationally.

“We know what dance has done for our own lives and what it can do for other people who don’t necessarily have access to it or who haven’t been introduced to it,” Garrett added.

It’s the continuing cross-cultural partnerships engaged in by the group that breathe new dimensions into their Irish dance base; while presenting workshops in Soweto, South Africa, recently, they learned as much as they taught.

“Whether it’s in Soweto, or Dayton, Ohio, wherever we do these residencies, the kids that we work with teach us a lot of their own cultural understandings of the world. We try to incorporate that into the choreography and into Hammerstep as a whole as we move forward. So, for instance, in Soweto, the African gumboot dance is very similar to what you’d see in the African American tradition of stepping here in the U.S. It was a response to the oppressive circumstances in the mining industry over in Soweto; it was used as a form of communication for people working in the mines. And they taught us this dance. It’s kind of a simple dance form but rhythmically, it grabs a hold of people and it fits very nicely with the Irish style as well. The language barrier was pretty significant, but that universal language of rhythm that everyone always talks about, it’s very true how powerful that is.”

With so much going on, the group is in the middle of seeing the hard work of the past 4 years take them into the next phase of Hammerstep.

“The ‘America’s Got Talent’ thing is the most exciting thing on the horizon. We’ve had to turn down some work to participate in that. And we’re working on a music video style production with some cutting edge choreography and concepts. It’s an exciting time.”

That excitement was on full display on “America’s Got Talent.” Among the dancers who are performing with the group for the television show is Jonathon Srour, who we here at Irish Philadelphia consider a home-town talent (he’s from York County). Jonathon is part of the musical Srour family who perform as Irish Blessing, along with Cushla, Josh and Jim. When Jonathon made the move to Brooklyn, he joined up with the Hammerstep crew, and they started training him in. The other members of the troupe behind the gas masks—in addition to Garrett, Jason and Jonathon—are Scott “Swag” Pilgrim, Ronald “Shadow” Simmons, Nicole Zepcevski and Meghan Lucey. And Garrett’s younger brother Conor Coleman, on summer break from his studies at LaSalle University, is also training to join the troupe.

If you haven’t caught the clip from their appearance on “America’s Got Talent,” you can watch it on YouTube.

And, to keep up with everything Hammerstep, Like them on Facebook. They have a website that is still under construction; you can check it out at this link.