Serious Stepping

The growing popularity of Irish step dancing has been fueled in large measure by the success of stage shows Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. Next week Chicago’s Mark Howard gets a chance to put his best foot forward, as his Trinity Irish Dance Company makes its New York debut at the prestigious Joyce Theater. Now handled by a powerful New York agency, International Management Group, the seven-year-old company will present a selection of its increasingly diverse body of work, including a new multimedia story dance about the Molly Maguires, the secret organization that tried to unionize Irish coal miners in Pennsylvania in the 1860s and ’70s. “What we are performing now is where we as a company want to see Irish dancing go,” ex-plains Howard, who founded Trinity and now serves as artistic director and acting managing director. Ra-ther than see step dancing devolve into a crowd-pleasing diversion, he hopes Trinity can push the genre toward narrative and serious themes.

For Howard the Joyce debut is the realization of a long-standing goal. “I always wanted to go to the Joyce and wanted to be a part of that dance community,” he says. For the Joyce, Trinity’s appearance is an acknowledgment of the public’s increasing fascination with a dance form that has previously been overlooked in North America. And for IMG the New York engagement could provide the critical boost needed to sell Trinity around the globe and make it a valuable addition to the agency’s roster. IMG’s vice president and artist manager, Mark Maluso, says, “From an agent’s point of view, there is obviously a tremendous interest in Celtic dance out there, and the Trinity company happens to be the only Irish dance company now in existence in North America.”

The 28-year-old IMG has considerable experience representing high-profile artists and sports figures, ranging from Placido Domingo and James Galway to Tiger Woods, as well as a small but distinguished roster of dance troupes like the Miami City Ballet, Parsons Dance Company, and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. With step dancing now in the public spotlight, IMG saw a hole in its roster and decided to fill it. Until last June Trinity was represented by a small booking company, Segal Artists Management. Though Segal lacked the clout to catapult Trinity into the big leagues, the organization did arrange seasonal tours the troupe “could always count on,” according to Howard. “We were the group everyone turned to when they needed some kind of Irish dancing, just like the Chieftains always were used for Irish music.” But in the wake of Riverdance’s phenomenal success, Howard began to question the wisdom of sticking with Segal. “We needed more management, someone who could present us to the world in a different way, and not just book us.”

Maluso flew out to Chicago earlier this year to see a Trinity performance at Navy Pier. A series of meetings led to a verbal agreement in June that would make IMG the dance company’s exclusive representative for at least the next two years. Maluso maintains he has no intention of trying to turn Trinity into another Riverdance: “Before Riverdance there was the Trinity company, and after Riverdance there will still be Trinity.” Yet Maluso is moving quickly to upgrade the company’s image. He hired designer Stan Presner to light the Joyce program; Presner, formerly of Chicago, was responsible for lighting all the Lincoln Center Festival productions this summer. Trinity also has a new relationship with Sony Entertainment; the troupe will appear on the cover of a new CD by Bill Whelan, who composed the music for Riverdance. Segal booked most of Trinity’s 1997-’98 tour season, but after that Maluso wants to send the company overseas to se-lect festivals in Edinburgh and Lyon; he’s also planning engagements in the Far East, where IMG has a major presence. “Trinity is a serious company that can fill a niche for presenters in a dance series or as a special presentation,” he says.

Howard seems relatively unfazed by the new challenges awaiting his company, perhaps because he’s worked so hard for so long at making Trinity a respected troupe. He discovered step dancing at age nine when he enrolled in the south side’s Dennehy School of Irish Dance, which also produced step dance superstar Michael Flatley. Realizing that he would never be a great step dancer, Howard opted at the age of 17 to open the Trinity Academy of Irish Dance on the city’s northwest side in 1979. There he began to train young boys and girls in the art of step dancing at a time when it was primarily a competitive dance form. While Flatley worked as a plumber and struggled to establish himself, Howard diligently pursued his dream of training and choreographing a team of step dancers to represent the U.S. at the World Irish Step Dancing Championship. In 1985 and ’86 he took a company to the championships and finished second, then in 1987 his team walked away with the gold to the amazement of many Irish. Howard remembers the moment vividly. “I felt like all the fluid had drained out of my body when we bested the Irish at their own game.”

Buoyed by the gold medal win, Howard decided to form a dance company that could introduce American audiences to step dancing outside the competitive arena. In 1990 he established the Trinity company and started to build an eclectic repertoire, drawing inspiration from a variety of dance and musical groups that included Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, the Japanese drum group Kodo, and Xsight! Performance Group. “I found myself doing some really weird stuff,” he says. While the Trinity company was exploring the cutting edge of step dancing, Riverdance was bursting on the scene in Ireland. When he first saw a tape of the production, Howard was flabbergasted. “Much of what I saw was stuff my dancers were doing years ago.”

Indeed, when Michael Flatley left Riverdance to create Lord of the Dance, Riverdance producers asked Howard to oversee the show and open a new production in Las Vegas, but he declined, preferring to pursue his own artistic vision. “My company might have crumbled without me, and I couldn’t leave my school either.” Howard says the Riverdance organization also has approached members of his company, but so far none has bolted. “I keep telling them that they shouldn’t feel any obligations to me or this company, that the pay is good, and that they could see the world.” Now Trinity members will see the world by writing their own ticket. And Howard plans to stick to his mission. “We want to keep pushing the boundaries of this art form.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mark Howard photo by Jim Alexander Newberry; Trinity Irish dancers photo/ uncredited.