Out & About: Irish dance, Samurai drums

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Portland Ovations emerges from its long Christmas-New Year break this week with a pair of topnotch programs. Trinity Irish Dance Company, a Chicago-based terpsichorean troupe that has won a number of championships in Ireland, holds forth this Friday.

TAO, subtitled Seventeen Samurai, is a Japanese ensemble that features thunderous drumming, razor-sharp choreography and spectacular costuming. TAO performs on Feb. 2.

“The Ladies Foursome” is a new play by Norm Foster that just opened at The Public Theatre of Lewiston-Auburn. It’s a very funny comedy, yet it thoughtfully addresses a number of very important issues.

Ensalada Ensemble, which specializes in music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, performs in Portland this Saturday with a program titled “The Art of Improvisation.”

Trinity Irish Dance Company

Chicago is one of the most vibrant centers of of the Irish diaspora, with several world-renowned Irish performing arts ensembles hailing from the Windy City. Among them is Trinity Irish Dance Company, which was founded in 1990 by Mark Howard, an Emmy Award-winning choreographer, as an outgrowth of his Irish dance academy.

Irish step-dancing is known for its near-total emphasis on legwork, with performers holding their arms straight down and maintaining an almost immobile upper body. The art form dates back the middle ages, and has become extremely popular in the past 30 years.

Howard describes his company’s vision and work as “progressive without losing touch with tradition, and entertaining while putting a premium on integrity.”

It’s also impressed some key people in the Emerald Isle. Individual Trinity dancers and Trinity ensembles have amassed an amazing total of 17 gold medals at the World Irish Dancing Championships.

Always trying to keep his company’s performances fresh, Howard has created five new dances in the past year, several of which will be seen in Trinity’s Portland visit.

Portland Ovations presents Trinity Irish Dance Company at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall at 8 p.m. Jan. 29. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

TAO: Seventeen Samurai

TAO is a globetrotting troupe of Japanese drummers who have been delivering sonically and visually spectacular shows for the past two decades. During that period, they’ve given thousands of performances in front of six million people. TAO will visit Portland on Feb. 2.

TAO is both timeless and modern. While the tradition of taiko drumming dates back hundreds of years, most of the works performed by the troupe have been written and choreographed by its members. TAO’s signature qualities are precision, energy and stamina.

It’s a mesmerizing show. Music critic John Stanley, writing for the Arizona Republic, explained TAO’s appeal: “The explosive sounds and insistent rhythms create a sort of epic visceral thrill. Imagine, then, a corps of skilled drummers pounding six or eight or even 10 drums — some so large they’re mounted on their sides five or six feet above ground — in unison, while wearing elaborate costumes and dancing about the stage.”

Portland Ovations presents TAO: Seventeen Samurai at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall on Feb. 2 at 7 p.m. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

‘The Ladies Foursome’

So you think you know your friends? And you think your friends know you? Those assumptions are profoundly challenged in a new play that is currently getting its Maine premiere at The Public Theatre of Lewiston-Auburn.

“The Ladies Foursome” is a comedy by Norm Foster, a Canadian playwright. Although the play has plenty of great laughs and one-liners, there’s a dark undercurrent that runs throughout and elevates “The Ladies Foursome” into a memorable theatrical experience.

Here’s the setup. For the past 15 years, four women have been playing golf together once a week. One of them recently died in a freak accident. The remaining three invite a mutual friend to complete the foursome. Over the course of 18 holes, the four explore their relationships between the deceased and amongst themselves, revealing a number of secrets about their personal lives and relationships.

Four professional actresses give outstanding performances under the direction of Judith Ivey. Janet Mitchko opens the play by downing a can of beer at their early morning tee time, and she’s loud and somewhat boisterous throughout. She’s a well-off businesswoman, a contractor whose success in building houses is matched by her failure in personal relationships.

In contrast, Tarah Flanagan plays a mousy housewife, whose dreams and ambitions have been outshone by her husband’s financial success. She too has a drinking problem.

Brigitte Viellieu-Davis plays a promiscuous flirt and man-chaser. One of her past conquests opens up a major point of contention in the present. Caralyn Kozlowski plays the newcomer. She knew the deceased woman very well — but through an entirely different context. Her radically differing perspective powers much of the drama.

I saw the first performance of “The Ladies Foursome” and I was very impressed by Foster’s ability to deliver so much energy and interest from such a simple dramatic gimmick. Alternating hilarity with mystery, Foster has crafted a powerful story with memorable characters.

The Public Theatre, corner of Maple and Lisbon streets in Lewiston, presents “The Ladies Foursome” through Jan. 31 with 7:30 p.m. performances Jan. 28-29, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. performances on Jan. 30 and 2 p.m. Jan. 30. Call 782-3200.

Ensemble Ensalada

The early music movement – “early” usually being defined as Renaissance and Baroque, or simply “pre-classical” – in southern Maine is growing, and one of the region’s premier groups will be performing in Portland this Saturday.

Ensemble Ensalada comprises six musicians who are active in numerous other contexts. Best-known are two members of the DaPonte String Quartet. Myles Jordan will play the violincello piccolo (a miniature cello that was popular in the 1500s) while Lydia Forbes plays violin. Others in the ensemble are Timothy Burris on lute, Eric LaPerna on percussion, Alyson Ciechomski on double bass and Suki Flanagan on harp.

The program is titled “The Art of Improvisation.” Although the concept of instrumental improvisation is most often associated with jazz or rock, improvisation has been a living tradition with numerous manifestations in European music since the late 15th century. Ensemble Ensalada will present a rich display of several national traditions of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic improvisation.

It’s the opening performance in the sixth season of Early Music in St. Luke’s Chapel series. The intimate space is a perfect venue for the performance of chamber music, offering a marvelous acoustic combined with a lovely and intimate setting.

Catch Ensemble Ensalada at St. Luke’s Cathedral Church, 143 State St. in Portland, at 7 p.m. Jan. 30. Call 772-5434.

Trinity Irish Dance Company, a Chicago-based troupe that has won championships in Ireland, will visit Merrill Auditorium in Portland Friday, Jan. 29, as part of Portland Ovations’ 2015-2016 season.

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