Dancers ‘Recapture the First Love of Celtic Throne’

OKLAHOMA—“Recapture the first love of Celtic Throne.” Co-director Brad Macdonald stood on the dimly lit stage while dancers, musicians, costume ladies and crew pressed against each other to hear his words, as they had dozens of times before. Drawing a small, well-used black notebook from the pocket of his sportcoat, he opened to a page where he had scratched down some words, things he had in mind for that particular show, what the troupe should think about as they performed. In some of these chats, he gave a quote. In some, he told an inspiring story of a family who had traveled a great distance to show their support. Always there was a theme. This kept the show fresh for the performers, providing them a new way to approach the same music, footwork and gestures that they had been doing year after year, week after week, show after show.

There was a particular theme woven through the tour itself. It surfaced in group meetings, in audience response, in Sabbath messages, in conversations amongst cast and crew. It was introduced just before curtain at the first show of the 2024 tour in Shreveport, Louisiana.

“You need to fall in love with the music again.” Five years and nearly 60 performances removed from the show’s origins, many had never known or had forgotten the story. Mr. Macdonald took them back to the beginning. “One song,” he said. “That is how it all began.”

He told them of how in 2018, after years of Irish dance lessons on the Herbert W. Armstrong College campus, chancellor Gerald Flurry had asked dance instructor Paris Turgeon to contact some composers, how the only composer to respond happened to be the Golden Globe-nominated Brian Byrne, how he “providentially” lived less than an hour away from the college campus where Armstrong Dance was located, how after Byrne wrote one song, the idea for a dance show crystallized. Then Mr. Macdonald pulled out a book, written for musical theater actors. He read to the dancers sections that discussed the importance of embodying the story and narrative of the music, that the job of an actor is to let the message come out through them.

“I just started thinking about that in terms of Celtic Throne music,” Mr. Macdonald said later. “It’s easy for dancers to take the music for granted because they know it by heart. It’s easy to see it mathematically because we think about all the eight counts and tempo changes, but I thought, We can’t lose sight of the emotion, so I encouraged them to be inspired by the music, to think in terms of, What’s the message here, what emotions are invoked by the sound here?”

One song turned into a few songs, which became a story. From the story came choreography, fabrics sewn together to make colorful costumes, light fixtures to paint the stage, a dance show to fill an audience with hope, and before each show, a chat between the co-director and performers on the stage.

“Our initial goal with Celtic Throne was to create an Irish dance show that would share the joy of Irish dance,” said Mr. Macdonald. “Over the last five years, the story has grown in importance and impact, much more than we ever imagined.”

Over five years of touring, the troupe (ranging from age five to adult) held “confabs” like these on the stages of theaters in 37 cities in 21 states, in front of national monuments, before shows attended by well-known public figures, and even on the stage of one of the most iconic music halls in America. They have traveled over 23,000 miles and distributed more than 35,000 tickets. But the beginnings were small. The show premiered on July 28, 2020, in Edmond, Oklahoma. At the very first show away from home, the troupe convened on the stage of the Dutton Family Theater in Branson, Missouri, while a modest 94 audience members waited in anticipation for the drums of the opening number. The stage had no cyclorama, no dressing rooms, no space for musicians, no space for stairs, and no space for the most important prop of all: the throne. The dimensions of the stage required every spot in the choreography to be adjusted. At the show the next morning, only 57 were in attendance. But it was a start.

Later that year, they convened on a stage in Rapid City, South Dakota, before performing for crowds of a few hundred people. The next year they went bigger, meeting on stages in Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas and, notably, the iconic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. The tradition of pre-show confabs continued into the next year, where they convened on stages in Colorado, South Dakota, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee and Missouri. The stages varied from theater to theater. Some were large, with plenty of side stage room for costume changes, shoe changes and dancers running back and forth to make their entrances. Some were small with barely enough room for one person to squeeze behind the cyclorama to get to the other side of the stage. While in South Dakota, they did a promotional event in front of Mt. Rushmore. The next year they grouped together on stages in Ohio, Washington D.C., New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. While in the nation’s capital, they secured permission to do a promo right in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where thousands caught a glimpse of the energy of the show. This year, as they stood behind the curtain preparing to perform for a record number of 1,359 people in Florida, Mr. Macdonald reminded them that they didn’t need to do anything different than they had done before. He told them they were ready.

Mr. Macdonald said that the response to the show “has far exceeded our expectations. We have found that while audiences love the various parts of the show—the dancing, the music, the high energy, the lights and special effects—it’s the overall experience they most love and appreciate.” He said the show has become “incredibly prescient and timely,” because of the turbulent times the nation is in. Its message “resonates with audiences more powerfully than we ever could have imagined.”

Celtic Throne—The Royal Journey of Irish Dance toured the eastern United States this summer and is now touring the western United States, covering thousands of miles and visiting many unfamiliar theaters. But at each unfamiliar theater, familiar things receive them: the black marley dance floor, speckled with tape, dust and shoe marks; the wooden stairs, perhaps fresh with paint from a recent touchup job; the soft, purple velvet throne, upon which dancers lounge during breaks; the lights overhead, constantly changing through the afternoon as the crew checks each lighting cue; the smell of fog machines, with haze pouring out; racks of costumes, meticulously arranged and enclosed in black drapes; show props, scattered on a table in the backstage wings.

Each afternoon on show days, the empty seats of the theater yawn at them, waiting for an electrified audience. They drill, rehearse and spot check, while crew members go back and forth taking care of backstage details, while musicians check their microphones and instruments. Music pumps through the speakers, and dancers move through the numbers, carefully analyzed by lead dancer Jude Flurry to identify what can be sharpened, improved, energized, synchronized and solidified. Sometimes they drill a simple head turn dozens of times. Sometimes all a section needs is a single run-through. The goal is always improvement. At dinnertime, they meet in some backstage room in the theater where a meal awaits them. Bodies fueled, they disappear into dressing rooms to comb and arrange their hair. They rewarm their muscles, don their costumes and gather on stage to hear Mr. Macdonald’s words, specially crafted for them. A combination of purple, yellow and green lights overhead create a warm aura above them. White haze swirls around them. With nothing but a curtain separating them from the din of audience conversations, they gear their minds toward the performance ahead.

“Let perfection be your inspiration,” Mr. Macdonald told the dancers behind the curtain in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Wednesday. He reminded them of the tendency to look at it as just another show and the need for them to find an inspiration to perform with passion. With these words of advice, the dancers resolved to make it their best yet. As they continue to the west coast, they resolve to make each show better than the last, to see through the eyes of an audience member viewing it for the first time, to recapture the first love of Celtic Throne.