Bluegrass artist Tim O'Brien is a musical chameleon. In "The Crossing," a theatrical production that draws on the 1999 album of the same name, he joins Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble to explore his Irish roots and trace them through his American present. The production is structured chronologically, with the first half mostly traditional Irish songs and the second half O'Brien's own Irish-inflected compositions. Saturday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, the transition from old to new was seamless and spoke volumes about this West Virginia native's American inventiveness.
Although virtually every number incorporates either Irish step dancing, its American derivatives or interpretive dance sequences, the production is a far cry from the motion-driven eye candy of "Riverdance." Instead, the program is driven by the music, the drama lies within each song, and the production has the laid-back feel of two musical sets separated by a break.
Clearly, both O'Brien and his superb musicians and the skilled dancers of Footworks are delighted to be in one another's company. That dynamic underlies the program's uniqueness, more so than the expansion of musical sets to a fully staged production.
"The Crossing" begins in Ireland (with lots of machine-generated mist), then tells the story of immigration, the search for a homeland and the genesis of new traditions. Along the way, O'Brien peps up this beloved though hackneyed theme with such inventions as his "In America" (written with Guy Clark), which describes newly arrived Irish immigrants fighting in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American war of the 1840s. For this, Footworks' Eileen Carson and Matthew Olwell drew on step dancing's rigidly held body to evoke the stance of a soldier. The same invention that marked O'Brien's songs marked much of the evening's choreography.
"Banjo Clark" (with crisp and charming banjo solos by Mark Schatz) worked the instrument's alleged African origins a bit too hard. The accompanying African-flavored dance (choreographed by Sduduzo Ka-mbili) in loincloth was a bit of a shocker in the midst of jigs, reels and bouncing curls. Still, it was such a standout and the dancing so skilled that no one who attended Saturday's concert is likely to ever forget the Africa-banjo connection.
As a production, "The Crossing" capitalizes on immigrant culture's frequently idealized view of one's homeland and the fueling of this sentiment by the folk revival of the '60s. Yet O'Brien, through his own songs, manages to move past that view and make light of it. He gives a nod to such realism in "Talkin' Cavan," the story of his 1998 trip to find the old O'Brien farm in Ireland's County Cavan, which concludes: "Yeah, the old home place is an old barn now; It's ashes to ashes . . . dust to dust . . . thatched roof to tin roof . . . and tin roof to rust."