As a toddler of 3, Eileen Martin couldn't wait to begin studying Irish step dancing in her hometown of Dublin. It wasn't until the ripe, old age of 4, though, that she was allowed to get serious about what would become not just a lifelong passion but a viable career. Eighteen years later, step dancing has taken Martin to three continents, dozens of cities and now to front and center stage of the music-and-dance juggernaut known as "Riverdance," which is opening a 5-week return engagement at the Pantages Theatre beginning Friday night.
Now 22, Martin has stepped into the shoes of Jean Butler, the redhead who originated the lead role with Michael Flatley in 1994 for the Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin, and who also left her indelible mark on the first "Riverdance" world tour (including 21 performances in Los Angeles in the fall of 1996), and on two best-selling videotapes that are often broadcast on PBS.
Martin, too, performed in the seven-minute Eurovision production number, but as a member of the corps. Her abilities were quickly recognized, however, and by late 1995, as "Riverdance" was becoming a London hit, the 5-foot, 4-inch brunet was tapped to be Butler's understudy.
Speaking by phone from Minneapolis, where the so-called original "Riverdance" company was wrapping an engagement (there are now two additional satellite road companies), Martin, who routinely filled in for an indisposed Butler and has yet to miss a performance because of sickness or injury herself, explained that she officially took over the role in January 1997.
She's particularly proud of putting her own stamp on the leading role. "Because I don't look like her [Butler is 5-11], I don't think like her and I've put my own choreography to it, my personality shines through when I dance," Martin said in an engaging Irish lilt. "I'm a very energetic, bubbly, happy kind of a dancer and I thrive on it, because I love it so much. That, I think, comes across on stage."
As a decidedly feminine presence in a show that provides plenty of testosterone-driven routines--"Thunderstorm," for example, in which 10 men take the stage with ferocious a capella tapping--Martin's goals are to embody elegance, grace and lightness of foot. If the Boston Globe's review is any indication, her aims have been fulfilled: "She sails forth effortlessly, as if propelled by the wind. It's astonishing how she can be so vertical and so horizontal at once."
The key, it seems, is inexhaustible stamina.
"I'm not saying it doesn't take anything out of me, but some people find [doing] it very, very hard. Jean used to sweat a lot more than me. Maybe she didn't enjoy it as much as I, I don't know. But the guy who dresses me says, 'You just never sweat.' People have told me that I look like a little fairy, like I'm enjoying it so much."
Martin seems to the spotlight born. Capturing her first World Irish Dancing Championship title when she was 12, her "spunky, bouncy . . . natural" style also caught the eye, at that time, of another step dancing champion, Colin Dunne, who would assume Flatley's role opposite Butler and become Martin's partner as well in 1995.
Dunne, 29, who has taken some time off but will be back in the show for its Los Angeles run, spoke by phone from Dublin of his two very different leading ladies.
"Jean is a flaming redhead and everything that goes along with that, very Rita Hayworth. The first night I did the show with her I saw her coming at me like Catwoman. Her attitude on stage is aggressive, but very assured in her femininity and very aware of it. Eileen is certainly a lot smaller and is probably by nature quieter than Jean, and that's reflected in her dancing. She's graceful--like a deer--without seeming to touch the floor. Very sweet, precise. That's Eileen."
Great partnering requires a certain chemistry. Dunne and Butler were a little mismatched (he's an inch shorter); the Dunne-Martin coupling is a closer fit. Said the Chicago Tribune: "'Though not as towering [as Jean Butler], the raven-haired Martin may possess even faster feet and she makes for a better partner for Dunne."
Says Dunne after dancing with Martin in hundreds of performances: "Over time you know what your partner's going to do. You know when they're going to move, you get to know their body, their look, the way you're going to take each others' hand. It's a language."
And the language of "Riverdance" is movement, the wildly intricate tap patterns and sky-high leg pumping of Irish step dancing, which has been modified and expanded to reach the widest possible audience. "We use our arms now," explains Martin, "whereas before [in classic Irish dancing], you always danced with your arms down by your side. If you moved or dropped a shoulder, you were penalized. It was very expressionless. Now you're able to enjoy it more, and it's something totally new that people have never seen. I think the dance and music together really blow people away. It's very moving."
While Butler left "Riverdance" to pursue an acting career, Martin plans on staying with it for at least another year. It's a prospect made slightly easier by the fact that she and Dunne get a breather by not dancing the matinees. And, while being on the road may be hard on some performers, Martin finds it rewarding. The fact that she has a boyfriend in the company, chorus master Cathal Synnott, also helps.
And so does that front and center position. "I never thought this would happen. Absolutely not. To be honest, it's brilliant. Sometimes you have a dream and it comes true."
"Riverdance" runs Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m., Sun., 7:30 p.m. Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd. (213) 365-3560. Tickets: $46-$71. Ends May 17.