Dancing with the star

Corkman Darragh O’Leary tells Irene Feighan how his love of dance led to a life-changing experience at the London Olympics

A MAN wearing a wolf’s head paces the floor looking for trouble. A knot of actors — all shock, all horror — respond in slow motion as they rehearse the closing scenes of Little Red Riding Hood, this year’s pantomime performed by the Cork Academy of Dramatic Arts (CADA).

Their every step is watched intently by choreographer Darragh O’Leary. Something is not quite right. He wants the madcap sequence repeated over and over so the timing and movements are synchronised. With dollops of good humour, the cast — all ages, all sizes — obliges.

It’s a long way from Darragh’s last assignment: as a choreographer for one of the greatest shows on Earth — the London Olympics, the opening ceremony of which was watched by up to one billion people.

From Mayfield, Cork, Darragh started his dancing career 20 years ago with CADA’s Catherine Mahon-Buckley for the academy’s fist pantomime. He was just 13.

“I had never danced up until that point — it had always been music and drama,” he says. “I realised I could dance, I could do this. It has come full circle.”

And dance he did. Tapping into his natural sense of rhythm — he comes from a musical family and studied violin at the Cork School of Music — Darragh signed up for additional dance classes with Donna Daly and Philip McTaggart. “I just wanted to do as much as possible,” he says.

A bright student, he got enough points in his Leaving Cert to study applied biology and chemistry in UCC. It was the sensible route to take but instead he signed up for a “fantastic” year-long dance course run by Alan Foley through Scoil Stiofáin Naofa.

“For me it was a no-brainer. I knew what made me happy and what I enjoyed,” he says.

From there he went in 1999 to the prestigious Laine Theatre Arts in England — his tuition fees funded by a scholarship and Arts Council grant — and a part-time job in Pizza Hut. He laments the fact that in recession-bound Ireland this financial support is no longer available. “If you can’t go to the best place and train and learn from the best teachers then you are already on the back foot when it comes to a saturated industry,” he says.

The intense training paid off. Before graduating he was picked to star in Fame the Musical in the West End — “it was like a fairy story,” he says, his eyes shining with the memory. Other big shows came knocking, including Grease and Mamma Mia.

Though dance is at the core of his career, he’s no longer chasing auditions. “I teach, I perform, I choreograph, I direct, I write a little bit. I am quite fortunate in that I can dip into a lot of things,” he says of his packed freelance career.

He first heard about the London Olympics in 2007 and assumed an international crew would be working on the choreography — flying in and out for the event.

“Then I heard a friend of a friend was auditioning the volunteers …but I still thought it would never happen.”

But it did. In January, a friend got in touch to say they were expanding the team and invited him to come in for an interview. “A lot of people got a lot of work that summer,” he says generously.

Darragh was one of a team of 29 choreographers who taught 15,000 people — most with no previous dance experience — to move in cascades of mesmerising patterns and shapes. More than 8,500 of those participating in the opening ceremony were volunteers. Fuelling this visual feast was Steve Boyd, a live-event director based in Los Angeles who has an established track record in Olympic ceremonies.

“He is an absolute genius. He comes from an architectural background ... I can’t image what’s inside his head,” says Darragh.

There was no let-up for the choreographic team who worked at full stretch to cover all four sections of the commission — the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and the Paralympics.

“Along with the stage management team, we were the only team who worked on all four of the ceremonies,” says Darragh.

Teaching so many people to perform in unison was an undertaking of Herculean proportions. It needed military-style organisation and planning. Rehearsals progressed through three venues — Three Mills in East London, an indoor film studio; outdoors at the old Ford factory in Dagenham, where there were two Olympic-sized rehearsal sites — and the Olympic stadium itself.

“If there is one thing I remember about London 2012,” says Darragh, laughing, “it’s the rain, and me spending most of the summer outdoors, in wellies and waterproofs.”

Volunteers were auditioned and given rehearsal schedules — usually blocks of four hours. But inevitably there was a lot of time spent on logistics.

“Everything takes a huge amount of time, getting them from A to B, getting them to do this and that, then when you bring in props like beds… So there’s an imbalance between the amount, of time we actually spent rehearsing compared to the amount of time they were in the stadium.”

Darragh was particularly inspired by the dedication of the 1,400-strong group of volunteers in the Industrial Revolution section — the foot soldiers who spent hours in the rain, pulling and dragging water-logged hedges and turf. “They were the people who epitomised London 2012 — if you asked them to go over and pick up a bucket of shit, they’d moan but they would do it.”

In a highly complex manoeuvre, they had to work together to perform the biggest stage clearance in theatrical history. Every prop had a different number and the entire field was divided into counties, each with 100 volunteers attached to it. But because conditions were constantly changing, they never did the same thing twice.

“So when we got to doing the opening ceremony on the 27th of July we knew that whatever came at them, they could handle it,” says Darragh.

Though the dance routine had been drilled into the volunteers over and over, the choreography team left little to chance. Every dancer had a radio pack and earpiece. “For the opening ceremony we had about 8,000 of these and that is how we gave them instructions in real time.”

Surely there were times when he worried the project was just too big to work?

“No,” he says immediately, giving full credit to the show’s artistic director. “Danny Boyle was an incredible leader and communicator — he was always on the ground, talking with the staff and volunteers. He kept everyone sailing on the same ship, everyone focused on the same goal.”

And, though exhausting, the mega-watt experience has left Darragh with a taste for more.

“I would love to do it all over again. I’ve already got my eye on Rio 2016. And I would love to go to Sochi in Russia for the Winter Olympics 2014. There is an incredible buzz and it comes from the volunteers — it was a real life-changing event for some of these people.

“I remember chatting to this woman who did the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and the Paralympics. ‘My husband doesn’t recognise me,’ she said. ‘He says, you are this energised and fun person — London 2012 has changed you’.”

Other volunteers, wanting to keep the buzz alive, have joined Post Olympic Dance classes run by two members of the choreography team.

“People can talk about legacy until the cows come home — but that, that’s real legacy,” says Darragh, with understandable pride.

Beyond his current work on Little Red Riding Hood and a production of West Side Story with inmates from HMS prison Earlstoke next January, it comes as a surprise to hear he has no long-term plans.

“Who knows. I’m just riding the wave and seeing where it takes me,” he says philosophically.

It looks like a tidal wave that will keep rolling and rolling.

* Little Red Riding Hood at The Everyman in Cork, runs from Saturday Dec 8 to Sunday Jan 6.

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