Dream voyage with fiddle tunes and flamenco dance

NOBODY can forget that heartstopping seven minutes during Eurovision 1994 when Ireland, quite suddenly, became the centre of the cultural universe. None of us, indeed, could have predicted what would swirl upwards and outwards from that brief entr’acte. But it happened, and a legend was born.

Dream voyage with fiddle tunes and flamenco dance

It’s hard to put your finger on what precisely made Riverdance such a worldwide success. If you could, then you’d be in the catbird seat. Husband and wife team John McColgan and Moya Doherty have spent a very busy couple of decades since that night, working on a range of entertainments and TV programmes through their company Tyrone Productions. The All Ireland Talent Show; Jedward’s Dream Factory; Ros na Rún, and more, all stem from this dynamic duo. Their version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? still ranks as one of RTÉ’s highest ever rating shows.

Now, however, they are aiming right for the top. Heartbeat of Home: A Dream Voyage, which receives its world premiere at the Bord Gais Theatre this coming Wed, is a multi-ethnic music and dance spectacular featuring not only traditional Irish, but also Latin and Afro-Cuban music and dance.

It fields an international cast of 39, including a ten-piece band and music written by award-winning, Golden-Globe-nominated composer Brian Byrne. It will run in Dublin for just 21 performances and then tour China, Canada, and the US.

Will it make history? Will it topple the unassailable, take over from Riverdance? Only time and the public will decide that. What we do know is that McColgan and Doherty are very excited about it.

“I met Joe O’Connor on the Late Late Show a while back,” says John McColgan. “We were chatting, and I said I had this germ of an idea about a show that would incorporate not just Irish but other cultures too. We talked about it for a long time, and a nebulous idea about multi-culturalism developed.”

John McColgan and Moya Doherty during rehearsals for Heartbeat of Home A Dream Voyage at The Bord Gais Energy Theatre.

Heartbeat of Home, which grew out of those discussions, is already booked across the globe, says Moya Doherty. It has, she explains, been specifically built for touring rather than as a fixed, Broadway style show. Perhaps it is no accident that it is premiering in the Year of the Gathering, when those in far off places think of home and celebrate what was special about their culture.

Any new show is taking a chance, as they both know. The Pirate Queen, a musical based on the life of Grace O’Malley, didn’t do too well when it debuted in the US in 2006, with critics harsh and ticket sales weak. “Yes, it’s high risk, but ours is a high-risk business,” says Doherty.

“It’s an industry that’s based on creativity, and if you don’t create, what happens to the music, the people, the performers?” New ideas, she says, are the lifeblood of the entertainment business. “Of course we’re nervous about this one, but the entire company are all so great that it can’t be anything but a success.”

The collection of international talent they’ve brought together should certainly make for a hit, but it should be said that they have a pretty professional marketing and publicity campaign in play too, which bids fair to rival even that of the arch-expert, Andrew Lloyd-Webber. They’ve been on the Late Late Show, and have even appeared on BBC’s Last Night of the Proms. If pre-show publicity and coverage count for anything, Heartbeat of Home is on its way.

Is it more of the same? Or is it different? Well, judging from the clips, Heartbeat is certainly newer, more modern, tighter, sexier, very much in tune with today.

O’Connor, the author of bestselling novel Star of the Sea, was drawn to the project because “it’s fairytale, folklore,” he says. “People leave a small place and go to a much bigger world. It expresses the exuberance, the fire, the passion of that small place they have left. It’s an Irish dance show, but one that is a new kind, willing to engage with other cultures.

It’s a modern, outwards-looking Ireland. Riverdance started something, this takes up where that ended. This is Ireland now. We are at a point when we can celebrate our commonality as much as our unique differences.” Internationally renowned David Bolger, co-founder of CoisCeim, is in charge of choreography and musical staging.

What does Heartbeat of Home say to him? “It’s quite a lyrical piece really, blending Irish, contemporary, ballet, flamenco, Cuban, street dance – the connecting thing is people making voyages and how cultures can learn from one another. Riverdance started that journey, but now we’re going further and doing more – mixing the rhythms together.”

Bolger works closely with John Carey who handles the Irish dance choreography on Heartbeat of Home. “The great thing has been seeing how they have worked together,” says John McColgan, “each understanding where the other is headed, and pooling their knowledge and experience.”

Even choosing the performers was innovative, utilising the latest technology to source talent across the world. “It was really exciting, auditioning online,” says Bolger. “Some of our great Irish dancers are living in the States or Russia or Australia.”

A lot of rehearsal time has gone into training the dancers to use their bodies in different ways, reveals the choreographer.

“But they’re all willing to experiment, to go where they haven’t been before. It’s been totally exciting working with all these new ingredients, melding so many different genres. I look forward to coming to work every day.” There have been a lot of sleepless nights too, he confesses, “but it’s always an adventure, working with dancers individually about what the show means to them and what they can bring to it. They’re all stars, it’s about giving each a moment to connect completely with the audience.”

* Heartbeat of Home: A Dream Voyage, Bord Gais Theatre from Sept 25. Special-price previews Sept 25-Oct 1. Preview matinee: September 28. Opening Oct 2. Final perf Oct 12. Evenings 7.30pm; Matinees Wed, Fri, Sat, 2.30pm.

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