As ProdiJIG returns to the stage, Marjorie Brennan meets the man behind the dance sensation, Alan Kenefick and his stage and real life partner Nawal Elbadri.
I am sitting with dancers Alan Kenefick and Nawal Elbadri in a glass-fronted room on the River Lee side of the Opera House, enjoying one of the finest views Cork has to offer.
To our left, you can just glimpse a huge banner on the outside of the building proclaiming the upcoming return of ProdiJIG: The Revolution, the dance show which was a huge hit at the venue last summer.
For Cork native Kenefick, the show’s creator and lead dancer, it is still all a bit much to take in.
“To be sitting next to the giant poster on the side of the building, it’s just ridiculous, it is such an ego boost,” he laughs.
There’s no shortage of ego boosts for ProdiJIG at the moment, as Alan and Nawal, known as Nelly, have just returned from a triumphant performance at the London Palladium, which was filmed for ITV and for which they received a standing ovation.
They are due to begin rehearsals for Prodiig: The Revolution in a few days and while Nelly appears to be enjoying the downtime, Alan is fizzing with energy and looks like he can’t wait to get going.
As well as dancing together in ProdiJIG, Alan, from Silver Springs, and Nelly, from Swords in Co Dublin, are also a couple off-stage.
Nelly says she was on the verge of giving up professional dancing before she auditioned for ProdiJIG.
“I was touring Europe and I didn’t want to live out of a suitcase anymore. Then I saw ProdiJIG and I thought, ‘That’s the kind of dancing I want to do, I’ll live out of a suitcase for 10 years to do that’.”
Alan founded ProdiJIG after leaving his lead dancer role in Riverdance. The innovative project began with a bang, winning the British talent show Got to Dance in 2011.
Wanting to capitalise on that success, Alan formulated a full-length show called Footstorm, which, while it went down well with audiences, was not a commercial hit. It proved to be an important lesson for Alan.
“I learned a lot from that show. I was thrown into the deep end. I had always dreamed of making my own show but I never knew exactly what I wanted to do.
"It is very hard to figure out what exactly is the next step for Irish dancing, because Riverdance and Lord of the Dance were such huge moments in our culture, it’s hard to get past that, to reshape the imagination,” he says.
“Footstorm was a success in that we got standing ovations but I don’t think it was the right content. It was something that I was playing with. I wanted it to be the new Riverdance but to reimagine the Irish dancing form and break down all the barriers.
"When it didn’t take off the way as much I wanted it to, it was a blessing in disguise because I really had to go back and think about what I would do if I got the chance again.
"That’s when the idea for ProdiJIG: The Revolution came into my mind but I didn’t necessarily have all the elements to realise that.”
His hometown venue of Cork Opera House came to the rescue, with the offer of a performance with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.
“John O’Brien was the conductor, and we danced to Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’. We got such an amazing reaction. That started a conversation with the Opera House and we were asked to do the summer show last year.”
Opera House chief executive Eibhlín Gleeson brought in composer Peter Power, director Wayne Jordan, and with the final addition of the five-piece traditional fusion band Moxie, all the pieces were in place for ProdiJIG: The Revolution.
“I thought you had to leave your home city to take on the world but actually I needed to come back,” says Alan.
“Everything came together in a magical way which I still can’t believe. It feels like it was meant to be. Peter, Wayne, and Moxie are all so ridiculously talented, it is just a perfect storm.”
Nelly and Alan have been together for three years. She has been dancing professionally since she was 16 and two of her sisters are also professional dancers.
While she is happy to let Alan do most of the talking, it is clear they are a support and inspiration to each other on stage and off.
“We work extremely well together, I love working with Alan,” says Nelly.
“I’ve been in relationships with people who weren’t dancers and they never understood why I had to go away for six months at a time. I just watch him constantly. The more I watch him, the better I get.”
“Nelly is really kind and caring and gets everything I do,” says Alan.
“I always run my ideas by her. She is my muse. She’s also really honest. I wouldn’t do something if Nelly didn’t agree with it. She is always right, it’s really annoying but helpful,” he laughs.
“She’s also an amazing dancer, she could lead her own show.”
When I ask how the rest of the dancers deal with them being a couple, Nelly looks at Alan: “You keep talking,” she says, laughing.
“Everyone is aware of it but it has never been an issue,” he says.
“We’re pretty professional about it. You need to separate it completely and we do that. It can be the most awkward thing ever.
"I’ve been in Riverdance where couples have broken up and then they’ve had to dance together, you’re staring into their eyes, being all emotional but you could be hating them at that moment. It’s a business, it’s all acting. You have to learn to separate your job from your life.”
Alan’s passion for dance seeps into all areas of the couple’s life.
“If he’s not dancing, he’s watching other people dancing,” says Nelly.
“I struggle to switch off. I can’t help it, it’s an obsession,” says Alan.
“I’m obsessed with getting better. I’ve always dreamt of being the Michael Jackson of Irish dancing but I’m getting into other artists like Pina Bausch, Breandán de Gallaí, and Colin Dunne; I’m learning to be an artist.
"The opportunities in Irish dancing are limitless — the more I learn, the more I see how you can fit everything into it.”
Alan’s enthusiasm for testing the boundaries of Irish dancing go beyond the stage to how it is taught as an art form. He is concerned that many promising Irish dancers are constrained by the rigid nature of the choreography — especially having to keep their hands and arms by their sides — and are not being taught the skills they need in the professional arena.
“You can be a world champion with your hands by your side but then to make a living, you have to learn how to use your arms. Why not use the feiseanna as a place where dancers can use their arms so every child already has the skills when they leave? We are not developing choreographers.
"You are able to create a better picture using the arms and dancing to different kinds of music. There needs to be a whole shift. It’s a very difficult thing to talk about because it is such an integral part of our culture, you try to be respectful but you also need to look to the future.”
Two of Nelly’s sisters teach Irish dancing in Dublin and she is convinced of the benefits for children.
“If I didn’t have Irish dancing as a kid, I don’t know where I would be. It teaches children a lot, not just dancing. It teaches them how to socialise with other kids and as far as the costumes and the wigs, it is a little bit much sometimes but the parents love getting their kids dolled up and going to see them perform.”
As the saying goes, dream big or go home. Alan is doing both — using the platform the Opera House gives him to seek world domination. He believes the sky is the limit for ProdiJIG.
“I’d love to dance at the Grammys — there has been hip-hop or contemporary dance in pop videos but never Irish dancers. I would love to go to Broadway and the West End and I would love to do the Super Bowl. I’m hoping it will happen, I don’t see why not. All we need is one chance.
"I am pretty confident that if we did the Super Bowl, it would be on a par with Beyoncé. It’s all up for grabs, I won’t stop until it’s all done.”
ProdiJIG: The Revolution runs at Cork Opera House from June 14-25.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved