August 1, 2019
BY R. J. DONOVAN
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
I recently had the unique opportunity to attend the Riverdance Academy Summer School Program on the campus of Boston University. Rest assured I was not there as a dancer, but as an observer. It proved to be an uplifting experience.
To apply, students must have at least five years dance training or three years of competitive experience. The program in Boston hosts up to 200 dancers, ages 12 and up, who attend one of two six-day sessions in July. Five days of classes are followed by a Showcase on Saturday for friends and family at the Tsai Performance Center.
This year marked the first time a three-day Juniors Program was added for those ages 5 to 11, who at the moment do not participate in the Showcase..
Students came from as close as Milton and as far away as Australia. One student traveled from Dublin just to have the experience of studying in Boston. The females far outnumber the males.
Over the course of the week, everyone learns the choreography for three or four of “Riverdance’s” iconic numbers. Students then perform at least two numbers during the Showcase, if not more. The half dozen instructors are all elite dancers from the “Riverdance” cast.
Participants also attend talks from experts in the fields of dance and fitness to learn about strength and conditioning, nutrition, and sports psychology. They also learn how to connect with an audience, about life on the road, and about the 25-year history of “Riverdance.”
About a third of the students hope to some day perform in the show. For those over 18, the school serves as an audition. The rest are there purely for the love of dancing.
The school grew from a conversation begun here in Boston between “Riverdance” producer Moya Doherty and the renowned dancer Padraic Moyles. During a rehearsal of “Heartbeat of Home” at The Wang Theatre they spoke of establishing a summer program to train and enrich the next generation of dancers.
Moyles originally joined “Riverdance” in 1997, going on to become dance captain and then principal dancer. He subsequently appeared in more than 5,000 performances of the show globally, performing for heads of state and notable individuals, including Michelle Obama and Queen Elizabeth II.
Today, he is associate director of both “Riverdance” and “Heartbeat of Home” as well as course director of the Summer School. The program launched at Trinity College in 2015. When Moyles was looking for a second location in 2017, Boston was a natural choice.
The Irish diaspora in Boston was a factor in that decision, as was the accessibility of an international airport. He researched Harvard and Boston College before settling on BU, where he found the support staff to be exceptional.
Chatting between classes, Moyles said, “We wanted to be established with universities that were well known, that had a high pedigree. Where we see ourselves at the top of our game, we wanted universities that were at the top of their game. Our goal is to inspire, to motivate, to encourage . . . We teach the students about mindset, rest, recovery – the key pillars around peak performance, which apply to every aspect of your life, not just dance.”
Connecting with new friends is also part of the program.
At BU, groups of students were hard at work in three different rehearsal rooms. It was staggering to see how quickly they learned the material and how much they encouraged one another. For many of them, they were learning choreography from dancers they had seen in the show and now idolized.
Caitlin Dooher, 15, from Needham, told me, “I expected it to be really difficult, lots of hard work, lots of sweating. It turned out to be all of that, but it was also a lot of fun. And the instructors are so nice and so understanding and so inspiring. They reach out to you as if they were your peers . . . I’m having an amazing time.”
Moyles also wants to open students’ eyes to the broad range of employment possibilities in the entertainment world. Last year he auditioned 946 people to fill just 2 open slots in the show. “But that doesn’t mean a number of those 944 other people couldn’t add value to this company in an another way,” he said. “They have a passion for dance. Maybe they could be a fantastic stage manager. Maybe they could be an amazing wardrobe designer. Maybe they could help us in production management.
“These people are unusually high achievers,” he added… They are coming out of universities ready to work with a huge level of education . . . We’re trying to broaden their horizons as to what show business truly is and help them understand that just because one avenue doesn’t work for you within this industry, it doesn’t mean you can’t work in this industry.”
The students are a diverse group. Of that, Moyles said, “Some of these students come to us with disabilities. This is just what they love to do, and we always accept them. Whether it’s autism or a severe food allergy, CF, whatever it might be. Just watching their work ethic, watching their approach to life and how they cope with things is truly what ends up being inspiring and motivating and encouraging to us.”
I was introduced to a young man with autism, and made special note of him, both during class and at the Showcase. “Watching him, and watching him be accepted by all the other dancers,” said Moyles, “has to be one of the most inspirational things I’ve ever witnessed. He walks in with this unbelievable amount of confidence . . . He goes out there and does it his own way and all the other dancers are cheering him on and clapping . . . The rest of the instructors were literally in tears.”
Staging the program over six days gives students an avenue to show their talent, ethics, and personality, which would be impossible at a standard audition lasting a matter of minutes. That staging also allows Moyles to see who can be coached and who works well in a team. “It gives us the opportunity to see what their true colors are.”
Natasha Woytiuk, 26, from Montreal, agreed. Having attended the school in both Boston and Dublin, she said, “I really appreciate the fact that it’s an audition that takes place over multiple days. Because in an audition, you’re going to mess up . . . There are going to be little mistakes . . . This is the perfect scenario where you can come back an hour later and show them again. You can come back the next day and show them again . . . You get so many opportunities to show them that you can do it.”
While Moyles is in charge of the school, he is quick to redirect credit. “I must point out that it isn’t any one individual that makes this run, it’s a team of people. If I wasn’t in Boston, this would run seamlessly - because of the team . . . They know exactly what the expectations are and exactly what we have to try and do . . . And that, to me, is the success of it.”
The ultimate goal? “Students don’t just leave as better dancers, they leave as better people, more equipped to deal with challenges they could face in any walk in life.”
R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com