Heartbeat of Home’ sweeps Irish dance into new millennium

“Heartbeat of Home” could rightfully be called “Riverdance” for the new millennium, taking Irish dance to the next level. When the exuberant production makes its East Coast debut at the Citi Wang Theatre from March 26 to April 6, Boston audiences will be among the first to see the show The Irish Mail on Sunday dubbed “jaw dropping.”
More than three years ago, the “Riverdance” team of John McColgan and Moya Doherty had a vision for a new theatrical project, one that would fuse the vibrant rhythms of Irish, Latin and Afro-Cuban music and dance. Ultimately, it would be both a love story showing what happens when these cultures meet and the dream voyage of those who were forced to travel for the sake of a better life.

With a narrative by award-winning Irish writer Joseph O’Connor, choreography and staging by David Bolger (artistic director of CosiCeim Dance Theatre), Irish dance choreography by world title winner John Carey, and a sweeping score by award-winning Brian Byrne, the team set off on a journey of the imagination.
“Heartbeat of Home” would not be solely about the home of the Irish. It would be about everybody’s home, whether that be Africa or Spain or South America. As John Carey has noted, the show would be about passion for dance as well as pride in who we are and what we represent.
“Heartbeat of Home” opened last fall in Dublin to a phenomenal response. It then traveled to Beijing and Shanghai and has just completed its North American premiere in Toronto. Director McColgan calls the high energy, state-of-the-art production an “immersive experience” that takes dance to an entirely new place.
Producer Moya Doherty notes that in the 20 years since “Riverdance” first burst onto the stage, Irish dance has evolved at a remarkable rate. That evolution is due in no small part to “Riverdance” itself. Young dancers around the world fell in love with the intensity of the original show and began to study and hone their individual talents at a feverish pace. Today, exceptional Irish dancers are no longer exclusively from Ireland. Rather, they are emerging from around the world. And these new dancers have been straining at the leash to show what they could do.
With McColgan striving to give audiences something they had never seen before, this new show would be for and about these dancers. But how to involve them? The creative team took the daring step of using social media technology to open the floor to a worldwide search for dancers via the Internet. During the process, their website got 2.2 million hits from 169 countries worldwide.
Said Moya: “When ‘Riverdance’ started, we were handwriting letters to people and getting videos sent by post in brown paper envelopes. So to be able to push a button and to run an international talent search was extraordinary. We got ten of our dancers – ten – through that process. Ten extraordinary dancers whom we wouldn’t have had a chance to even set sight on.” With so many of today’s dancers having additional training in ballet and contemporary movement, she said, “The physicality of the body of the Irish dancer is now in a new place.”
Many of the 30 cast members are indeed Irish born, including featured dancer Jason O’Neill. The 27-year-old Belfast native was principal dancer in “Riverdance” the last time it played Boston’s Opera House. The only boy in a family of seven children, his local connection also includes a sister who has called Greater Boston home for the past 15 years.
As “Heartbeat” was slowly being formed, an inspirational “quote of the day” was posted outside the rehearsal studios to establish the tone. One day it read: “Success is not counted by how high you have climbed, but by how many people you brought with you.”
“I’ve always stepped into a show and had to be taught the steps. Here, the energy is so different,” said Jason. “We had our own little input. We could show who we were and they kind of put that on board as they guided the show . . . I’ve never been through anything like it before . . . (John Carey and David Bolger) really wanted to push us and let us express ourselves to the best of our abilities. What can we show? What can we do different from 20 years ago? . . . (It’s) such a new climate for Irish dancing.”
When I spoke with Moya by phone from Toronto, Jason had just danced the lead the previous evening. “He was simply extraordinary,” she said “ . . . I spoke to him afterward and he said ‘I am so ready for this now’ . . . We have three sets of leads, simply because it is so intense. No two dancers could dance every night for eight shows. So each and every one of them has a different interpretation. And we allow them the space, within the show, to be themselves, to be their own personality, not to be part of the troupe. There is something special going on and I think they feel it.”
While maintaining a respect for tradition, the show is clearly exploring new ground, which Jason finds exhilarating. “I come from the stringent Irish dancing, arms by your side. It’s all about technique. Personality comes second. For me to be able to put my personality across and have fun with things is a real breakthrough for me. Real growth.”
And while the evening is designed to showcase vibrant music and dance, the show also aims to dazzle with its imagery. The production design calls for 16 projectors to fill the performance area with visuals from stage floor to ceiling, dropping the dancers directly into the action.
“We worked with a great Irish company called Image Now,”said Moya, “and with an artist called Dave Torpey who animated it effectively. John had in his mind, (a concept) of the space the show would take place in. He was incredibly taken by the film, ‘The Life of Pi’ and the effects. Now, we didn’t have anything like the budget ‘The Life of Pi’ had, but it was a reference point for taking reality and just taking a slightly surreal approach to it.”
Immensely proud of their work, the company is indeed “straining at the leash” to share “Heartbeat’s” diversity with audiences. “We opened in Dublin, we were there for three weeks,” said Jason, “ and that was a roaring success. It was great to start it at home, keep it the core of Ireland. Now we’re trying to spread the wings.”
R. J. Donovan is Editor and Publisher of onstageboston.com.
“Heartbeat of Home,” March 26 – April 6, Citi Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont Street in Boston. Tickets: 800-982-2787 or citicenter.org.