Like almost everyone in Ireland (and much of the world beyond), Dublin-based writer Joseph O’Connor’s first glimpse of “Riverdance,” the Irish step-dancing phenomenon, came in the form of its knockout seven-minute “interval performance” during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest.
“Everyone who saw it realized how special it was, and how it not only broke the rules of Irish dance with its modernity and confidence, but how it so neatly coincided with an iconic moment of change in Ireland itself,” said O’Connor. “In fact, it would now be impossible to write the cultural history of Ireland without discussing ‘Riverdance.’ ”
Two decades after its momentous arrival, “Riverdance,” which was expanded into its uniquely successful full-length form by the husband-and-wife team of John McColgan and Moya Doherty, has a more multicultural sequel, “Heartbeat of Home.” The show, already seen in Ireland, China and Toronto, will makes its U.S. debut March 4-16 at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre.
Produced by Doherty, and devised and directed by John McColgan, the show features a narrative and lyrics by O’Connor (author of the 2004 international best-seller, “Star of the Sea,” a novel about the Irish famine) and music by Brian Byrne (the Irish-born, L.A.-based composer/arranger/pianist who has worked with everyone from Van Morrison and Bono to Katy Perry). David Bolger, who has collaborated with Cameron Mackintosh, worked in theater, opera and film, and is artistic director of his own Dublin-based contemporary dance-theater, CoisCeim – Irish for “footstep”), has devised the overall choreography and musical staging for the show. The Irish dance choreography is by John Carey (the first Englishman to join the cast of “Riverdance”).
While “Riverdance” incorporated percussive forms beyond Irish step dance, including flamenco and American tap, “Heartbeat of Home” further embraces the contemporary global beat with the addition of Latin and Afro-Cuban music and dance. With its international cast of 40 (including a 10-piece band), it creates sequences inspired by the tango, salsa, hip-hop and the cross-pollination of all these forms.
“We don’t tell a literal story, because primarily it’s all about the dance and the music,” said O’Connor. “Instead, we try to create the feel of a dream — a sort of wonderland with familiar images of immigration that has the quality of a 21st century fable. The first half of the show is a voyage by ship, with people leaving their small island homes for the United States, South America, Australia. The second half takes you to a mythical, polyglot, universal place — it could be Chicago, New York, Sydney or Buenos Aires. I believe that in 200 years everywhere will be like the U.S. in terms of its great mix of people.”
Like O’Connor, choreographer Bolger also was first bedazzled by the Eurovision segment that for the first time liberated Irish dance from its schools-and-competitions existence. And he watched as Ireland went through its “Celtic Tiger” economic boom years (1995-2000), when immigration replaced a long history of emigration from the Emerald Isle.
“Almost overnight, Ireland became multicultural,” Bolger said. “Suddenly there were Nigerians, Brazilians, Argentineans and people from many parts of the world arriving and opening up our culture. Suddenly tango classes were everywhere, not just our usual ballroom and step-dancing contests. And Irish dancers started to have professional careers in the outside world — newly expert at partnering and lifts and using their arms in a real way.
“But the idea behind ‘Heartbeat’ was not to do a mashup. It was to honor the individual cultures and rhythms, and to move forward by mixing them. The show is about crossover talents, and thinking about where step-dancing could go, whether under the influence of Afro-Cuban rhythms or street dance. The challenge was to preserve tradition but also devise new forms.”
The audition process, too, suggested the changes wrought by globalization and technology. It was initially done as on online talent search, with the website receiving more than 2.2 million hits.
“We wanted to see people from all over the world,” said Bolger. “And we ultimately had submissions from Australia, Russia, China, North America, South America, Canada. We chose 20 dancers and brought them to Ireland for a weekend of work and meetings, and 10 members of our cast were selected that way. We also found some fabulous tango dancers and others in London.”
Bolger has particularly high praise for Brian Byrne’s score, noting: “It is amazing for the way it taps into the mix of Irish and African-influenced rhythms and the way it combines with the dancing to tell so many stories at once.”