Director John McColgan and producer Moya Doherty are Ireland’s power couple when it comes to entertainment. The clever husband-and-wife team who, gave us Riverdance 20 years ago, understands that a winning formula is worth repeating.
On Sunday, their new production, Heartbeat of Home, will make its North American debut at Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre. Not surprisingly, Heartbeat of Home is a child of Riverdance, anchored in the thrilling wall of thunder produced by a line of Irish step dancers pounding out intricate rhythms in perfect synchronization.
The Globe reached McColgan and Doherty in Dublin to talk about Heartbeat of Home, and how the new show is carving its own path.
How do you follow up a megahit such as Riverdance?
McColgan: It’s daunting because Riverdance is such an iconic brand. You have to walk a fine line because the 25 million people who loved Riverdance have expectations of what the new show should be. Our main goal with Heartbeat of Home is to create the same kind of experience that audiences had with Riverdance. We want them to be moved in the same way. It has to be an emotional journey. Like Riverdance, it’s a show that needs to be experienced and not explained.
The obvious throughline of both Riverdance and Heartbeat of Home is Irish step dance. How would you define the difference between the two shows?
Doherty: Heartbeat of Home reflects the evolution of Irish dance that has happened over these 20 years. The original cast of Riverdance was made up of competition dancers. The new breed of Irish dancer is a professional, whose speed, athleticism and interpretation are on a higher plane of performance, like a thoroughbred horse, fit and finely tuned. They haven’t just studied Irish dance, but have a background in ballet, contemporary, jazz and tap. This show is harnessing that new energy and broader skill set. The dancers are being pushed beyond their comfort zone. If Riverdance embodies the lush, velvet, Gaelic experience, Heartbeat of Home represents the pared-down athlete.
What was the genesis of the show?
McColgan: I had the idea of fusing Irish dance with Latin and Afro-Cuban. I thought that the rhythms would work well together. Latin dance, whether salsa, flamenco or tango, is theatrical and exciting, and so is the music. Composer Brian Byrne has created a great score that is a new hybrid sound, driven by traditional Irish instrumentation, but coloured with Latin brass.
The theme behind Riverdance is Irish mythology and ancient Ireland’s relationship with the elemental powers. What is the new show about?
Doherty: The whole title of the show is Heartbeat of Home: A Dream Voyage. The narrative is about leaving your homeland and going to a new place. The second act is a celebration of multiculturalism. The songs carry the narrative. Joseph O’Connor wrote the lyrics. He’s a well-known Irish author and the brother of singer Sinead O’Connor.
I understand that you had an online talent search. How did that work?
McColgan: We were interested to see what was out there in the wider world because many people who study Irish dance these days have no connection with Ireland. We asked auditionees to shoot a dance routine at a special place that meant “heartbeat of home” to them. The tapes were very imaginative. The dancers recorded themselves in Times Square, on Route 66, in front of the Hollywood sign, on a mountain, on a beach. We chose a short list of 20 and flew them to Dublin. Of the final cast of 28 dancers, 10 came from online auditions. Without that talent search, we never would have found them.
What is the makeup of the cast?
Doherty: There are 39 in the company, which includes a 10-piece band, one singer, and 19 Irish, four Latin, two flamenco and three Afro-Cuban dancers. David Bolger did the contemporary choreography and musical staging, while John Carey set the Irish dances. The specific Latin sequences are all authentic. The cast comes from Ireland, Britain, the United States, Australia, Canada, Italy, Mexico and Spain.
There have been a lot of technical advances since Riverdance. I understand that this new show is very state-of-the-art.
McColgan: We’ve created a spectacular, magical environment. The background is like a movie in itself and took a year to create. The show has 16 projectors, a 180-degree wraparound screen, high-def animation, and rock ’n’ roll lighting. The visual effects when the dancing integrates with the background projections are breathtaking.
How would you sum up the impact of Heartbeat of Home?
Doherty: The show is a deeply moving journey. What you see on stage is one emotion leading to another. It is storytelling that doesn’t need words.
This interview has been condensed and edited/