Clear the Decks for Titanicdance
Choreographer and lead performer James Keegan promises audiences will be 'reeled' in once more as the as the hit show returns to our shores
Telling the story of the Titanic through the medium of Irish dancing sounds a little unusual, and like quite the challenge. However, hit show Titanicdance wowed audiences when it opened in 2014 and is now set to do it all over again this autumn as the cast prepares for another tour, taking them across the UK, Ireland and on to China.
Produced by Millennium Forum Productions and KSR Productions, Titanic’s story might be one that everyone is familiar with, but the show has more than a few surprises in store for audiences.
Lord of the Dance performer, James Keegan, who is choreographer and a lead dancer in the production, plays Captain E J Smith. Just finishing up with a 10-day stint of rehearsals before heading to Belfast, the cast will then perform in Dublin, Glasgow and Manchester, before heading to the Millennium Forum in Derry~Londonderry and then to China.
'I’m excited to get going now, after all the rehearsals,' he says. 'I think new audiences are in for a big shock to be honest. The show takes you on an emotional journey – it’s got real depth and we have some powerful scenes in it - from the boiler room with the guys and their shovels, to the ship-mates and the first-class passengers. You get a real sense of all the characters who were on the ship and the different aspects of the Titanic.'
Indeed, while also weaving a love story through Titanicdance, the production paints a picture of every part of the ship, featuring everyone from steerage and upper-class passengers, to the myriad ship workers.
'There are such different characters and scenes,' says Keegan. 'You might go from a love scene to a steerage scene with a big hooley, to the iceberg scene… That was a difficult thing to get across through dance but I think it works really well. We get emotional performing it ourselves.
'You also actually learn a lot about the story of the Titanic too. We thought about having a narrator to begin with but settled on having a huge screen at the back of the stage, which helps set the scene. It works really well and gives people a real feel for what we’re performing and what each scene is about. For example, when the tragedy happens, it lets you know how many people perished.'
Playing the love-struck couple on board the infamous liner are Raymond Sweeney and Katrina O’Donnell, who portrays a first-class passenger. Meanwhile, the rousing soundtrack is masterminded by music directors Jim Higgins and Stephen Doherty.
As well as performing in the show, Keegan, who set up an Irish dancing academy in Manchester with his sister back in 2011, is also behind the choreography.
'I’m not going to lie – it was tough doing that, with long days,' he admits. 'There’s just so many things to think about when you’re putting a show together. You start to make up rhythms and patterns and steps and after you get the dancing done you have to think about the music. There’s a lot of writing involved as well.'
Already friends with Raymond Sweeney – creative director, producer and a lead dancer in the show – from Lord of the Dance, Keegan says the idea for Titanicdance came about almost by chance. Like most good ideas, it also materialised during a discussion at the kitchen table…
'Raymond and I have the same musical interests and the same sort of ideas,' says Keegan. 'He wanted to put a show together so he gave me a call. We were making up routines, then we saw an advertisement in the paper for the Titanic Museum opening… I think it gave us the inspiration. We were sitting in his kitchen and it just spiralled from there. It was challenging but exciting.'
With his Lord of the Dance work, the dance academy and Titanicdance on the go, Irish dancing has been a passion of Keegan’s from an early age. Indeed, he started dancing aged four, winning his first title at the American National Championships at seven.
Manchester-born but with Irish parents, he has to date won no less than four American Nationals, eight British Nationals, nine Great British, three All-Irelands, one European and two World Championship titles. In 2000 he also won every major title that could be achieved competitively in Irish dancing, while for the past 14 years he’s been performing with Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance troupe.
'I wouldn’t have said I wanted a career out of Irish dancing (when I was young). I played a lot of football growing up too, so it was a hectic challenge fitting it all in. I kept them both going – I played with Manchester United and with Blackburn Rovers at a decent level.'
A serious leg injury, followed by a successful dance audition and an offer to join Lord of the Dance however, made up Keegan’s mind about where his future might lie.
'I jumped at the Lord of the Dance opportunity,' he says. 'Lord of the Dance is my primary job and luckily there’s no tour on at the minute, when Titanicdance is running. I’ve been 14 years with the company, dancing sometimes in front of 9,000-10,000 people. We’re just back from South Africa, which was unreal. We were dancing at altitude as Johannesburg is 6,000 feet above sea level, so that’s got me in good shape!
'I suppose it’s because of Michael Flatley that we can do something like Titanicdance… He raised the profile of Irish dancing so much. I absolutely love what I do, and I hope everyone enjoys it!'
Titanicdance will be performed at the Millennium Forum from September 28-30. For more details and for ticket booking visit www.millenniumforum.co.uk or contact the box office on 028 7126 4455.