Irish dance spectaculars have toured the world, pulling in impressive audiences on all continents, ever since Riverdance was beamed into millions of homes during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest.
Riverdance, and Michael Flatley's subsequent show Lord of the Dance, proved huge money spinners. It is no surprise, then, that other large-scale Irish dance productions have popped up in their wake, and the success of the first performances of Titanicdance in 2014 show that the appetite for Irish dance has not yet been sated in Northern Ireland.
Titanicdance is, of course, a take on the Titanic story. Involving a troupe of 24 dancers, one singer and five musicians, it combines the energy of Irish dancing with live traditional Irish music and a blend of dance styles from around the world.
Donegal man Raymond Sweeney is the creative director and principal dancer behind the project. The 33-year-old impresario learned from the best, having danced in Flately’s Lord of the Dance for over 15 years.
Sweeney has assembled an impressive cast and crew for the show, including Louise Hayden and James Keegan, who help with choreography, and principle dancer Nikita Cassidy, who is currently starring in the West End production of Flatley’s Dangerous Games.
The idea for Titanicdance derived from a meeting with two North West businessmen, who had the idea of creating an Irish dance show that could succeed in China, where there is a growing interest Irish dance competition. The story of the doomed White Star liner seemed like the perfect premise for a new Irish dance vehicle.
'I knew that we had something good,' Sweeney recalls. 'I was surprised it hadn’t been done before. People already know the story of Titanic and they are intrigued. Titanicdance is a love story. It is something similar to the movie but it has our own twist. We wanted to involve everyone that was on the Titanic, whether it be first class, second class, third class passengers, the ship mates, the boiler room gang.'
After writing the show, Sweeney employed a cast and debuted Titanicdance in Letterkenny, close to his home. The reception that the fledgling show received there reinforced Sweeney's belief in its potential, and it was subsequently officially launched in May 2014 at Belfast’s Odyssey Arena, followed by a sold-out night in the Millennium Forum.
'With an Irish dance show your toughest audience is going to be in Ireland, and we haven’t failed yet to get a standing ovation. It is my dream to take this on the road and to get it to the same audience as the bigger shows, Riverdance and Lord of the Dance.'
The 90-minute show is physically demanding for the dancers, Sweeney reveals, especially the male members of the cast who engage in longer routines compared to other, similarly ambitious dance productions. Aside from choreography and traditional Irish music, the production also involves the use of props and multimedia – a screen downstage provides information on the White Star liner story throughout.
Sweeney began dancing at the age of nine and was 13 when he watched the famed Riverdance segment in the Eurovision Song Contest from his family farm near the village of Drumkeen in Donegal. It was a watershed moment for Irish dancing and, arguably, Irish culture as a whole. In a little more than six minutes, Irish dancing was transformed and propelled on to stages around the world.
'It put Irish dancing on the map,' Sweeney remembers. 'You wanted to be up there. Anyone who saw the Eurovision that year was buzzing. Whether you were dancing or not, you were proud to be Irish that night.'
Within a few years, Sweeney would be part of the production himself. He left school and was working in construction when he successfully auditioned for the show, moving from a building site to performing at Hyde Park in the space of a few weeks. He spent more than 15 years as part of the Lord of the Dance crew, having joined aged 16.
Sweeney believes that it is the energy, the drama and the sense of ancient cultural tradition that gives Irish dancing such a wide appeal. 'Everybody being so synchronised, and the energy it gives... The taps grab people, everyone doing it at the same time, and with the live Irish music, it adds a great deal to the show. That is key.'
Having worked on Lord of the Dance, Sweeney is clear what the cornerstones of Flatley's success have been: hard work and dedication. 'Michael is a bit of perfectionist,' he states. 'He liked everything done right. Any wee beat or tap out of time he would be on your case. That pays off after time.'
Sweeney himself is not afraid of hard work – after all, he combines his career as a dancer and choreographer with working on the family sheep farm. His focus now is on working to take Titanicdance to a much wider audience, however, and there has already been interest from promoters to take it overseas.
'The one feedback we have always got, compared toLord of the DanceandRiverdance, is that they [the audience] could really follow our storyline. People really got what we were getting across. So it has a ready-made market.' Before the rest of the world swallows it up, though, it returns to the scene of its greatest triumph. Dance fans in Derry and the surrounding areas are in for a treat.
Titanicdance runs at the Millennium Forum, Derry~Londonderry from February 5 - 7.