'Football faithful and disbelievers alike have found themselves drawn to this iconic figure'
In a week that has been something of a footy fest – Manchester United beating AC Milan and Arsenal losing to Porto in the Champions League, plus Liverpool victorious in the Europa League – the outstanding player has been... George Best.
It is a mark of the enduring Best legend that, over four years after his death and an incredible 42 years after scoring for United against Benfica to win the European Cup, being crowned European Player of the Year and the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year, he still has the pulling power to draw in the crowds.
Maiden Voyage, the Belfast-based dance company, whose raison d’etre is to make contemporary dance available, accessible and understandable to a wide mainstream audience, could scarcely have hit upon a more suitable central character for its latest new work.
Football faithful and disbelievers alike have found themselves drawn to this iconic figure whose dazzling skills and personal charisma crossed previously unassailable boundaries between art and sport and whose macho footballing genius was delivered with the grace and beauty of a trained dancer.
The company’s artistic director, Nicola Curry had the very man in mind when it came to translating the Best life story into the language of dance, using a style inspired by the player’s trademark graceful body language. Their shared ultimate aim was to excite and entertain both the most hardened sports fan and dedicated arts afficianado.
Arguably only a football fanatic like Andy Howitt, an old colleague of Curry from their Ulster Youth Dance days, has the credentials to tick all the boxes. A muscular, no-holds-barred performer in his time as choreographer, he very much stamps his own high energy style upon proceedings and the six dancers respond with laudable commitment.
They file out and line up on a grass-green lit stage, with Stevie Prickett’s mature Best at the helm, leading the team in their warm-up exercises. There is discipline and symmetry in their movements, a reminder that while he was under the tutelage of Matt Busby at United, even the wayward Best was obliged to toe the line.
But off the pitch, he was very much his own man, adored by a whole host of women – mother, sisters, fans, lovers – who are portrayed, with varying degrees of conviction, by the four female dancers.
While bearing scant physical resemblance to Best, Ryan O’Neill brings a loveable boyish charm and lithe expressionism to his representation of the beautiful George, whose sculpted features, shaggy hair and penchant for expensively flamboyant clothes prompted the media to nickname him the fifth Beatle.
Music plays a major part in the piece, providing a powerful conduit to significant images and references and compensating for the sometimes abstract message of the dance narrative. The five time periods – from 1948 to 1988 – divide into equal segments, whose respective signatures derive from popular contemporary music. Composer David Goodall has done a terrific job in blending the original tracks with his own variations and instrumentations.
The story kicks off with the soundtrack of Best’s childhood, captured in the soothing tones of Doris Day’s 'Magic', before moving into the electronic chirpiness of his teenage years with 'Tequila' by The Champs. As the young man leaves home and his life trajectory soars into the unimaginable, the repeated refrain of the Small Faces’ 'Itchycoo Park' seems to sum it up – 'it’s all too beautiful'.
The Undertones’ 'Teenage Kicks' and Dylan’s heart-wrenching 'Stop Cryin’' powerfully complement the dancers’ portrayal of the years when the wheels started to fall off the wagon. And it is down to another George, George Michael, to lend his jaded man-of-the-world vocals on 'One More Try' to the final triumph of Best’s sporting life – his testimonial at Windsor Park, when he scored the winning penalty.
Over the chanting of the crowd, we hear BBC Northern Ireland’s commentator Jackie Fullerton’s emotional judgement – 'Best, one of the greatest players the world has ever seen.'
That’s the legacy Howitt was keen to portray. And, for all the other sneaking memories that just refuse to go away, it’s the one that Best leaves behind.
Check out Culture Live! events listings for more information as Best goes on tour to Armagh, Derry, Lisburn, Omagh and Downpatrick.