Dancing at a Crossroads
Joseph O'Connor writes exclusively for 'Weekend' magazine about being involved in the new show 'Heartbeat of Home'
'Heartbeat of Home' is a show that blends the thunder and drama of Irish dance with the sultriness and attitude of Latin American salsa and the glorious rhythms of Africa. It sees Ireland as an increasingly multicultural and outward-looking community, ready to engage with the world – and itself – in new ways.
Three years in the making, it's been assembled by a mainly Irish team. During that time, our country faced serious challenges and difficulties, and began to envision different futures.
'Heartbeat of Home' – subtitled 'A Dream Voyage' – is a journey into the imagination, where all countries start. It's why we have cultures. They express what we are, where we came from, where we're going. They're a way of opening out a conversation.
Ireland is at a moment of reinvention where new decisions have to be made. You might say we're dancing at the crossroads.
In the spring of 2011, I happened to meet John McColgan. We got chatting about music, a passion of John's, and we said we'd hook up for a coffee. When we did, we got on well and swapped a couple of CDs: salsa, African drummers, bolero, Cuban rap. O'Riada, Manu Chao, Morricone.
He told me about an idea he'd been working on, for a new kind of Irish dance show. Ireland meets Africa and the Caribbean-Hispanic world. Not a man who does enthusiasms by half, he sent me more CDs. "Have a listen," John suggested. "See if anything happens."
Well, something began to happen. I'd be dancing round the kitchen. Doing tangos with the missus. My kids would be staring, with saucer-wide eyes. "Who are you, alien being, and what have you done with my dad?" And soon, they started dancing, too.
Because you can't not want to dance when you hear that music. It goes into your hips. Like a jig or a reel. Whatever incapable bootie the Good Lord decided to give you, you want to start shaking it. Now.
John and I talked again. He told me more about his idea. He'd long felt that these cultures, disparate and unique as they obviously are, had something in common at heart. 'Riverdance' had opened a space where new things were becoming possible all the time. New possibilities, unimaginable before.
Irish dance had been changed utterly, in its attitudes, its inclusion on dance curricula all over the world, in the standards of professionalism now demanded. The dancers now approach their art like championship athletes. They eat, sleep and breathe Irish dance. Even their bodies have changed.
While Irish-born dancers continue to astound, these days many of the world's finest Irish dancers are not Irish by birth. Some have no Irish ancestry at all. They've been brought to Irish dance by the exhilaration of the dance itself. The hinter- land had changed, and in mesmerising ways.
And imagine the band that might be assembled for such a show, John added. World-class musicians, multicultural in outlook and training, with young women featuring strongly, and a riveting new sound. A band that would embody modern Ireland and its hopes. "You'd want to see that show," he said.
I found myself besotted by his idea. I'd be listening to the mind-blowing fiddle-playing of Martin Hayes and imagining flamenco in the background. The bodhran of a master such as Johnny 'Ringo' McDonagh of De Dannan seemed suddenly to be pounding out tangos. The songs of Cuba's Buena Vista Social Club and Paul Simon's 'Graceland' somehow rewrote themselves as stories about Ireland, and of every small homeland that people had to leave.
I'm a novelist. I write in the garret. Well, not literally a garret, but an office at the end of the garden. You take my point. I'm alone in a room. I'd written spoken-word pieces and performed them with musicians, but had never worked with dancers, choreographers or an orchestral composer. I love music with all my soul, but I'd never written songs.
But I found myself hoping that John and producer Moya Doherty would invite me aboard to help shape an evolving narrative for the show. When they did, I hesitated for four seconds so dignity would be preserved. Well, maybe three seconds. Then I lunged.
John found a young Irish composer and a choreographer whose exhalation and passion were second to none. Brilliant musician Brian Byrne, and David Bolger, leading light of CoisCeim Dance, could melt the very Arctic with their talent and drive.
As we started hearing Brian's music, it was clear it was special. The instinct was to root the show in a deep respect for different cultures, but to make it a joyous celebration of the emotions they share, to create something tingling with hope. Maybe to uncover the Mediterranean of Irish music and dance, to look again at our island story.
Through all the 20th century, Ireland emphasised what made it unique and special. Maybe we now had the confidence to rejoice in commonalities, not differences. 'I danced with the world and the world danced with me.' It's a line from one of the songs in 'Heartbeat of Home'. For me, it sums up not just a touchstone of the show, but its attitude towards reaching out across the oceans.
The history books record many examples where the Irish were likened to Latin, Mediterranean or African people. Act One of 'Heartbeat of Home' takes place on the Ocean of Dreams, where star-followers seek fresh horizons of colour and possibility.
For many Irish emigrants, freedom was to be found in the northern American city. But tens of thousands of Irish went to New Orleans or the Carolinas, encountering the culture and rhythms of Africa, just as multitudes of people from the Caribbean islands and Latin America also migrated.
The 'Great American Songbook', that extraordinary piece of collective storytelling, knows immigrants carry memories of the old place into the new, rewriting all the maps of the heart. 'That's Amore'; 'My Wild Irish Rose'; 'The Girl from Ipanema'; 'There is a Rose in Spanish Harlem'. How poignant is the yearning in Laurents and Bernstein's 'West Side Story', that one day there might be 'A Place for Us'.
Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains recorded a version of 'The Cliffs of Moher' that segues into Elvis's 'Heartbreak Hotel'. Morrissey, the Manchester-Irish former frontman of epoch-making band The Smiths, uses Latin brass on his solo albums. The great Flamenco dancer Rafael Amargo featured a powerful section of Irish dance in his most recent show at London's Sadler's Wells.
Music and dance know we're deeply connected. They're the only truly international languages. For that reason, 'Heartbeat of Home' doesn't try to be literal in its storytelling. It takes place in a dreamland of tall ships and starlight. Neon-shining cities and epic, open spaces.
After the dream-voyage of Act One, Act Two is built around a wedding; the whole piece is a love story of what might happen if beautiful cultures met in a vision. Brian Byrne's music weaves jazz, flamenco, tango and boogaloo with the glories and poignancies of the Irish tradition in a composition that blazes new trails.
The Irish dance choreography of John Carey is itself a daring and beautiful act of storytelling, aware that the greatest music is always a marriage. This is absolutely an Irish show, but it's doing something new. It goes away in order to come home.
In that context, a huge part of the process was the series of online auditions John and Moya organised, drawing contenders from all over the world. Russians, Canadians, Australians, Europeans, Koreans, Cubans, Spaniards, South Americans. People born in Ireland, people who love it, and people who'd never been here in their lives.
The standard was breathtaking. An Irish dancer nowadays has to be technically brilliant from the outset, toughened by competition all over the world, and then able to bring something more. It's like knowing how to speak a language with total fluency and then being asked to write poetry in it.
The dancers who debuted 'Riverdance' two decades ago were astounding, and no one can ever outrun that achievement in that particular time, just as no athlete can ever again be the first to break the four-minute mile, a feat people said was impossible. But the story evolves. That's why we have it. Roger Bannister leads to Usain Bolt, The Dubliners to The Pogues, Elvis and Gene Vincent to Imelda May, and on and on in the dizzying and ever-developing dance. The new horizon is always to come.
Yeats wrote, touchingly, of 'the pilgrim soul', the people who 'went about the world like wind'. He might have been thinking of the Celtic 'winged woman', icon of female power and strength, who flies the folklore of Ireland and many other countries – and whose modern embodiment appears on our poster.
The historian RF Foster has noted that by the 1870s, there were three million Irish immigrants living in America – 39pc of all those alive who had been born in Ireland. Truly, it was possible to speak of 'an Ireland abroad'.
'Heartbeat of Home' reverses the mirror. It imagines that the place we used to call 'abroad' is dancing with Ireland, in passion, pride and friendship. The joy, the wildness, the emotion of our music, expressed in the truly borderless eloquence of dance. To animate the hopes and victories of the emigrants who built the world's skyscrapers, as they still do today. To evoke the starlit oceans and the high lonesome places. But to do it from the vantage point of a contemporary Ireland, whose emigrants are of the Skype and Facebook generation and whose best days are yet to come.
Ireland will be a very different country when my children are my age. More Irish teenagers took Chinese in last year's school-leaving exams than Latin, the language once studied by Joyce.
Parts of every Irish city have been regenerated by immigrant families: Poles, Estonians, people born in Africa, Russia, China, Europe or South America, in search of what a songwriter once called 'A Place for Us'. How deeply moving to see their pride at citizenship ceremonies up and down the land. To be part of the inheritance we own together was their greatest hope. We've such richness to learn from one another.
Brian's music, and David and John's choreography, are alive to this fact. Our band is a stunning blend of international experience and youth. And our dancers, drawn from many countries and backgrounds, are the heroes of 'Heartbeat of Home'.
For a writer in the garret to see words given expression in this way has been among the most deeply moving experiences of my professional life. To work with storytellers of this calibre is to be coaxed in speechless admiration to the most overused adjective in modern English.
I'm sorry. They are awesome. They make you drop your jaw. I listen to that thunderstorm they make with their feet, and I get the sort of joy you feel when actors smash china on a stage. It's not the body dancing to an instrument. The body is the instrument. These people drum. With their feet.
I look at these members of the same species as you and I, and they're soaring, lifting, swaying, afloat – now up on their tip-toes like superheroes about to take off, now weaving and melding with air.
Awe. You open your mouth. Find you breathe a bit harder. A strange choke in your emotions. You might weep. What they're doing with their bodies is what every soul burns to do. What all of us long for. What poetry yearns to reach. The truth on the far side of silence.
If only I could express who I am. What I feel. The depths I've been down to. The skies I've sometimes touched. The tempest-blown dreams of the place I was born. Battered, not perfect, but so special and beautiful, like nowhere else on earth. Where my ancestors had to leave. Where my children leave now.
That's what these dancers can do with the body. Tell us stories we somehow recognise – because they're ours. The body, with its fragilities and its needs and its wants, its rhythms and pleasures and pains. It's where all of us live. In this strange ship called the body. And we sometimes long to jump from it, to fly into a dream.
That's what these dancers do. Carve pictures in air. Make music with the ground. It's dancing to music, but it's music itself.
When these young magicians dance, a spell of beauty unfurls. You're a part of the heartbeat. You're home.
'Heartbeat of Home' premieres at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre in Dublin on October 2 for 21 performances only, with previews from September 25, before transferring to China, Canada and a North American tour. Joseph O'Connor's collection of short stories 'Where Have You Been?' is published in paperback next month