By Thomas Shamma
---- — Chances are you’ve seen and heard the thunderous roar of “Riverdance.” The international show has been touring for two decades and has become a performance institution around the globe. But now, a new Irish dance extravaganza is stepping into town and taking viewers on a global journey - no passport required.
“Heartbeat of Home,” which was put together by the same creative team as “Riverdance,” celebrates the relationship between Irish dance culture and dance traditions from around the world.
“Dance is an international language,” said Moya Doherty, producer of both “Riverdance” and “Heartbeat of Home.” “[These shows tell] a story through dance, and that can be understood by anyone in the world.”
Whereas “Riverdance” focused heavily on Irish culture, “Heartbeat from Home” reflects the connected world of the 21st century.
“I suppose globalization is here now,” Doherty said. “Twenty years ago Ireland was a monoculture, now it’s a multiculture.”
“Heartbeat of Home” embraces that multiculturalism and Ireland’s place in the global community. Irish dance is still a central part of the new show, but all the dancers in the troupe have backgrounds in multiple disciplines -- ballet, tap, jazz and so on -- and major parts of the show are built out of the traditions of Latin, Afro-Cuban and flamenco dancing.
“It celebrates those, as opposed to highlighting the differences, which I think is wonderful. It’s a really joyous, uplifting piece,” Doherty said.
Before “Riverdance,” Irish dance was largely governed and codified by a cultural heritage institution, “An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha,” which managed Irish dance as an art form. However, when “Riverdance” burst onto the scene it revolutionized Irish dance, according to Doherty.
“With ‘Riverdance’ it moved from a cultural, competitive art form to a professional art form, so that has impacted the art itself and the cultural expression over the last two decades,” she said.
Most of the dancers in “Heartbeat of Home” were toddlers who were just starting dance class when “Riverdance” came out. They learned Irish dance as part of a broader dance culture and that training has helped the show blast past previous limitations, Doherty said.
“They live in an environment where the art has been pushed and explored - they’re athletes now. [Irish dancers] weren’t [athletes] 20 years ago because they weren’t dancing professionally so they didn’t have to be.”
Doherty found this new generation of dancers in a very modern way: an online video audition.
“We got them to do it somewhere that reflected the heartbeat of their home,” Doherty said, noting that the show chose 10 dancers from around the world based on their online auditions. “Many of them have no connection to Ireland, which is unusual, but they’re steeped in [Irish dance] as an art form and as a culture form.”
Doherty was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the online applicants. The show had about 300 online auditions and many of the applicants drummed up their own support on social media.
“We were not sure what the standard would be, and we were quite staggered,” she said.
Twenty applicants - 10 chosen by professionals and 10 picked by online voters - were flown to Ireland to audition live based on the strength of their videos. Other candidates were invited to the live auditions, provided they got themselves to Ireland with their own funds.
Of the 20 that got a free trip, eight were selected for the dance troupe.
One dancer whose trip to Ireland wasn’t paid for was Natasia Petracic. She bought her own ticket to Ireland after her sister made the top 20. Petracic has studied dance since she was three years old, and toured nationally with Australian children’s entertainment phenomenon “The Wiggles” when she was seven.
“I didn’t think they expected me to go,” Petracic said. “Seeing as I was from Australia, it’s a long way and a lot of money, but it’s a big opportunity and I wasn’t going to pass it up.”
Turns out, the land down under made a strong showing for the auditions. Five Aussies are in the cast now, including Petracic and her sister. “For an international show it’s unheard of to even have one,” she said.
The variety of experience and training the Petracic sisters have had -- an asset shared by all the Irish dancers in the troupe -- has been central to the message of the show.
Petracic said, “‘Heartbeat of Home’ is more about the evolution of dance, and how Irish dance has made its way throughout the years and how it has influenced other forms of dance and how the other forms of dance have influenced Irish dancing. The evolution of dance, really, is what I think the show really entails and produces to the audience.”
In addition to the dancers, “Heartbeat of Home” features a live band. The music is composed to tell the story of a global dance culture, and it moves beyond the sound of traditional Irish music.
“This concept in the story comes first, the music comes second, then you work very closely with the choreographers and reshaping it to make sure that it’s the right rhythm for the dancers,” Doherty said. “Our composer was writing the music in Los Angeles and sending it to us and the choreographers were listening to it, and saying ‘We need a few more bars here, we need it to be faster, we need a female dancer here.’”
The composer would then adjust the melody to fit the dance.
While “Heartbeat of Home” is a more challenging performance than “Riverdance” was, the dancers rose to the task, Doherty said.
“They were really all up for it because they were highly trained, and really the best dancers in the world, fantastic young men and women. I suppose like anything else if we’re asked to do something new, we get a little frightened. They move at a real speed on stage. It’s very exciting, but it’s really quite dangerous -- they have to know exactly where they’re going or they’ll crash into each other and kill each other.”
“It was really fantastic,” she said. “But it was really hard work from everybody, and we got great commitment from dancers from other disciplines, as well as the Irish dancers.”
The show was directed by John McColgan, with the help of two choreographers, David Bulger and John Carey.
“They managed the relationships between the Afro-Cuban, the Irish, the flamenco, the Latin -- these people were exploring each others’ rhythms and dance forms, and sharing with each other,” Doherty said.
The show was in rehearsal for 10 weeks, which allowed the dancers to perfect every move.
“Dance and music at this level has to be very precise, and precision takes a long time,” Doherty said.
However, the hard work was worth it when the show opened.
“We’ve had a fantastic reaction to the show,” said Doherty. “We opened it in Dublin, then we took it to Shanghai and Beijing, [and had a ] fantastic reaction there, and finished six weeks in Toronto [where we] had standing ovations every night. We’re very much looking forward to going to Boston.”
If You Go
What: “Heartbeat of Home.”
Where: Citi Performing Arts Center, Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont St., Boston
When: Performances daily from March 26 to April 6, various times.
How: Tickets are $35 to $109 by calling the Wang Theatre at 800-982-2787, visiting www.citicenter.org or purchasing in person at 270 Tremont St., Boston.