Shelley Marsden speaks to Kieran Cavanagh, producer of Rhythm of the Dance, now on a rare UK tour
THERE are around ten Irish dance shows touring the world at any one time, and one of them – arguably the most successful bar Riverdance/Lord of the Dance, is Rhythm of the Dance, the National Dance Company of Ireland’s dynamic step dance show, featuring The Young Irish Tenors, a live band and a pretty dynamic light show.
Unlike other touring shows that at first glance may seem to be doing the same thing, the main difference here is how the production celebrates Irish dance, from the disciplined tradition of the Celtic Step, to the sensual moves of the Sean Nos dance, rooted solely in the ancient island of Innishbofin, near Galway.
Now in its fifteenth year, Rhythm of the Dance has been seen by over 4.8 million people in 59 countries to date, including the United States, China and Russia. It has rarely visited the UK but a tour of the British Isles has just begun and will continue till the end of September.
The cast of 19 dancers, 5 musicians, and 3 singers are a travelling carnival of working class Irish talents, most of whom have been performing since they were four or five years old, led by Marty McKay (a former dancer for Lord of the Dance).
The Young Irish Tenors are accompanied on their powerful and moving songs of celebration and hope by the five musicians on stage, who play on rare and haunting musical instruments such as the Celtic Bouzouki, the Cittern, the Octave mandolin, the melodeon (Irish accordion), Tea whistle and Pennywhistle flutes, century-old harps, banjos, fiddles, guitars and various hand drums.
Show producer Kieran Cavanagh of KCP Entertainments has been at the helm of Rhythm of The Dance since its inception, and the tour has since been seen by over five million people across fifty one countries.
Previously an internationally respected US country music promoter, he was the recipient of the prestige CMA award for International Promoter of the Year 1995 in Nashville, promoting tours for major artists including Johnny Cash, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, James Brown, Van Morrison, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Chuck Berry and more.
The Dublin-based promoter believes the longevity of Rhythm of the Dance is down to the model they created when they started out in 1999. “We created a show that could tour in mid-sized theatres, in a one-night scenario, unlike other shows at the time which had to sit for a week. In doing so, we consolidated the show in a circuit worldwide, in that marketplace.
“Apart from being a good fit, we also kept the show fresh on an ongoing basis. Each year, we would change at least 25% of the show’s content, keeping it fresh for repeat markets; we repeatedly tour Scandinavia, Germany and Holland, for instance, annually.”
In addition, it’s the power of the art form itself. “Irish dancing, in full flight, up-tempo frantic piece of choreography, is one of the most exciting dance formats in the world. I don’t want to sound boastful, but we ‘connect’ in most places we go. In Germany, they go nuts. We would have at least a five-minute standing ovation, where they’re pounding their feet and clapping – even after two, three encores.
“In China, because of the way they are, they’re very timid in their applause. I remember our first tour there I was at the side of the stage at the end of the piece, and the audience were clapping but so gingerly, so cautiously. I said to the local promoter, are we not going down too well? And he said oh no, they’re very excited!”
The current touring show is “traditional and purist in format”, with elements of sean nos dancing, the oldest art form of Irish dance known on record, which is featured in four different pieces of the show, as well as the driving music of the Three Irish Tenors, a popular part of the show for the last seven years now, and a dynamic live band.
It’s a competitive market, but Kieran likes to think they’re unique: “Our biggest competitors, Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, certainly don’t include sean nos dancing. But you’re right; we’re in a fierce market. There’s still a great appetite globally for Irish dancing, but only the strong survive. We have to reach out to the other producers to see when they’re touring certain markets and make sure there are no collisions.”
It’s a friendly market then, with room for everyone? Kieran believes he has a good relationship with Riverdance (their offices are close to each other), and they will all make sure their touring schedules don’t collide with each other.
“Nobody wants to collide with another Irish dance or music show, any show in the same market at the same time – it’s not healthy and it’s not good business. There’s considerable traffic out there, but when you’re plotting and planning tours fifteen months ahead, you’ve a good idea of what’s out there.”
The production has evolved dramatically over the years. One of the additions to the show which didn’t exist at the beginning is back projections, showing scenery from Ireland, historic sites and emigration pictures which are particularly popular when they hit America, with its proud, nostalgic Irish Diaspora.
The style of Irish dance has also changed as audience’s tastes become more modern: “The Irish dance that’s in the show now is quite edgy and contemporary”, says Kieran. “In a 94-minute show we have 72 minutes of dance, so it’s a big ask of our dancers! It needs a big physical approach to be able to do that, especially if we have a matinee performance that day. But the dancers are fit and young – they can do it!”
The touring team is made up of twenty dancers, three tenors, five musicians and five crew members, something Kieran says can be a bit of a nightmare when things don’t go as planned. The major concern is if and when a dancer might injure themselves.
“We have to budget for that”, he explains. “If a dancer goes down, gets a shin spin or something, you have to have a spare dancer ready to jump in that knows that part. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen too often – the show always goes on.
“Logistics are tough – moving around sets, scenery, 200 pieces of costumes from country to country with only a two, three-day window to get everything there. That’s only gone badly wrong once in 15 years, which is not a bad record – the dancer’s costumes ended up in San Diego but the show was in Salinas, California. We put on the show, but it was nothing like as spectacular as what we’d normally have done.”
On the flipside, all the dancers on the tour, he says, are in each other’s company on the road for so long that they function like one big, alternative family: “Sometimes you’ll have a dancer departing after a couple of years’ touring and they’re in floods of tears because they do feel like they’re leaving a sort of family. That’s how they survive on the road.”
Kieran will go to most of the countries Rhythm of the Dance plays at, for the first few days of the tour, working with local/national promoters and helping settle it into its new home. The most memorable location, he recalls, was in Shezhen City in China, at the changeover of the millennium on New Year’s Eve.
“We participated in a global television show. Of course we were in China, so it went out to not even millions, but a quarter of a billion people. We had an eight-minute slot on the programme, which was showcasing dance formats from across the world.
“Sitting there, in what was a gigantic globe of the earth which opened out into an actual enormous stage as they can only do in China, was a ‘wow’ moment. I just thought my god, if the people at home could see this…”
Kieran had his fair share of wow moments working with country artists too. He has worked with some of the greats, but the two artists that stand out for him are Johnny C ash and Kris Kristoffersen, who he says were both amazing guys to be around, in terms of their presence and humility.
“They were simply nice men”, he says. “You would get lesser artists that would be a lot more difficult for no good reason, and you’d wonder why, when these country artists would do anything for you, wouldn’t be looking for the five-star treatment; they just wanted to do their shows.”
There’s a strong crossover between a lot of the Irish music you’ll hear in Rhythm of the Dance and American country, especially the areas first inhabited by the Irish, like Tennessee and Kentucky. For Kieran, the fusion between Irish and Cajun music, out of which evolved bluegrass, is hugely exciting.
“Do you remember that great TV series Bringing It All Back Home?” he says. “It offered a fascinating window into how all of that evolved. If you have a fusion of Irish trad players with American Cajun or bluegrass musicians, it’s like watching great Irish dancing – the result is one of the most thrilling things you’re ever likely to hear.”
Rhythm of the Dance is on UK tour. See www.rhythmofthedance.com for dates and to book.