Joel Hanna and Fire of Dance at the Celtic Cafe

Linda Brongers attended a performance of Fire of Dance in Apeldoorn at the Schouwburg Orpheus on Sunday,
7 April, 2002, and reviewed it for us.

At the kind invitation of the producers of Fire of Dance, I headed for Apeldoorn in the Netherlands to watch the matinee performance of Fire of Dance. Knowing it would be very different from any of the all-Irish dance shows I had seen so far, it was quite exciting to see how one could fit such different styles into one show. How can you meld together the "best of" Riverdance, Tap Dogs, Abba, Lord of the Dance, Stomp, Fame and Grease? And how do you train a limited cast of dancers to be versatile enough that they can do all these numbers? A big premium attached to this show was going to be an interview with Joel Hanna, the male lead for the Irish dance pieces, who stars in other numbers as well.

The Overture of the show was a medley of the best-known musical pieces from all the dance shows that are represented in Fire of Dance. It was a bit strange, as we could not identify a live band; but even though the music was of studio quality, it simply didn't sound like pre-taped music. But there wasn't much time to think about this, as the first dance number started soon and there was too much to see to think about whether or not the music was live. It wasn't until the finale of the show, when the spotlights focussed on a spot just in front of the stage and the dancers all applauded towards that direction, that we realized there was a live orchestra situated just before the stage, in a pit so deep that the audience couldn't even see the musicians' heads!

Tap Dogs opened with "Tap Feet", as the spotlights flashed on and two feet were seen tapping in the center of the stage on a platform in front of a white sheet. These feet did a terrific show on their own. Then more feet started to appear just under the sheet, no bodies: eight feet in total, but you could not tell which foot belonged to whom. Sometimes we thought there was a pair, but then the pair would tap so far apart that it had to be from different dancers. Even some very high heels appeared and start "flirting" with the others. A great opening! The opening number was performed by Stephan Grühn, Guillem Alonso, Roser Font, and Matt Hills. Stephen, Guillem and Roser did solos too, which were impressive for their speed and technique. It is amazing what they can do with their legs and feet!

The next number was "Flirt" with Stephan, Guillem, Sarah Longworth and Kelly Sneade, and ended with a great mix of highlights from Tap Dogs, with flashing solos, and dancers who danced, slid, ran and jumped on stage and fired away with their metal-tipped shoes. Their tapping was surprising -- good, fast, energetic, and full of spirit.

Fame was next, with the numbers "Hard Work", "Body Electric" and "Fame". Who doesn't remember the trials and tribulations of a group of students from the New York High School for the Performing Arts, their relentless striving for fame, all with very different characters, all sharing the same goal, namely a place in the limelight of show business? This is drama, music and dance, with varied songs, and we loved the rock finale and theme tune "Fame." The singer Espen Elliot, who is a famous pop star in Norway, has a great voice and really knows how to draw the audience into what's happening on stage.

Fame was followed by Riverdance, with lead dancers Joel Hanna and Sarah Longworth Curran. The band did a very good intro which you could hardly distinguish from the original, even though there was an obvious lack of traditional Irish instruments.

I was waiting for Joel's first solo with great excitement, never having had the chance to see him dance before. It's funny how you know exactly when the lead is supposed to burst onto the stage, and that moment is so exciting. After the intro dance, when the other dancers had left the stage, suddenly there was a big shout and Joel jumped out onto the stage.

He has a very original style, with a very loose upper body and lots of arm movement. Rather than a strong dancer he is a very supple dancer, with a very fast technique. Sometimes he uses rigid arm movements and it almost seems like his body is then following his arms. At other times his style may seem a little aggressive. His facial expressions are great! He introduces a lot of outside influences in his dancing, even a hint of martial arts. Well, Michael Flatley displays some typical boxing moves, doesn't he?

After Joel's solo, the troupe re-appeared for "Reel Around the Sun", my favorite (besides "Firedance"). I just love it when the lead dancer leads them diagonally across the stage! After an elegant soft-shoe solo by Sarah, Joel danced another solo between two big drums: very sharp and fast, and with some very high kicks, and a double heel click mid-air. What also caught the eye is how he started off his riffle with a loud stamp with one of his feet, almost like a fuse, then fired away. After this all the dancers were on stage together and gave us a great time.

They did a great job, and when you take into account that most of them are not trained Irish dancers but had to learn it within a limited period of time for this show, it is amazing how they can keep up with the speed and remember the patterns. Lots of yells came from the stage! From the looks of it they have simplified the steps, and the timing wasn't exactly perfect, but we still got a genuine "Riverdance" feeling, with more than satisfying dance.

Then Grease, in this never-ending line of top hits. In Grease, the revival of the '50s, we got "Summer Nights", "Greased Lightnin'", "Sandy" and "Sandra Dee Reprise", and "You're the One That I Want". Espen Elliot did all the songs, with Máté Hamarás and Chloë Hughes. It was just as many of us may remember, with the pretty girls in petticoats and guys wearing black with sunglasses. In "Greased Lightin'" they actually brought a car on stage, which was transformed from wreck to pink beauty. The song and dance was cheerful and exciting.

Then there was the break, and the possibility to get some merchandise, which was either the program book or a CD. The CD unfortunately wasn't quite up to date and didn't reflect the show as it was, as apparently numbers are added and taken out every now and then.

Part II started with Stomp. First on stage was Guillem Alonso and he showed his amazing abilities on a raised platform loaded with sand, inventing a new word…sandtapping!!!! Tapping away in the sand, you can imagine what that sounded like, with the sandy shuffles and steps. Then we got a number with broomsticks - first used to get rid of the sand - and these sticks can really make as much noise as tapping feet! This was performed by Guillem, Alonso, Roser, Joel, Matt Hills, Melissa Conner, Helen Kent, Sarah Longworth, and Kelly Sneade.

After this part, they disappeared off the stage and Joel was left to pick up the broomsticks. He seemed covered in them and showed how you can make a show out of cleaning up! Then Guillem, Roser, Stephan (and ensemble) showed us how to do tap dance with the lids of trashcans tied to your feet. It was hilarious! Guillem did a super solo, and then Guillem, Roser and Stephan ended with an improvisation on the front part of the stage before closed curtains. Tapping at its best!

Totally different is what followed, a parody of Abba. They call this part Mamma Mia, and we heard "Honey, Honey", "The Winner Takes It All", "Mamma Mia", a reprise of "Honey Honey", and a medley. Abba consisted of Chloë Hughes, Espen Elliot, Sarah Longworth, Máté Hamarás, but as far as I could see all the faces we had seen before joined in this part. They sang the songs just right, and apart from the songs they created a funny story around Abba. It wasn't always clear what they meant to show, as all of a sudden there was a guy dressed as a bookkeeper suddenly running around the stage and we didn't have a clue what he was doing there! Overall it was very funny, but you do have to like Abba to appreciate this part.

The program then arrived at Lord of the Dance, beginning with "Who'll Come With Me" - which of course has nothing to do with Lord of the Dance, although it was listed in the program book as part of Lord of the Dance. The song was a sort of intermediate number, after which the Little Spirit finally appeared on stage and played her enchanted flute. The dancers were lying around her, but she didn't have the golden sparkles in her pocket and so couldn't scatter them. The flute playing just wasn't what it should be, and the waking up of the dancers could have been done with a little more sensitivity. But it was good enough, and the girls danced with loads of enthusiasm. The Little Spirit, danced by Roser, joined the dancers for almost all of the opening sequence, which was great; I loved seeing the Spirit do lots of Irish dance in her playful style. Roser did a great job!

Joel's "Cry of the Celts" solo made up for any flaws in the opening. This version of "Cry of the Celts" is quite different from the original, as there were more female dancers in it, but still it was impressive. The steps were synchronized better than the Riverdance numbers. During a medley of "Lord of the Dance", "Warriors", and "Duel" there were - surprisingly - two "bad guys", Stephan and Guillem. They took turns, but Stephan was the main bad guy, doing kicks so high he reached way over Joel's head!

Joel danced bare-chested, displaying a huge tattoo on his back of a Chinese dragon with a Celtic dog in the middle. This was completed by a tattoo on his left arm, with Chinese characters meaning speed, strength, and luck. The tattoos reflect his background, as he has an Irish father and an Asian mother.

"Victory" was great, with the dancers in line, all stepping at the same time, always impressive. Every now and then the synchronization was lost, and here also the steps have been simplified from the original, but overall it gave an exciting impression of Lord of the Dance, exactly what it meant to achieve.

After the show, the tour manager, Germar Sandau, met us where the bus was parked along with the technicians' huge camper, to take us to the dressing rooms to meet Joel. This really was a big treat - meeting Joel Hanna in person in the dressing room, talking to him for half an hour, with Stephan and Guillem also present in the same relatively small room.

Joel talked about the show, his life, his plans, and his dreams. He had another surprise for us - he invited us to see the evening show from backstage, and enjoy the hectic sight of costume and set changes, and dancers positioning and getting ready. "You can wander round and see what it's like -- see how crazy it gets back there!"

To be backstage for the entire show was such a thrill! Looking through the curtains is so much different from being in the audience. From backstage, the dancers on stage seem to be so noisy, which you just don't hear sitting on the other side. There you have Riverdance on stage but are almost run over by a bike which they need for Grease. The riddle of the Tap Dogs' feet is solved before your eyes. People are stretching and tying their shoes just before running on stage, where suddenly they seem soooooooo relaxed! Sometimes they have to run off stage, change costume and hop back on one leg, and only just make it before the audience can see them.

It was exciting to be there and somehow become part of it all, to get a sense of what they feel and see what's going on on stage from such a totally different angle. It was an unforgettable evening. Thanks Joel, and thanks to all the performers and management of Fire of Dance!!!!

Back to Interview, Part I

To Interview, Part II

Review: Linda Brongers
Photos: Arnold Bergsma
Editing: Louise Owen
Original Web Design: Alexander Servas


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