JOANNE DOYLE: Life With Dance

by Alex Szabo

More then seven years have passed since the Riverdance phenomenon reached the world audience as the Eurovision Song Contest interval act, but the magic of Irish music and dance is still captivating audiences all over the globe. During these seven years many dancers have had the skills and the privilege to be part of the show, but only a few of them have been there since the beginning like the principal female dancer of the Liffey Company, Joanne Doyle.

Not having been able to perform at the Eurovision, she joined the show eight months later, and since then has danced in more than 1500 shows all over the world. The 2002 U.K. tour marks her return to the venues where she first performed as the lead more than six years ago. Joanne Doyle joined us during her latest visit to Innsbruck, Austria, on 7th December, 2001, to talk about her Life With Riverdance.

You were living in Ljubljana, Slovenia in 1994 when the Eurovision Song Contest was held in Dublin. How did you come to study there?

I did my Masters in European Social Policy Analysis, and you had to study in a different university for each semester. My first semester was in Dublin, but for the third semester you had to choose where you wanted to go. People had very set ideas where they wanted to go - like Spain or Portugal - but when they asked me I said "wherever". I really didn't mind where I went. So when I got Slovenia I thought, "OK, Slovenia, fine." So I flew to Amsterdam and got the train to Slovenia. I lived in a student accommodation, which had apartment blocks full of male Croat and Bosnian refugees on either side!

Did you dance during that time?

Yes I did. I had my dancing shoes with me. I danced in my small room, just doing basic training and keeping myself fit.

Do you remember the night of the Eurovision in 1994?

I was in Bled at the time the Eurovision was on, but I knew that there was an interval act. I had left Ireland on the 17th of April and the Eurovision was aired on the 30th, so I didn't audition for it because I knew I wouldn't be there; but I had seen my dancing class rehearsing for it so I had thought, "Oh my, that's amazing!!" So in this little bar on the lake, I begged the landlady, "Please, please, please, keep the bar open, please, it's going to be amazing!" She gave me a look as if to say "What are you talking about?" but she stayed open, and when we saw the interval act everyone pulled back and went "Whoah!!!" Then the landlady asked, "Do you do that?" and I said "Yes", and she asked me to dance! So I danced in the bar for her. That night all I thought was "I want to go home!!" My mother posted me everything about Riverdance from the newspapers and from that moment I didn't concentrate on my lectures at all - my aim was just to finish it quickly and go home!

When and how did you join Riverdance?

When I came home I left again to go on a dancing trip to France with my old dance school, the O'Se school. Every year we went to one of the Celtic Festivals in France; so we went there as usual, and when we came back, all the dancers being very good friends, we used to phone each other and meet in Dublin in the evening. Michael Flatley would come with us, as he lived in Dublin at that time. He had seen me dancing with Breandán de Gallaí in my old company, Dualta Dance Company, when he came as a guest to the show. So when they needed extra dancers, my name was on the list and I was sent the contract.

So no auditions were necessary?

Thank heavens, no!! Auditions were so difficult; the dancers had to talk in front of the camera, they had to look like models, it was just unbelievable. I don't know - I don't think I could stand in a long line like in Fame, and when told, "You, do that", I don't think I would be able to do it at all. I was just very lucky to be in the right place at the right time when they needed more dancers. I finished university and my father said, "OK, you can go and do this for a year and then go back." Well - seven years later he is saying - "OK, no problem!!"

How was the first night?

I was very nervous. The whole company was very, very nervous. We walked out at the beginning (for Reel Around the Sun) in pairs, and I was walking beside Sabrina Carty, who was 15 at that time and is still with the company. We were standing with our backs to the audience for the opening number, and everyone was shaking and thinking, "Oh my God!!" - but the energy was electric and everything went perfectly. The audience went mental, crazy!! We were so relieved after the show and everyone said, "Can we do that again?!?!"

It didn't take long before you were promoted to dance as a principal dancer. How exactly did that happen?

A year after the opening night I was made understudy in London. Actually, John McColgan had asked me to learn the understudy role in November '95 but I couldn't tell anybody because I was very nervous. I trained and trained every day for about three hours and did my first show on the 29th January 1996, with my second show on the 3rd of February. On the 10th I tore a cartilage in my knee. We thought it would be better and I would be able to dance by the time the show went to New York in March, but it wasn't, so I couldn't dance in New York - I was completely heartbroken.

So we came back and went to Belfast. After the last show in Belfast, I was talking to John McColgan and I happened to slip on the floor and he said: "Be careful, be careful, we don't want any principal dancers getting hurt!" I said, "Pardon me??" He looked at me and replied, " You heard me..." So he only saw me dancing on stage before deciding to give me the lead. Again, if I had had to keep auditioning, auditioning, well... I think I am like Audrey Hepburn; I would probably do it fine once and then if they told me to to do it again I would say "NO!"

Liffey Company is returning to Belfast at the start of the six-month U.K. tour. This must be a special occasion for you.

Yes! And also because my boyfriend's (Noel Eccles) parents are still living in Belfast and my parents will come over, it will be fantastic to be back. The Irish audience is always a little bit different because they think Riverdance is theirs, their show.

You were also on a promotional tour for the U.K. comeback tour recently...

We did promotional work last week in Birmingham, Nottingham and Cardiff. We had three days off in Vienna, so we left on Sunday and arrived in Birmingham at half past eight. On Monday morning we had interviews from 11 am to 4 pm and then got on a plane to Newcastle. Next day the same thing over again, and we got the flight back to Birmingham to get a car to Nottingham. And on Wednesday, after the interviews, we went by train to Cardiff. After doing interviews in Cardiff we traveled to Heathrow and flew back to Vienna. I was back on stage on Friday. Breandán and I also did a promotional photo shoot for the tour. The photos were taken in Belfast, on rocks beside a lake on a beautiful autumn evening. The photos taken are very, very nice, but they are not dancing photos; more like fashion photos in top designer clothes.

Traveling is always an interesting aspect for the touring companies. How tough is it really?

I think the older you get, the more tired you get from traveling. When you start touring it is exciting being in a new city, living in hotels; you are away from your parents and so on, that's all very, very exciting. But after five or six years you start thinking "Oh my, if I see another hotel I will kill somebody!!" You know, the little luxuries like you don't have a washing machine, you don't have a kettle or a toaster, the television is always in German (because the company is very often in Germany). Now we can all speak German and that's fine, but you still don't want to watch too much television...

Riverdance is staying for a week or two in the same city - would you say that this kind of schedule is easier compared to other shows, traveling on an almost day-by-day basis?

Oh yes - it is definitely much easier. You do get mentally tired traveling each day. And you get to a point where you don't even know where you are and what time of day it is. I much prefer this sort of tour, as you can also get to see the city. When we get to Zürich next week, we have three days off and I'll be able to visit the Gallery. Last week after we finished in Vienna, I was able to go to the Opera. One thing that makes this kind of touring so special for us is that you can see so much; you can see the city during the day doing city tours, you can go shopping and get the overall feeling for the city and store it in your memory.

Is there any difference between the opening night and the follow-up nights in a city in terms of being more nervous, more concentrated?

The first night you are always a little bit more nervous, because the stage is not necessarily always exactly the same size in each venue. We've got different sizes for the stage, so it can change from 35 meters to 33 meters or even 31 meters. And you have to adjust even if it is only two meters. So for example, on the entrance for Heartland, if the stage is 35 meters Breandán and I have to go earlier; if it is 31 meters we have to start further back because otherwise we would *bump* into each other.

Also here [Innsbruck] the audience sits directly in front of you, but in a lot of the venues they are on both sides [of the auditorium] and some are on the floor. That's why it's important that I look and see where my audience is, because if you only dance looking straight ahead, the people on the sides would get nothing from the show. So it's only when they are seated in front of you, like here, you can direct your whole performance to the front.

One other thing is that you have to go in, concentrate, check your marks and check where you finish - because a lot of the stage lights are programmed and they automatically go on - if you are not under the light when you're supposed to be, it wouldn't look good!

Do you have any other responsibilities as a principal dancer besides dancing as the lead in the company?

We (Breandán and myself) would have a little bit of artistic input in terms of being responsible for the understudies dancing in a similar style to us, but not necessarily the exact same. You can't copy the moves exactly; it won't work with different dancers, so you need to get to know their dancing style very well, and then find the best aspects and pull them together. But I love them, as I love teaching. We work closely with the dance captain Julie [Regan] and sometimes I would be able to watch the matinee, to watch the principal dancers. I also love to give her corrections for the troupe. This helps back up her corrections, so there is a good support network of people.

(You can find additional information about the company in our Riverdance Backstage report)

Half a year ago, in Madrid, a terrible thing happened with the fire at the venue, and almost all of the equipment of the Liffey company was destroyed. This must have been a shock for all of you.

Oh, it was terrible. It didn't really affect me personally, but my boyfriend lost all his percussion instruments, and he was so sad. A lot of the musicians keep instruments in the flight cases that they don't necessarily use on the show, but that they might use occasionally for rehearsing; and he had used the instruments on albums he did twenty years ago - so he was really upset because of it.

There is an interesting quote from an interview in a newspaper from Malaysia where you said: "You're only as good as your last performance." Would this quote describe exactly how tough your job is?

Well, yes - it keeps you motivated and focused. You have to put pressure on yourself, although I think sometimes the dancers are a little bit too hard on themselves. All of them are perfectionists doing what they have been taught from a very young age. Competitions, where we competed against each other, made us want to be better than the other. You can't ever take for granted today's performance will go as well as yesterday. So you have to think about what happened yesterday, what didn't work well, and work on it.

The Riverdance Liffey Company is on an extended tour through the United Kingdom from 15th January - 22nd June 2002, including visits to London, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Sheffield, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. The complete schedule is available in our tour section. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster

Please notice that the new Riverdance video is available only at the show venues and at the Riverdance website.

Celtic Cafe would like to thank the following people for making the interview possible:

Joanne Doyle, Riverdance Liffey Company Principal Dancer

Sinead Clandillon, Riverdance Website Manager

Stephen McManus, Riverdance Liffey Company Manager

All Riverdance photos used with kind permission of Abhann Productions Limited.

© Celtic Cafe - January 2002