Gillian Norris Interview for the Celtic Cafe  
    One of the great pleasures of going a number of times to see Ragus (only partly because of my assignment for the Celtic Cafe!) has been having the chance to meet and talk to many of those involved in the show. All those I met welcomed me back with instant smiles when I returned, several had been online to visit the Cafe for themselves, and were very encouraging about the feature on the show. Then I had the honour of spending a good hour sitting with Gillian Norris and getting to know her. I would like to thank her for being so generous with her time, especially before a show. Her presence on stage proved to be echoed tenfold in person and I came away knowing that it is a lot more than her wonderful dancing that makes her the star she is. I am sure she has a great future, I wish her every success and look forward to hearing where life takes her. Celtic Cafe visitors are now invited to share in our fascinating conversation and meet one of the world's most talented and beautiful dancers for themselves.  

 

Gillian, your dancing career began at a very early age. How old were you when you took your first class, and was Irish dancing already in the family?

I was 10 years old when I took my first dancing class. Like every Irish family, it's traditional for somebody in the family to try dancing or music, and my family is very musical anyway. My Dad is a tenor, and my sister is singing in a local band, and they all tried dancing at some stage or other but I'm the only one that kept it up. My mother used to teach set dancing.

How many brothers and sisters do you have?

I have three brothers and two sisters.

What part of Ireland are you from? Is it a dancing area?

I'm from Kilmacthomas, which is a small village outside Waterford. I went to the Higgins Academy in Waterford, they're a very good dancing school... I think anywhere in Ireland is somewhat involved with Irish dancing, especially in the last few years it has become even stronger in all areas.

How young were you when you began going to feises and competing?

I started going to the feises about 6-8 months after I started dancing. I picked up the work very quickly, and I went from my first feis straight into open dancing. I won all my beginners' [competitions] and from then it started to get tough. I was against all the people that were in it since they were three and four.

Do you think that in a way you had an advantage starting a little bit older?

No, it would have been harder, because the younger you start dancing the better... it would be a lot easier for them to pick up steps, and they'd know the whole routine about going to feises and whatever. I started at an age where they were all at a very high standard as it was, so I had a lot of work to do to catch up on them. But I caught up! - Thank God!

Was it always to dance, or do you have musical talents also?

To be honest, at the age of ten the last thing I wanted to do was dancing - I was more into sport, ladies' football, basketball, running, anything really to do with sport. My Mum wanted me to do the dancing and play music, but I kept up the dancing for her and eventually grew to really like it.

How far did you travel then and how often?

I suppose the furthest we would have travelled would be to England for the Great Britains and the British Nationals, and the majority of the feises were held in Ireland. So it was basically it was Sundays, that would be in Ireland, and then we'd travel once or twice a year.

And how often would you travel at home? Would it be every weekend?

Yes, nearly every weekend. My Mum would bring me to a feis, for experience.

So that's a huge commitment from her too?

Oh yes, she was devoted to it too.

I think you said she was a dancer herself?

Yes, she was; she used to teach set dancing. She had to give all that up because she was in a very bad car accident, but she always wanted one of us to do dancing and I was the one I suppose who kept it up for her.

I think you certainly fulfilled her dreams!

What were some of your highest achievements in competition?

Well, I won the British Nationals, every year I went over there, the Great Britains, the All-Irelands, my qualifying rounds - the Munster Championships, and I've been in the top three in the Worlds three years running. So I suppose I've achieved almost everything I can achieve in that sense.

Would you think of returning to competition as some of the show dancers have?

No I don't think so, not now. A lot of my competition are all in the shows.

Did you ever imagine then that dancing could take you into the world of international show business?

Not at all, not until I saw Riverdance onstage, and it was like a dream... 'I'd love to be in that'... and I never thought I would be.

Did you see the original Eurovision Riverdance on the night?

I did, yes. There was actually the All Irelands or something just before it, and I knew some of the girls. They were using a particular dancing school in Dublin, the O'Se Dancing School [for Riverdance], and some of the girls were [competing] against me and they said to watch the Eurovision because they were dancing in it, so I stayed up to watch it and I was absolutely gobsmacked when I saw it!

You are known worldwide, of course, for your roles in Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance and Feet of Flames. Now you are the star of the wonderful show Ragus, in Vicar St. in Dublin, for its summer 2001 engagement. Tell me how you became involved with this show.

I was contacted by Michael Ryan, who is a dancing teacher, he's the choreographer of the show, and he asked me would I be interested in doing Vicar Street. At the time I didn't know what I wanted because since January officially I had left Lord of the Dance, and I was kind of 'Will I? Won't I?' but it was five shows a week, and it suited me because it was in Dublin and I could go home at the weekends, so I said I'd do it.

Performing in an intimate theatre setting to a small audience must be a very different experience after the big touring shows. How do you like it?

It is different and it isn't different. To me, no matter if there's two people I'm performing to or 20,000 people, I'd perform the same way. I go out to make those happy; they deserve that, they're paying to see me dance and that's what I do, I go out and do my job. But in a sense it is more homely. There's so many people in the big arenas, which is an absolutely unbelievable feeling, but this is more relaxed, and it is more homely to me - which is perfect for me at the moment, it's what I want. - At the moment!

Did you know the other cast members before you began, and have they had similar adventures with the big shows as you? If not, how easy is it for you all to relate to one another's approach to performing?

First off, two of my cousins are with me, Karen Hally and Deirdre Kiely! And I'm delighted that they're here with me, part of my family with me so that keeps me going. I knew of the others because Michael Ryan, their teacher, would have taught very near me, so I would have known names, you know, but I wouldn't have known them as friends, I wouldn't have related to them that way. Donnacha Howard, who's doing the lead here with us, he's actually in Riverdance, and Karen's in Riverdance, so they've experienced what it's like to be in a big show as well, play to a big audience.

Ragus features slightly more traditional choreography than you had become used to. Was it difficult to go back, or were you given plenty of scope for how you interpret the dances? Is any of the choreography your own?

No matter what I perform, no matter what it is, I always put my own style to it. That's just me, I mean it could be a hand movement, it could be a head movement, but I just have to keep comfortable with what I'm doing. And I might go out there one night and I might do something one way, and the next night it might be the exact same step but I'll do it in a different way, just whatever way I feel at the time. Lightshoe dancing particularly, is my own, in this show. I love choreographing my own.

And there's obviously no problem with you doing that?

No, no. Obviously there are certain steps that Michael has choreographed for here, and I will do those, fine, I'll put my own style to them, and then the rest was left down to me, like my lightshoe dancing.

How long do you expect to remain with the show? Just for the current Dublin run or beyond?

That I don't know yet. I going to decide when I'm finished here. I'm going on holidays for two weeks, to Dubai, so I'm going to go and enjoy that and I'll decide what I'm going to do when I come back.

To step back in time, your big break came of course when you were among the first group to audition for Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance when you were just sixteen. Tell me how you came to be in that group and what you remember of that historic day.

I think... there were so many people there, that to even get back to the second recall of dancers, I was delighted. I didn't think I was going to, there were just so many people. The All Irelands had been on beforehand and I think he'd been kind of looking out for who he wanted so I think he had an idea of who he wanted anyway. And then, we were all there and we had people picking us, and then Michael Flatley came in and it was like.... well he was my idol, basically, and to see him walking in... everything just went silent and nobody was saying anything, and then he just went 'Hey guys!' like this, and I just couldn't believe it, to listen to him even talking - and then he drilled us that day.... and I think it was just the awe of being there, and him being there, to me, he was just my idol, you know at the time he was just Michael Flatley the Amazing Dancer! Then I got back in, they called back sixty, and then the Prince's Trust was on in London and they picked nine girls and I was one of the nine they picked for that so.... I think was all done very fast, I was in it so quickly it was no decision! I had been offered Riverdance at the same time and I didn't know what to take, but I think I was there and Michael wanted nine dancers so quickly that my decision was made. It was like, Now, or wait and go with Riverdance, so I said 'I'll go with you, and so on....' - And that's my experience of it.

It is well known that the troupe members have a warm and high regard for Michael Flatley. In the beginning did you feel intimidated by him or was he instantly easy to work with?

I have never had a problem with Michael Flatley. I always seemed to work very well with him. If he wanted me to do something in a certain way, I'd do it, or if I ever wanted to do something in a certain way I'd suggest it to him, you know, we seemed to work well together. So I never felt intimidated by him, I think I worked well with him from the start.

Was he a good teacher, showing the dances? Was it easy to interpret what he wanted?

Yeah, yes he had very good ideas, he wanted the best and it came across. He was very strict but that came across onstage and look where it got him!

I believe you and Bernadette Flynn were quickly picked out for the two lead roles. Was that a surprise to you, and how did you feel at the time?

I couldn't believe it! We were the youngest there, the rest of them were all older than us. I remember one day being called in by Michael and Marie and they said that I definitely would be given understudy - I think I was one of the first girls called in. Then I didn't hear much about it, and then one day we were in a room and Michael put on the "Gypsy" music and he called me out and asked me to do the lead part in it, to do whatever I felt myself, and whatever came to me at that time I just did, and that's what I did in the Point. He obviously liked it, so from there on I got the lead. It was a big shock, because I was so young I don't think I really realised it... you know, seeing other people, older than me, I thought well they're definitely going to be the lead because they've been in dancing longer than me, they're years older and more experienced... but obviously he had different opinion on it. He wanted who he wanted and luckily I was who he wanted.

As you prepared for the opening of the show at the Point Theatre in Dublin in 1996, did you think Lord of the Dance would become a touring show? When did that idea first occur to you, and did it excite you or make you nervous?

I don't think I even thought of it in that way. It goes back again to being young and not knowing much about anything. I came from, being the youngest in my family, being treated like a baby to living on my own, and then this big show, being lead in it and ... I just think everything was done so fast I didn't even think of the fact that I'd be travelling around, being away from home. But then when it did happen it kind of hit me then 'Gosh, I'm not at home any more, I'm away!' And I seemed to fit in, it was fine.

You and Bernadette Flynn and all the dancers have become incredibly glamorous through the years, all beautifully made-up and hair very exotic. Were you professionally taught at any stage? Do you do your own make-up on the shows?

No! My hair is naturally curly, I just wash it and that's it, a bit of hairspray and it's grand. And the make-up, I think I just grew to do it my own way and whatever suited me I got used to doing it. The only time we got our make-up done professionally was for the videos, myself and Bernadette had to have our make-up done professionally for that obviously. Every other night we do it ourselves.

Apart from dance events, had you travelled much before touring with the show?

I hadn't really, I was a bit of a home bird and the youngest at home. Anywhere I went was with my Mum and it was only to the feises and that was it really. I never thought of touring before that. It was completely different for me, a new experience.

Did the touring become tedious or did you always enjoy it? Did you get homesick?

For the first two years it was all new, it was great, but the more it went on the harder it got. So then I started to become very homesick. I missed my family loads. Touring was very tedious but I didn't mind it; you got used to it.

Tell me about some of the most exotic/exciting places you have been.

I think Australia and South Africa are definitely the two that stand out. South Africa was just a really good tour, we had time to enjoy it. The shows were hectic but they were not as hectic as it would have been in America. There we wouldn't have had the time to go around and explore the places - we got to enjoy ourselves, but South Africa, there was something about it - I think the shows were later or something, but we managed to get time during the day to do an awful lot. And I just think everybody liked it. There was the heat and we were staying in a nice place and it was lovely over there and I think everyone was in good form, so that stuck out in my mind, I really enjoyed that tour. And Australia I really enjoyed because it was my first major place I flew to, you know, we did Ireland and England and then it was Australia, and it was... Wow! I'd only been to Ireland and England and this was Australia that I only dreamed of! And that stood out in my mind as well, and the people were very friendly over there, that's what I remember.

How did you pass your time in off-duty hours? In places where you didn't maybe have time to sightsee?

Let me see... well, shopping would be one of my main faults! I think it is for a lot of the girls in the show, shopping! A lot of the days we'd spend doing that, or we'd go down to the swimming pool, if it was fine obviously you'd be sunbathing. You are tired after the shows during the week so you want to stay in bed for a while in the morning; I know I used to love my lie-in, and then I'd get up and get my things ready for the show and then maybe go for something to eat and go have a look for the shops, or go see something, or go to the pool, just generally keep myself occupied.

I have seen footage of you putting other troupe members through exercise routines backstage. Is a fitness routine a major part of your life, and what kinds of exercise do you like best?

I'm not one of these fanatics on fitness - luckily I don't have to worry about having to go and do a lot of exercise to keep myself fit because I think the dancing alone keeps me fit enough. When I finished [on the show] I took a long break and this has been the first production that I've done since. I was off a good few months and I didn't even pick up a shoe, and it took me probably two weeks to get back into it, which is not long after being off for so long. I'd go to yoga or aerobics if a friend was going but I'm not into running off to them, I don't feel I need it. If I want to go to the gym and feel I need it, then I'll go, but I'm more into relaxing... if I go to a swimming pool I like relaxing in the jacuzzi, you know!

Looking back now it must seem as if you 'grew up' on the road - how do you feel about that? Do you feel you missed out on a part of your youth at home or do you feel that what you had was special and the best chance in life you could have had? Do you feel it has made you a stronger and more secure person, having had that unique experience?

I definitely feel it's made me a stronger person. I mean, you learn so much when you're out in the real world, and I matured so much within months, I went from being a baby to being an adult and it has given me a really good experience - and I'd advise any sixteen/seventeen-year-old, if they get the chance, go do it. I don't regret doing it at all because I've had opportunities that no sixteen-year-old would ever have in their entire lives. There are times when I regret that I have missed out things with my family, but I'm at home now and I'm going to make up for that.

Obviously the troupe must become close, like a big family almost. Did you form lifelong friendships?

I think when you're on tour you get very close to certain people. I had two or three different room-mates. Sometimes you can get very close to people and you can end up getting hurt in relationships. You can hear things, people might have said things behind your back, and in that sense, that's not their fault or it's not your fault because you've been brought up in different ways... like they might be from a different country or whatever and you're all put in the one thing together, and you're forced to get on with people. But when you leave something you always find out your true friends, and I mightn't have as many friends now as I had when I was in Lord of the Dance but at least I know my true friends. I could probably count them on one hand, but they're the ones that were my true friends when I was in Lord of the Dance and I'll always remember that.

And on the romantic side, is there anyone special in your life? If so, is he a dancer?

There is, and no, he's not a dancer. I met him when I came home and I've been with him ever since, and he's just... he's a gentleman, he just treats me so well. He's a hundred percent behind whatever I do, and we're very good for each other. He makes me very happy.

The Hyde Park Feet of Flames was perhaps the climax of your career with the big shows. Tell me some of your memories of the build-up to that and the night itself.

The build-up to it I think was more worry than anything, because we had some new steps in the show and we had new costumes and new settings, and to get everything right on the night we didn't have much time to rehearse. We had done the RDS [in Dublin] and we had I think about ten days off but then we had about two weeks to rehearse, and I can recall it being 'oh I hope everything goes right' because we were doing two recordings of the show and we'd only two chances to do everything right. So we had the dress rehearsal recorded and the night and that was it, whatever came out was on the video. So I remember that being a bit stressful, but I remember it also being very enjoyable and it being the most incredible feeling in my whole entire life - that audience was just amazing! It was unbelievable.

You were recently in America on a very special non-dancing assignment. Tell me about that.

I'm with Celtic Talent. It's a modelling agency in Clonmel. I joined up with them about six, eight months ago. They cover modelling, and basically any talents, singing, dancing, etc., and I went to America, to New York, for two weeks with them. And it's... the only way I can explain it is they're all agencies that are scouting for talent, and you perform or model or whatever. And I did get some very good offers, but I don't want to rush into anything.

Did you dance for them?

I did, yes. They actually asked, one of the people over there, from the MTA Awards, knew that I was coming over there, and I wasn't even meant to be dancing at all, but they requested that I dance so I had to dance for the banquet and everything! Only two people performed at the banquet and I was one of them.

And what else were you doing then?

Modelling and singing. Singing is something that I really want to go into. It's something that since I was a little girl that I think is really important, to me, and I think my family really want me to do it. If it came off for me it would be brilliant but if it didn't it doesn't, and at least you know, I've tried something and I've been to America and I've tried, and if I'm not going to go over to America I'll keep on trying here [in Ireland], I like to start up in Ireland singing, you know, if you could get someone to back you... but what are the chances of that?! But I'll plug along and see what happens. But that's where I really want to go to.

What directions do you see your life taking in the future?

At the moment I don't know, there's just so many things that are popping up... do I want to do this? Do I want to do that? But there's nothing that I'm 100% about yet and I don't want to rush into anything because I've spent five years of my life away from home and I want to enjoy being home at the moment, and the fact that I'm going out with somebody at home now and I have to think of that as well, you know, I can't think of myself all the time. I really do like this guy that I'm going out with, so hopefully it will last, and I don't want to ruin that either.

Do you miss the big shows? Would you like to go back to one again?

I do and I don't. I miss being onstage, with the big audience, and I miss the part that I played in Lord of the Dance more so than anything because I felt I made that my own. And I always wonder how is it going? And that's something that will always be on my mind. But there are sides of it I don't miss, and I think at the end of the day my decision came to that and I'm glad with the decision I made.

Will you continue to dance as long as you can? Would you like to teach, or have you any dreams of creating a show yourself?

I don't know. I think everybody thinks of creating or teaching or whatever, but that's something that you can't decide now because I'm in the middle of performing in a show, and I don't know where my life is going at the moment, and I've thought of everything, and thought of all these ideas, and maybe I will put them into practice, maybe I won't!

 

by Annie of Dublin

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