DIARY OF A DANCE SHOW:
THE RETURN OF GAELFORCE DANCE
This chaptered feature will follow the rebirth of the successful Gaelforce Dance show, from the first day of auditions through the opening performance of the first leg of the 2006 tour, offering a unique inside look at the life of a big professional touring show. The Celtic Cafe's Dublin representative, Ann Keller, has been following the show's preparations, and here through her reports readers will meet members of the Gaelforce production team and cast, follow the team through auditions and rehearsals, and finally set out on tour with the company.
2 pm, Saturday February 4th, 2006 – I arrived at the audition venue, Streets Ahead Dance Studio out near Dublin Airport. From the outside, it could have been any ordinary factory complex or community centre, but inside I was greeted by a smart, modern facility, with welcoming tables and chairs in the reception area. At one table the principal Production Team were gathering – Michael Durkan, producer; Richard Griffin, choreographer and dance coach; his partner Maggie Townsend, assistant choreographer and dance coach; Alan Whelan, production manager and sound engineer; and his partner Ella Haluk, musical director and fiddler for the show. Introductions were made, coffees and hot chocolates rounded up, and I was made to feel very welcome and really 'part of the team' as they opened folders of dancers' application forms and CVs and began organising the afternoon's schedule.
Groups of nervous but hopeful dancers were assembling at other tables and were given forms to fill in; all female dancers today, and Maggie took time to try to put them at their ease, telling them not to be worried, just to enjoy the occasion and do their best. A few smiles showed and tensions relaxed visibly. I sat wishing I was a young dancer right now, with such an opportunity, and thought 'Maggie is just the kind of lady I would want to have greet me at an audition!' The dancers had come from far and wide, some flying in from London, a couple from as far away as Hungary, especially for this chance to experience the big show stage.
Paperwork complete, once all the expected dancers had arrived, the party migrated upstairs to the dance rooms. Lovely airy, light rooms with wall-to-wall windows on two sides, and a third wall entirely mirrored, with smooth pale laminate wood floors, these premises are a far cry from the old Dublin venues in the centre city where other shows have begun! While the dancers changed and warmed up in an adjacent room, the production team set up CD players, laptop computer, chairs and table, and sent out for more teas and coffees – for those not about to dance, keeping warm was important!
The dancers were brought in ten at a time, introduced to all of us (including myself) and then put through their paces, first in soft-shoe traditional steps, reels, jigs, and slip-jigs. In each case they began with just one step, two dancers together, next a repeat of that step, then 40 bars of the dance straight through, to see their fitness level. If they were going to keep pace through a big show, they would have to be able to sustain the dance much longer than the competitions of the feis stage had ever required of them. After all the soft-shoe routines, the dancers were given a few minutes' break to change shoes and recover their breath, while Richard and Maggie exchanged notes on what they had seen so far. They seemed very encouraged by the turn-out and the standard of dance.
The same pattern was followed for the hard-shoe routines, this time in hornpipe and jig steps first. Then each dancer was asked if they knew a reel step, and if they didn't have one – hard-shoe reels are not usually part of the feis dancers' required repertoire, but are popular for show dancing – they were invited to improvise one. They were reminded this was not a feis and there was no need to be nervous, nor to worry if they slipped, instead just to relax – and take care, because the floor was indeed slippery! It was interesting to see how some of the dancers varied in success in hard-shoe steps compared to the soft, and it was quickly clear if a dancer preferred one or the other. Hard-shoe taps also told the most to Richard and Maggie about the big essentials – rhythm and timing! As we say in Ireland, a sure way 'to sort the sheep from the goats!'
The third section of the audition was the most interesting of all, for me at least, and probably for the dancers too. Richard went out onto the floor and taught them a sequence of steps from the finale of the show, breaking the choreography down into small pieces in front of the mirrored wall, so the dancers could all see themselves as they learned the steps. He proved a very patient, quiet and positive teacher, and the dancers picked up the steps remarkably quickly. When one or two struggled at times, Maggie went to their assistance and offered further encouragement, coming back to her seat after each session saying 'Yes! Sorted!' with a big smile and a thumbs-up.
I had always imagined auditions would be solemn and intimidating, so this day was a treat to watch. I found myself mentally egging on all the dancers, willing them to succeed, and finding almost as much buzz and pleasure from it all as if I too had been up there dancing! I even tried hard to learn the steps myself in my head, so I could have a go at them when I got home! (I should add that I am a rank beginner at Irish dancing, not having been involved with it at all when I was a child, though I do go to classes now for exercise and pure enjoyment.)
The teaching session ended with the entire sequence being danced with the music. Then all the dancers were congratulated on their performance and invited to sit down for an informal interview and chat. At this point time was taken to explain a little to them about life on the road, since most had not been on tour with a show before. I found it very interesting to watch their faces as they listened to the information. There were those whose eyes danced with excitement, no matter how tough the schedule sounded – even the idea of hours on a coach en route to the next venue was thrilling to them, and I could see this day was a dream come true! Then each was asked who they were and where they were from, and a little about their dancing experiences. Most were rather shy about talking about themselves, but they gradually relaxed. One thing that did surprise me was the lack of response when they were asked if they had a particular fitness routine. Almost none of them appeared to have one, and I would have thought it essential to all young dancers nowadays, and something which has certainly received a good deal of promotion. One thing is sure; by the time they have been through rehearsal weeks and time on tour, they will know a lot about fitness!
Each group of dancers went through the same programme, and by the end of the day the production team were confident they had a number of positive candidates for the troupe. Also auditioned were a couple of singers and musicians, all talented but not all suited to the style of music and song that Gaelforce requires. The search would continue.
The following day, Sunday, auditions began again, this time not only for more female dancers, but also for male dancers. There were fewer male candidates, so they were taken in a single group and Richard taught the finale step sequence to all of them together. After the initial soft-shoe tests, the production team were a little discouraged, not sensing the sharpness they had hoped to see; but when the hard shoes were put on, everything changed and the guys lit up the stage! So by the time the teaching stage came, it was attacked by a very lively group indeed, and it was clear that these young men made up for any lack in their numbers with quality of their dancing, and they were destined for the show stage! Everyone went home very happy that day.
All the female dancers had been promised they would hear within a couple of days whether or not they had been successful. There were more candidates for the troupe than the show has places, so some would only gain a place on the 'reserve list', but that would still be a success. The reserve list is used so that if a dancer has to leave the show for any reason, the production team have somewhere to turn without having to set up further auditions. Some of the applicants are in the middle of college courses and/or exams, and were not available for the first tour; but those considered good for the show would be on the list for upcoming planned tours later this year and into 2007.
For the next couple of weeks, the production team continued to assemble cast and crew and make arrangements for the March tour. I heard the full troupe had been hired successfully and that rehearsals would begin on Monday, February 13th, north of Dublin where the company will be based until the tour began. Soon I would take a trip to visit them, to watch rehearsals and see how things were progressing. As I went about my daily life, I kept thinking about the show and wondering what was happening, and which of the dancers I had watched audition had been taken into the troupe for this first tour. I was impatient to drive up and see!
Author: Ann Margaret Keller
Editing: Louise Owen
Original Web Design: Alexander Servas