The good news of the New Year is Gaelforce Dance is on tour again! In February the troupe was back on stage, in Castlebar in Co. Mayo in Ireland. I travelled down from Dublin to see the final show of the run, then visited them at their new rehearsal venue a couple of days later at the invitation of producer Michael Durkan. There, they were making final preparations for the first overseas tour of 2007, a return to Poland, where they enjoyed great success in 2006. On the night I attended the show in the Royal Theatre, Castlebar, the audience was packed with a specially enthusiastic crowd, and I’m sure the performance boosted the troupe’s morale perfectly for their new tours of 2007.
The show was as vibrant as ever and showing signs of further upgrade and evolution, which is great to see. As a number of last year’s cast members have now moved on to other commitments there were quite a few new faces, including two new lead dancers! It’s always a thrill to see new stars emerging, so I was excited to see how the new line-up looked, and it did not disappoint me. New strobe lighting added to the drama of the ‘theatre’ of the show, choreography had been polished and some new steps incorporated, and some new costumes lent a fresh look to the stage. The musical elements have also been expanded, with additional musicians this season. Peter Corrie remains the main vocalist, with Niall Morris substituting as needed.
Returned to his lead role of last year as Lorcan, is Johnathon Tweedie from South Africa, ever more athletic and energetic and a master showman, whose joy in being onstage radiates throughout the theatre. His female counterpart, the lovely Kristyn Fontanella, also makes a welcome return to the role of Aisling, and the two have honed their complex romantic duets even more since last year, making a truly powerful partnership. Kristyn seems to live permanently on the dancing stage, as she has spent time in both Lord of the Dance’s Troupe 2 and in a Riverdance troupe since last year!
The other two lead roles have new exponents this year, the part of ‘bad girl’ Rianan being danced by newcomer Jemma McSloy from London, who adds a quite new and different atmosphere to the role with her petite, slim frame and lithe, subtle movements. Gaelforce is her first big dance show, so it is a great achievement for her to have the opportunity to dance a lead role – may she enjoy great success with it!
The ‘good guy’ lead of Cuan this year is danced by the understudy of last year, Gili Ben Ari, to my great delight. I first met Gili at the Olive Hurley School of Irish Dancing in Dublin a couple of years ago. Gili, who is from Isreal, was visiting Dublin as part of his quest for the Irish dancing stage, and it was clear to see then that he had talent in abundance. He has gained much experience since then, including spending time with Riverdance. He stood out on the Gaelforce stage for me last year, and it did not surprise me in the least to learn he had been made an understudy lead during their tour. Since then he has been working hard, with a day job in sales to fund his training in ballet as well as Irish dance, and recently he worked with Richard Griffin, the Gaelforce choreographer, in London. All the extra training has certainly paid off, and Gili has stepped into the role of Cuan effortlessly and instantly made it his own.
A very different dancer in physique and dance style to Dermot Cullen, Gili sensibly made no attempt to copy Dermot’s powerful interpretation of the role even though he had seen it so many times while onstage with Dermot. Gili’s Cuan has a very individual elegance and grace; his dance moves flow beautifully and are a pleasure to watch, and his portrayal of the role gives it a whole new dimension and sophistication which is perfect for the show. The slim, dark look that Gili brings to the role is also the ideal foil for Johnathon’s muscular blonde physique, and the two men counterbalance each other excellently on the stage.
One lovely new feature in the show this season is an additional short dance solo during one of the songs. Last year saw Sarah Murray create a wonderful brief solo interlude during a song, and I was delighted to see her return to the troupe and the solo piece. Now a dance solo has been added to another of the songs, this time performed by Maire McCallion from Donegal. It gave me special joy to see her achievement, having been there last year when she auditioned. It was her very first foray into the stage show world, and she was so excited at the thought of joining Gaelforce that her eyes just sparkled continually all day, even while Michael Durkan explained to them all how tough the touring would be. I suspect that sparkle contributed to Maire being chosen for the troupe, and it was a good choice as she is still sparkling! With a season’s experience behind her, she has matured into a really beautiful young lady, her dancing has gone from strength to strength and her well-deserved new solo is one more highlight of the show!
One of the most interesting aspects of Gaelforce this year is its ever more global cast. Last year it was already very international, but with the new members coming from far across the world, the troupe now encompasses no less than eleven nationalities! That Irish dancing has achieved so fantastic a range of appeal around the world that young dancers from all continents are taking to it with such enthusiasm is very exciting. Gaelforce’s newcomers include two more Hungarians (Zsofia Elsheikh has made a welcome return): Gyula Glaser from Budapest and Andrea Kren. Andrea has performed in Irish Dance Invasion, produced by Stephen Scariff in Hungary, but is new to the international stage, as is Gyula. Alex Huet joins the show from Paris and is enjoying his first time on tour, while Mexican Alex Arguelles knows the ropes from a spell with Riverdance.
Maeve Rankin comes to Gaelforce from Co. Down in Northern Ireland, and apart from dancing in the show Celtic Legends, this is her first big stage experience. Also new to touring are Kelly Umbers from Birmingham in the UK, Gemma O’Connor from London and Joanna Allen from Dublin, while Aisling McVeigh, also from Dublin, has performed with the Celtic Rhythms show. Katie Ellis from London completes the list of newcomer female dancers, though sadly she cannot take part in the Polish tour as she suffered an injury in Castlebar and is unable to dance – I cannot imagine anything more devastating than to be knocked out of your very first overseas tour by injury! Here’s wishing Katie lots of the best healing energy to get back on her dancing feet very soon and able to rejoin the Gaelforce troupe!
The other two male newcomers are James Hackland from Manchester in the UK, who has danced in Dance of Desire and To Dance on the Moon, and another experienced tour dancer, Michael O’Gorman from Montreal, Canada, who has appeared in Needfire, Magic of the Dance, Spirit of the Dance and To Dance on the Moon.
Other returning dancers this year are Tom Conroy, James McDonnell, Catherine Moore, and brother and sister Kevin and Sarah Murray, all from the UK; Kristina Sheahan from Dublin, and Ashley Miller, all the way from Australia. Ashley told me he has been competing in Irish dancing feiseanna in Australia and practicing as hard as he can since last year, while working as concierge in a hotel and watching his email impatiently for the call to return to Gaelforce Dance!
The 2007 cast of Gaelforce has meshed really well together in these first weeks and the year ahead holds great promise for all of them. May all the new troupe members bring their special skills and energy to the show and enjoy taking Irish dancing further and further around the world. And for those counting, the total of eleven nations is completed by Ella Haluk from Poland, fiddler and musical director of the show, who leads the band numbers again this year!
Michael Durkan told me there are plenty of exciting plans in the pipeline for Gaelforce, including more tours in Ireland that will include a return to Castlebar, as well as a long-overdue spell in Dublin later in the year, for which he hopes details will soon be finalised. His year will also see the making of a new DVD, which will be very welcome as the show has evolved so far since the first one was filmed. RTE’s Nationwide news magazine programme covered the show in Castlebar, airing an excellent feature on February 27th, and I hope we will see more of the troupe on our screens again later in the year, as Irish dancing is still much neglected by our media.
It was a great pleasure to see Gaelforce Dance again in Mayo and to meet the troupe again, catching up with old friends and meeting new ones. My thanks particularly to Michael Durkan for his warm welcome and that wonderful front row seat! Sadly, I am unable to escape to follow the troupe to Poland this year, but I am with them in spirit and look forward to hearing about all their adventures there. If their reception is anything like last year's, throughout the Baltic States and also in Taiwan (which the show took by storm), it looks like 2007 will be the best year yet for Gaelforce Dance!
Author: Ann Margaret Keller