While a good number of the world’s strongest, most agile athletes are preparing for the Olympic Games in Russia, there are a dozen or so others on the “Heartbeat of Home” stage, located at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto until March 2, at the beginning of its North America tour.
From start to finish, the cast of Irish, Latin, Flamenco and Afro-Cuban dancers leapt, spun and feverishly tapped across the stage, defying gravity, astounding the eyes and ears of awestruck show-goers – all without appearing to drip a drop of sweat. That kind of seemingly effortless physical ability doesn’t come easy.
“These guys are pro athletes,” "Heartbeat’s" assistant director Padraic Moyles said in a post-performance interview, adding that each dancer must exude discipline and enthusiasm to achieve the desired effect in rehearsals and on stage.
“You have to be a machine,” admitted featured dancer Jason O’Neill, who was unable to perform in Sunday’s official premiere due to an ankle injury suffered earlier in the week.
Machine. There’s no other way to describe the kind of perfection that graced the Mirvish Theatre stage.
Each number in “Heartbeat” harnessed a level of power and finesse that’s simply mind-boggling. Even the standard dance moves – for Irish dancers, think of a leap or jump-over – looked as though they were being performed by super-human beings.
The rippling muscles of the Afro-Cuban dancers, in particular, were impossible to ignore, especially when they were flinging their bodies into the air with such style and ease. And the flamenco dancers didn’t so much tap their feet as vibrate their feet with meticulous percussive precision.
Ciara Sexton, lead female Irish dancer, practically floated across the stage, even during “heavy” dances in which she wore hard-bottomed shoes that any step dancer knows aren’t exactly the most cooperative accessories for attempting to dance delicately.
Sexton’s co-lead, Bobby Hodges, stood out for both his dancing chops and magnetic stage presence. In the final scene of the show, Hodges and fellow male troupe members donned tailored black suits. I thought for a moment, Hodges could easily outshine Justin Timberlake in a “Who Wore It Better?” competition of the suit-and-tie variety – and, for the sake of full disclosure, I admit I recently spent a couple hundred dollars on a Timberlake concert ticket.
The show’s dancers aren’t merely above-average. They are world-class, of the highest caliber. And skill alone didn’t win them their spots in the troupe, Moyles explained. A handful of the dancers actually auditioned online first, uploading videos to YouTube so that a panel of esteemed judges – and the general public – could review them and vote for their favorites. Top-scoring online candidates were invited to try out in person. While candidates were expected to excel in their primary dance form, ideal cast members would be malleable enough to learn any kind of choreography, be it a salsa number or a waltz.
Another refreshing twist that separates “Heartbeat” from other Irish dance-based stage shows is the humor, playfulness and improvisation. A surprising standout performer was Vancouver-born Irish dancer Fred Nguyen, whose aloof stage persona and raw dance talent had audience members laughing one minute and picking up their jaws from the floors the next.
“Irish dancers can do much more than Irish dance,” Moyles said.
Irish dance choreographer John Carey reinforced that point, explaining that the Irish dancers could adapt to any other style of dance, and quickly. Carey said he’d prepared a few steps for his first workshop with the dancers, expecting to teach for a couple hours. But 30 minutes in, “they knew it all.”
During these moments, Carey questioned his creativity.
“Is it good enough? Is it different enough?”, he wondered. “It’s just that when you’ve looked at it so much, you begin questioning, is it right?”
Moyles, too, recalled questioning aspects of the show early on in the production process. Specifically, he grew skeptical of the “Don’t Slip Jig,” a homage to the iconic photo depicting New York City construction workers lunching high above the city streets, performed by a selection of the troupe’s male dancers.
Moyles said the show’s director, John McColgan, who also developed the concept for the show, convinced him the number would work – it just had to work.
Boy, did it work. The whole show worked. Anyone who has the pleasure of catching “Heartbeat” live will see firsthand how thrilling and powerful dance can be, especially when it’s choreographed and performed by the best creative minds and athletes in the world.