Drawing on Irish mythology, Spirit of the Dance is a global stage phenomenon that has smashed box-office records in more than 20 countries, and been seen by more than 30 million people.
Now it has come to Dubai, with a fresh twist – the shows at Global Village mark the first time the Spirit of the Dance has been staged in an informal, outdoor setting. It will be performed three times each evening until January 29.
Lead dancer Joseph Miller, who has been with the show since his career began in 1998, says he was unsure how people would react to the show, given the unusual setting.
“Normally we perform the show indoors in a theatre, where people are seated and they pay to see the show specifically, whereas here our audience are passers-by,” he says.
While the full show runs for two hours, the Global Village version is an action-packed 30-minute condensed version featuring 22 dancers.
“We wanted to keep this show quite upbeat to get people’s attention, so we deliberately chose a lot of fast-paced, energetic numbers,” says Jessica Henderson, from the United Kingdom, the show’s lead female dancer.
“We wanted to make sure we included the main ‘heart and soul’ Irish numbers in this show.”
The result is an infectious, toe-tapping musical set full of Irish spirit. Like much of the rest of Global Village, it is a sensory overload, packed with psychedelic screen imagery, sparkling costumes and non-stop action.
Perfectly suited to the pick-and-mix brand of multiculturalism that Global Village does so well, it takes Irish dance and adds a sprinkling of American Country and Western – complete with full cowboy hat regalia – a dash of Spanish flamenco and a dollop of Brazilian Salsa. But the core of the show remains unmistakably Irish, with plenty of high kicks, splits, clapping and celebratory yelling.
Spirit of the Dance would not exist were it not for Riverdance, the first hit Irish-dance show – created by and starring Irish-American dance champion Michael Flatley – which took the world by storm after its debut in 1995. It transformed Irish step dancing from a relatively obscure form of folk dance into a part of mainstream western culture. It also inspired Miller to take up Irish dancing, after he watched the show for the first time at the age of 13. But in his hometown, in the north of England, there were no Irish dance teachers, so he had to improvise.
“For many years, I got old VHS videos of Irish dancing and tried to copy them,” he says. “Eventually, I trained professionally in Dublin.”
Riverdance also captured the imagination of David King, the British theatre producer behind Spirit of the Dance. His career was in a lull when a friend gave him a ticket for the show in the spring of 1996.
"At the end of the show, the audience went wild and I thought: 'I can do this'," he says on the show's website. "I left the theatre determined I was going to make a new show, inspired by what I had just seen."
In need of £250,000 (Dh1.1million) to create and stage the show in British theatres, he sold his house, car and the family silver to raise the cash.
"It was time to sink or swim and I jumped in with both feet," he says. "My luck changed when Michael Flatley announced he was leaving Riverdance to set up his own show. Everyone assumed Spirit of the Dance was his show, and the opening night sold out in hours. I was on a roll."
Although Riverdance and Spirit of the Dance both encapsulate the spirit of Irish step dancing, Henderson points out they are very different in style.
“Our show is much more modern,” she says. “Each time we do the show, a new number will be added, so we keep it fresh all the time to keep up with the times.”
She started her career as a professional tap dancer, and had to master high-speed Irish step routines for her role in Spirit of the Dance.
“In Irish dancing, everything is very rigid and regimented,” she says. “Tap dancing is more down to the ground and into your knees, whereas Irish is always very straight, with your arms always upright and your feet always crossed underneath you. It was quite hard during training to keep upright all the time, when I was so used to just free-tapping with my feet.”
Henderson also sings the show's signature and title song, Spirit of the Dance, while dancing, which she admits is a challenge. "The breath control is very important – and a lot of practice," she says.
So far, the dancers seem to be enjoying condensed version of Spirit of the Dance in such an unusual setting in Dubai.
“It’s a strange feeling, because when we first go out there and the show starts, there aren’t many people there, and then by the end of it, there’s a big crowd,” says Miller. “That’s good news for us, that we’ve managed to capture their attention.”
• Spirit of the Dance is at Global Village, off Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Road in Dubai, at 6pm, 8.30pm and 9.55pm each evening until January 29. The show is free with entry to Global Village, which costs Dh15. www.globalvillage.ae