Irish choreographer brings the tale of the HMS Titanic to life in a world dance premiere in Belfast and Derry-Londonderry
Raymond Sweeney has an extensive background in dance. Born in Drumkeen, Co. Donegal, he has been dancing since his first foray into the Terri Lafferty School Of Dancing at the age of nine. Titles and medals all over Ireland, Britain and the world followed before he became a professional at age 16 with Michael Flatley's own Lord Of The Dance.
Six and a half years in this prestigious production both included and preceded more worldwide touring for Sweeney and his proverbial feet of flames (also the title of his first ever professional dance performance, in London Hyde Park).
Today, Sweeney resides in Co. Donegal with girlfriend Louise Hayden. Both have their eyes on a new kind of dance: and it's about a certain ship.
Once upon a time, it was claimed, by film critic Tom Shone in particular, that James Cameron created a "magnificent romance" seventeen years ago - has it really been that long? - but the true "romance" was between Cameron and the infamous HMS Titanic. As if the amount of energy invested by the director into creating a brand new hunk of metal, letting it sail and then sinking it was much more significant to Cameron than any of the characters in it. (And in retrospect, it still seems so.)
When Titanic Dance makes its World Premiere at Belfast's Odyssey Arena this Saturday and at Derry-Londonderry's Millennium Forum this Sunday, the focus will be on a new kind of romance: merging dance and the story.
"I couldn't believe no one had thought of telling the story that way before", Sweeney says. "Maybe they just didn't know how to fit the numerous intricacies of the Titanic story - the shovelling of coal, the different classes, the sinking and so on - through dance."
It all began over a meeting with two Derry-Londonderry-based friends, Sean McAnaney and Kevin Toland. What, they wondered, was the best tourist attraction around? Especially in Belfast? Titanic, of course. The area on the east bank of the River Lagan formerly known as Queen's Island has enjoyed a surge in popularity since an already relatively iconic exhibition building opened there two years ago. And Titanic, in McAnaney's words, was also very popular in China.
Won over by Titanic's worldwide appeal, ideas turned to choreography in the hands of Sweeney, Hayden and an old friend from Lord Of The Dance, James Keegan. Words and expressions have become rhythm and movement. But it hasn't all been plain sailing.
"At the start, we thought we'd be better off with some basic chorus steps. But matching music with dance, and dance with music, and trying to choreograph at the same time felt problematic."
So Sweeney, Hayden, Keegan and company will be handling the Titanic story through a mixture of elements - projection, costumes and real facts will merge with both music and dance as the company set out to provide a learning curve for viewers. It will be a case of sticking with the gist of the James Cameron film - in Sweeney's words, it's hard to deny the appeal of first-class girl meeting third-class boy - while approaching certain things, particularly the ending, somewhat differently.
"We're telling our story in an easy-to-follow manner, differentiating classes through light, colour, costumes and music. There'll be a mixture of Irish dancing styles and four sung numbers on show."
Such an approach has already worked very well in recent workshop performances in Letterkenny, which have brought standing ovations from audiences at the town's An Grainan Theatre.
Sweeney is rightfully optimistic about similar reactions in Northern Ireland's largest cities. "I don't think anyone has been more fascinated by Titanic since the release (of the 1997 film)", he says. And I can personally vouch for that, having begun to read illustrated histories of the ship and testimonies from survivors in the immediate aftermath of the film. But how does Sweeney feel, overall, about translating this fascination to the stage?
"Telling this story, a story with so many possibilities, in the form of dance is both exciting and unique. But it's not just about the dance - it's about projecting a whole spectrum of emotions through music too. We feel like we've created something that's not just your everyday Irish dance, but has a universal appeal."
Here's hoping that, unlike its historical inspiration, Titanic Dance stays afloat.
The World Premiere of Titanic Dance takes place in the Odyssey Arena on Saturday May 10 and Derry-Londonderry's Millennium Forum on Sunday May 11. For more information, click here.