It all started with “Riverdance.” What began as a seven-minute intermission dance number at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin developed into a full-blown theater spectacle that has made Irish stepdancing famous all over the world. In its 20th-anniversary year, “Riverdance” is still going strong; it’s currently on a nine-month tour of Europe with the possibility of returning to America in 2016.
Now the original producers of “Riverdance,” Moya Doherty and John McColgan, have spread their wings with “Heartbeat of Home,” whose poster sports a huge bird — a sea eagle — as a symbol of emigration. Not yet a year old, the show has already visited China, aired on public television, and been the subject of a PBS documentary, “The Making of ‘Heartbeat of Home.’ ” It will arrive at the Citi Wang Theatre Wednesday.
The theme behind “Heartbeat of Home” is the interaction of Irish dance with the cultures it has met on its travels. The original “Riverdance” had flamenco dancer María Pagés, the Moscow Folk Ballet Company, gospel singers, and African-American tap dancers, but as McColgan says over the phone from Dublin, “they were guest acts within the show, as opposed to being integrated with the Irish dance performers.”
And though McColgan himself came up with the title “Heartbeat of Home,” he emphasizes that the show “is not about just Ireland. It’s the heartbeat of your home world, wherever you decide is your home.” In the first act, people are leaving from a home that could be Ireland, or Spain, or Africa; the second act could be taking place in the United States or South America or Australia, and that’s where the interactions begin. The Irish men do a big rap number with Teneisha Bonner, but they also get caught up in a tango. “It’s fusion in a very integral way,” McColgan says, “and we pushed the Irish dancers to a place that they’d never been before. And then the multicultural dancers really admire the Irish dancers, and they also learn something.”
McColgan adds that the athleticism and the versatility of the current generation of Irish dancers enabled him to put together a show “we couldn’t even have conceived 20 years ago.” He found some of those dancers via the thoroughly modern notion of doing online auditions. The invitation “show us the heartbeat of your home” drew more than 2 million hits and 168 videos, from which the “Heartbeat of Home” team picked 20 dancers to fly to Dublin for in-person auditions.
Gianna Petracic, from Sydney, Australia, was among those 20. Her younger sister, Natasia was not, but she flew to Dublin anyway, at her own expense. Natasia admits that their background isn’t exactly Irish. “My dad’s family are Croatian and my mum’s family are Italian,” she says over the phone from Chicago. “But my dad was born in Uruguay and my mum in Argentina. They emigrated to Australia and met there.”
Natasia started dancing at 3. “I trained in ballet, contemporary, tap, jazz, the whole lot.” And she always wanted to be a professional dancer. Before “Heartbeat of Home,” she had been in “Celtic Illusion,” an Australian show that combines Irish dancing with magic. She and Gianna didn’t decide to audition for “Heartbeat of Home” until the last minute. And even though she didn’t make the top 20, she was still invited to try out in Dublin.
The international cast has been together since last August, when they started rehearsals in Dublin.
“The auditions were held over two days, and there were three different sessions,” she recalls, “so we had to do a hard-shoe number, a light-shoe number, and our own original piece. For my original piece, I chose a ballet pointe number so I could show my versatility. The second day, John Carey [the show’s Irish-dance choreographer] came in and taught us a few things, and we had to perform new choreography in front of him.”
After that, the sisters flew home; it was three weeks before they found out they were both in the show. And they’re both in one of the show’s special numbers, “Dreamdance.”
She says the dancers in the show “are definitely a fusion. A lot of them can do ballet, can do salsa, all of that. There are quite a few who hadn’t had any of that training before, but we had [roughly] eight weeks of rehearsal, and everyone had to learn all the different styles, and I think that’s what makes the show stronger.”
For the show’s score, McColgan hired the Golden Globe–nominated composer Brian Byrne, who’s written songs for Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett. The original “Riverdance” had projection slides; “Heartbeat of Home” has what McColgan calls “animated art, moving images.” One segment called “The Tempest” has water washing all around the dancers. “We got a fantastically animated sea with thunder and lightning and so on and just the sound of the dancers’ hard shoes,” McColgan explains, “and that’s a very powerful scene.”
A segment called “Fiesta Mundo” has Irish dancers introducing other cultures to the Irish game of hurling, as they use their hurley sticks like a percussion instrument. Then there’s the “Don’t Slip Jig,” whose inspiration came from the iconic 1932 photo of Manhattan construction workers eating lunch atop a girder. “We have a very dramatic opening where it starts with the men sitting on the beam with their backs to the audience,” McColgan says. “And the beam revolves, and the screens revolve all around until they’re facing the audience. And they get up on the beam and do a hard-shoe routine with some comedy.” The title is a joke: There’s no slip jig, no music at all, in fact, just the sound of the hard shoes.
The international cast of dancers — whose average age, McColgan says, “is probably 21” — have been together since last August, when they started rehearsals in Dublin. “In that sort of hothouse environment they make friends and really get on terribly well with one another,” he says.
Since departing Dublin, the tour has taken “Heartbeat of Home” to China, Toronto, Chicago, Detroit, and now Boston.
“I’ve been in the Wang Theatre before, and we’re really looking forward to coming to Boston,” McColgan says. “Boston has always been a special city for us in terms of the obvious Irish connection and just the welcome we get. This is ‘Riverdance’ for the next generation.”