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Exclusive interview with Irish dancer Jason O’Neill from ‘Heartbeat of Home’

Thanks to Broadway in Detroit, Irish dancing will be back Motown before we have time to sweep up the green confetti. “Heartbeat of Home” rolls into town right after St. Patrick’s Day – a perfect conclusion to our Irish-themed celebrations. In case you haven’t heard, this is the new show by the “Riverdance” troupe, and it promises to be just as much if not more popular.

Jason ONeill, far left, performing with the company of Heartbeat of Home
Photo by J.Byrne

Jason O’Neill is the Featured Irish Dancer performing in “Heartbeat of Home,” and he graciously offered to answer some of our questions about this new production. A native of Belfast, Jason, under the tuition of the Armstrong School, won major solo championships at world-level competitions. Jason has toured internationally as a principal dancer in “Riverdance.” He was also part of Prodijig’s show “Footstorm,” and has danced in front of such notables as Queen Elizabeth II, US First Lady Michelle Obama, and the Princess of Hawaii.

Q) Tell us about your personal journey – how did you wind up in the cast of “Heartbeat of Home”?

Jason O’Neill: I was touring as the principal dancer with “Riverdance” when I got the call to attend a Heartbeat of Home workshop in Dublin. It was a successful and imaginative three week project that paved the way for the full length production. It was a very special time in my career when I got the call a few months later to join as one of the lead dancers.

Q) How does training for traditional Irish dance vary from classical ballet or the Broadway-based, Fosse-type show dancing?

Jason O’Neill: Traditional Irish dance focuses on posture, foot placement, musicality and flexibility in a similar way to other styles. However we keep our arms strictly by our sides, our feet consistently turned out and our legs primarily straight. We also have two unique styles infused in our dance. Light shoe dancing is more balletic focusing on elevation and movement. Hard shoe dancing focuses on rhythm, power and interpretation. Competitive Irish dancing and show dancing differ in ways also. In Heartbeat of Home we use our arms more freely and fuse elements of Flamenco, Afro-Cuban, Tap and Latin in our movement. I feel the show has created a dynamic style for a new generation of dancers.

Q) “Hearbeat of Home” is by the creators of “Riverdance,” which has always been very popular in Detroit. How is this new show different and how is it similar?

Jason O’Neill: “Heartbeat of Home” is similar to “Riverdance” because it is also a joyous and immensely energetic production featuring the best of Irish dance. The show is a high octane music and dance extravaganza that pushes the boundaries in the same way “Riverdance” did. Both shows have a deep respect for different cultures and celebrate their similarities. They have something for everyone with an incredible band and pulsing choreography.

“Heartbeat of Home” features the vibrant, dynamic components of traditional Irish, Latin and Afro-Cuban music and dance in a unique way. It also showcases high-definition, cutting edge production technology which adds to the experience of the show. Act one sets off on a dream voyage and Act Two is built around a street party. The show has thrillingly pushed Irish dancing even further befitting of a new generation.

Q) What is it about this production that finds universal appeal – that is, not only to people of Irish heritage, but people in such countries as China, where this show has had great success?

Jason O’Neill: The show transcends one culture or another it speaks to everyone. It is a celebration of diversity and it highlights all of our shared journey through life. It is an expression of home and its heart and soul, something that tangible to all of us. The storytelling is told through the borderless language of dance and music and this expression is universal.

Q) Do you have a favorite moment in the show that Detroit audiences should watch out for?

Jason O’Neill: My favourite scene pays homage to an iconic New York photograph in 1932 depicting the workers 840 feet in the air. The dance takes place on top of the girder and re-imagines the camaraderie among the men. There is a lot of humour and friendship in this scene with some tricky rhythms thrown in for good measure.

Q) Any special message for the many Irish-American citizens of the Detroit area?

Jason O’Neill: We are thrilled to be bringing this production to Detroit. It is a piece of home that you can take away with you and it is a celebration of our diaspora. On a personal level it feels incredible to tour North America and to be back in Detroit with a new production. “Heartbeat of Home” builds on what “Riverdance” has and continues to achieve. It is an exciting new venture for our country.

You can catch Jason O’Neill in “Heartbeat of Home” at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre, March 18-23, 2014. But don’t wait too long – once everyone gets in touch with their inner Irishman, these tickets are sure to go fast. Tickets are now on sale at all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 1-800-982-2787, online or at the Fisher Theatre box office.

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