The Irish do music very well. You only have to look as far as Westlife or Ronan Keating to see stars revelling in international success.
However when it comes to another export – Riverdance – it could have been a harder sell, especially in Dubai. Although, if there’s one thing my trip to the UAE taught me, it’s that we need to reassess our assumptions.
In recent months Riverdance has been given its own large stage to shine on at the Expo2020, with a whole company of talented dancers taking a bit of the Emerald Isle abroad.
Here four dancers – two based in Ireland and two in Australia – tell EVOKE about their ‘surreal experience’ dancing in Dubai and why they think Riverdance has proved an huge hit.
For 17-year-old Ailbhe Liu from Donegal and 18-year-old Katie Finlay from Belfast, the Expo2020 show was their first Riverdance tour. Both dancers admit they were nervous to move away from home but were happily surprised by the open-arms welcome they got once on their adventure.
Katie, whose had a ‘lifelong dream of following in her mum’s footsteps’, told us: ‘When I was cast I couldn’t believe it. I was excited but also nervous about taking that big step from competing to being a professional dancer.’
Of course, Katie had nothing to worry about. Speaking as her time in the show ends, she said: ’It was more amazing than I could have imagined. The venue was unbelievable, the audiences were incredible and I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity.’
Principle dancers Gianna Petracic, 28, and Will Bryant, 27, both from Sydney, agree and add that being able to get back to what they love most during the pandemic was a blessing.
Will said: ‘I couldn’t wait to move to Dubai. Since the pandemic started, I hadn’t left the country in a long time, so I was over the moon to have the opportunity to see a different part of the world.’
‘I think now, travelling anywhere makes you a little nervous, whether it’s in your own country or even to your local cafe, added Gianna. ‘You always have at the back of your mind a reminder that Covid still exists.’
During the pandemic Gianna had to start a ‘new life’, complete with ‘boring’ responsibilities, and took a job as Pilates Instructor. With Australia’s strict border rules, Gianna admits the possibility of not being allowed back home did cross her mind, but knew ‘in my gut I had to take a chance’.
When asked if they were surprised by the warm welcome Riverdance received – considering the costumes and romance elements of the show in traditionally conversation Dubai – the dancers say it was ‘a beautiful experience’ seeing how the audiences reacted.
Gianna said: ‘There were a few things that made me think, “Oh really, are we still doing this here?” But honestly, it worked! The audience loved it. The Emirati people welcomed us into Dubai with the warmest of greetings. It was beautiful to experience.
‘There is definitely a difference that can be observed [performing in Dubai compared to other cities]. Anywhere you perform, it’s always going to be different. Even if its in the same city, different day. Yes it was different, but the magic and passion was there as it always is and will be.’
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Katie added: ‘It’s fantastic that the show has been so well received. Since the show’s beginnings in 1995, the global appeal has been evident. I’m not really that surprised that Dubai has embraced it as the rest of the world has done.
‘It is an elegant fusion of cultures that welcomes everyone. The people of Dubai and of the United Arab Emirates made my first experience with Riverdance very special and one I will never forget.’
The audience reaction is something all four performers have taken to heart. Ailbhe said: ‘The audiences were definitely bigger and louder with every show. They were enthusiastic and the applause and cheering demonstrated this passion.
‘Many people came up to us to say that they had watched the show multiple times. I remember one night someone screamed “I love you guys!” at the end of a second reel which made it hard to keep a straight face! There was always a strong turnout at pop-ups and masterclasses as well.’
Katie and Will also remember the sweet interactions they got to have with young members of the audience. Katie got to dance with three girls who had attended one of her masterclasses at the grand finale and Will called his own chance to meet two young fans ‘heartwarming’.
‘Each show became busier every day as the hype around the show continued to build,’ Gianna said, adding that the dancers became mini celebs on the Expo campus.
She explained: ‘People would even come up to us after the show when we were sitting down for food and say how delighted they were to see the show and experience our culture and passion. This not only included people from Ireland but also from many different countries too.’
If there’s one thing all four performers can agree on about their experience in Dubai, it’s that the heat took some adjusting too.
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Ailbhe said: ‘I expected performing to be more challenging because of the heat but this was something we quickly got used to. As a city, Dubai surpassed my expectations and the Expo was an incredible thing to be part of.’
Gianna, who loved performing the daytime shows and watching the sunset while on stage, added: ‘Dancing in Dubai was everything I had expected and more. It was very hot (and sweaty!) but I loved every minute of it.
‘I also loved being able to see the other pavilions surrounding Jubilee Stage. You could see the bright colours, lights and other traditional music whilst we proudly played ours. That experience made me feel proud to be there; to be Australian and also to represent Ireland.
‘During these moments, the theme of Expo Dubai 2020 resonated. It is about bringing together different cultures and celebrating what makes each unique for a better future for everyone.’
There are 192 pavilions at the vast Dubai Expo2020 which runs until 31 March 2022. Visitors who fly with Emirates get a free day pass for the Expo.