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New Irish dance show set for Tyneside world premiere at The Sage Gateshead

Chris Hannon who danced with Michael Flatley in Lord of the Dance is to emulate him with his own show at the Sage Gateshead

 

Maybe this is what it sounded like along the Tyne and the Wear when shipbuilding was in its prime. But the persistent rat-tat-tat comes not from riveters plying their trade but Irish dancers in their hard shoes rehearsing for a show called Murphy’s Legacy.

The fact that the noise can be compared to that of a machine is a credit to the young men and women in black who seem to be able to drum out these Irish rhythms in perfect unison, not a tip or a tap out of place.

All right, it’s hard to hold a conversation – or conduct an interview – while it’s going on. But it makes for a brilliant spectacle. It will, if show creator Chris Hannon’s dream is to come true, have its audience clapping equally loudly when it gets its world premiere at Sage Gateshead at the end of the month.

If there are cries for more of Murphy’s Legacy, this will be music to his ears for he hopes this world premiere will prove not to be the one and only performance.

So far it’s looking good. Already there have been positive noises coming from promoters in Dubai and also countries in the Far East.

This Gateshead performance, hopes Chris, will be not just the culmination of something but also the start of something – a new show to strut its stuff in the footsteps of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. Perhaps – and he’s hoping beyond hope – the next global Irish dance phenomenon.

In the rehearsal room on the Newcastle College campus, Chris tells me he is 32 and started Irish dancing when he was eight years old at the Hannon Murphy School of Irish Dancing, run by his mother and grandmother in Chapel House, Newcastle (there are other branches in Corbridge and Durham).

Rehearsals for Murphys Legacy at Newcastle College.
Rehearsals for Murphys Legacy at Newcastle College.
 

“I danced there from the age of eight until I was 16 and then I went on to Lord of the Dance,” he says.

Lord of the Dance, of course, was the creation of Irish dance whizz Michael Flatley, the talented but driven Chicago-born offspring of Irish parents who pounded his way to fame in Riverdance, the show which began as interval entertainment at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin.

Chris remembers it well and laughs. “We had a holiday home in the Lake District but the TV reception was terrible.

“I was on the verge of qutting dancing at the time. I went to an all boys school (Newcastle’s St Cuthbert’s High School whose alumni also include one Gordon Sumner, aka Sting) and it was tough. I’d had enough. But once Riverdance came on, that was it. I was totally inspired and decided to keep going.”

It was the right decision. Four years later Chris was auditioning for Michael Flatley at Wembley Arena.

“It was very difficult,” he recalls. “We were auditioning in front of all the top people and there were hundreds of boys and girls.

“Some of us got called back for a six-week rehearsal period but even then it wasn’t over. There were 70 dancers but they only needed 35. We didn’t know that. We all got there thinking we were safe but every now and again someone would disappear. I suppose it was kind of like The X Factor.”

It transpired that a new Lord of the Dance show was being created for Las Vegas but in the end Chris didn’t go. He opted to stay home in Newcastle and finish his exams.

That could have been that but Chris was determined and clearly he was good, too. “In July of 1998 I went straight into Feet of Flames in Hyde Park. It had 100 dancers in it and was intended as a one-off.”

Rehearsals for Murphys Legacy at Newcastle College.
Rehearsals for Murphys Legacy at Newcastle College.
 

Flatley’s sensational Lord of the Dance spin-off was watched by an audience of 25,000 people, all thrilling to the rhythm of foot-tapping Irish dance and – as with the original – a dramatic storyline with its roots in fantasy and myth.

Chris danced full-time for 13 years and then part-time for two before coming down to earth with a bump. “I got a job at a chemical plant in Cramlington.”

The interview, I venture, must have been interesting.

He smiles. “It was the first interview I’d ever done because in my other life as a dancer I’d always been headhunted. It was my first interview and I said, ‘I’m a dancer’.”

He stuck it for a few months before he could take it no longer. Thereafter it seems he was fated to follow in Flatley’s footsteps and put on a show.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, even when I was in Lord of the Dance.

“I did do some little shows in Haydon Bridge with the dance school, using Lord of the Dance steps. After a meeting with the parents, we decided to do four shows across the North East. I created the choreography and they went down a storm.”

These shows were performed at the People’s Theatre, the Queen’s Hall in Hexham, the Gala Theatre in Durham and the Customs House in South Shields.

“We had 12 dancers, all girls and all aged 14 to 25. They were all strong dancers and the feedback we had was brilliant.”

It encouraged Chris to set his sights a bit higher. “I thought that with professional dancers and a great soundtrack we’d be laughing.”

Sitting next to Chris is Andrew Archer from Newcastle-based Loft Music, which has offices and studios in Carliol Square and an enviable track record in producing music for various formats.

Andrew is the producer of the show; his Loft Music partner John Elliott composed the music and is musical director of Murphy’s Legacy. In a parallel existence Andrew and John are also Trafik, a DJ/producer duo who have released several singles and albums and specialise in remixes.

The pair met, says Chris, “by accident”.

Rehearsals for Murphys Legacy at Newcastle College.
Rehearsals for Murphys Legacy at Newcastle College.
 

“When I gave my job up in Cramlington I worked on the taxis for a while. I picked John up from Loft Music one night and we got talking and I said I might have something for him.”

Proving that serendipity really was at play, Andrew recalls that back in 1995-6 he created an electronic club remix of a Lord of the Dance track.

“The real star of this is John who wrote the main theme to the show and four or five tracks to go with it. The more he got involved, the more we wanted to put our stamp on the show. It has become quite a big deal for Loft and for John. It’s pretty much all of his writing.”

John worked with Luc McNally, a Glasgow-based guitarist and accordionist originally from Dipton, County Durham, who pulled together some of our most accomplished folk musicians to contribute to a score featuring accordion, guitar, flute, fiddles, voices and uilleann pipes, the bagpipes of Ireland.

Chris had already written a good versus evil tale featuring members of the Murphy clan who, in a bid to find a better life, set sail from the Emerald Isle – only to wind up on the Atlantic island of Ishan which proves not to be a welcoming place.

As well as the music and the dancers, Murphy’s Legacy involves an Irish voice actor, Rick Whelan, who will keep the narrative driving along.

As for the dancers, Chris has pulled together an impressive international cast which includes Zach Klingenberg from the United States, four times a top 10 finisher in the Irish dance world championships, Kaila-Lee McManus, from Northern Ireland, another top championship contender, and Katrina Hesketh, from Newcastle, who performed the lead role in Lord of the Dance for almost five years and now teaches at the Hannon Murphy Irish dance school where she trained.

Rehearsals for Murphys Legacy at Newcastle College.
Rehearsals for Murphys Legacy at Newcastle College.
 

“I wanted 35 dancers but the costs involved are massive so I whittled it down to 26,” says Chris. “But that’s still a big number. We had interest from across the world but they are mostly from America, all over Ireland and all over the UK.”

Chris says his family have helped to fund the show but money has also been secured via a crowd funding website and from Government business start-up funds. Many of those involved in the show have been generous with their time.

Chris, who will dance the lead role in the show, ranks the night of the premiere alongside the first time he danced the lead role in Lord of the Dance – “when I was 20, in France, and my mum and grandma came over to see it” – and when he danced alongside Michael Flatley himself.

“Those were really nerve-wracking occasions but I don’t really know how I’ll feel on the night. There will be 50 million thoughts going through my head. Usually, though, when I go on stage that just stops.”

For every thought there is likely to be a sharp tap of shoe on wood in Sage Gateshead’s Hall One. And if, in person, Chris can talk of nerves, none of that is evident on the show’s website, www.murphyslegacy.co.uk , which talks confidently of his show “taking flight on a magical world tour” after the Gateshead performance.

Murphy’s Legacy is at 7.30pm on January 31. For tickets call 0191 443 4661 or book online at www.sagegateshead.co.uk

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