BWW Interview: Jason O'Neill of RIVERDANCE 25TH ANNIVERSARY which runs 1/10-12, 2020 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place Des Arts
Jason O'Neill was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He became passionate about Irish dancing, Irish culture and music as a young boy and seeing RIVERDANCE changed his life. It became his goal to become a professional Irish dancer and perform in RIVERDANCE, which he has now done for 10 years. I had the chance to speak with O'Neill prior to his arrival in Montreal where the RIVERDANCE 25th ANNIVERSARY tour will play a limited engagement at Salle Wilfred-Pelletier, Place des Arts, January 10-12, 2020. RIVERDANCE exploded on the scene in 1995 and changed Irish Dancing forever.
HANNIBAL: Tell me a little bit about your journey into the arts.
O'NEILL: I became passionate about Irish dancing at an early age. I am the second youngest child and all of my six sisters were dancing. My mum brought me to dance class and at the age of 5 and I said I wanted to do it. I thought I would enjoy it. It became such a passion of mine. All of my sisters quit and got regular jobs, but I just fell in love with it and it has been a great journey for me.
HANNIBAL: Was your discipline always Irish Dancing, or did you have other disciplines?
O'NEILL: My main passion was Irish dancing. I think I just feel in love with how unique it was to my culture and heritage. It lead me to music and literature and really connected me to who I am. As I got older, I tried other things like tap dancing and flamenco and enjoyed them, but my main discipline is Irish dancing.
HANNIBAL: What was the process like when you first auditioned and began with RIVERDANCE?
O'NEILL: I had a gap year from University. We have to take a year off to work in our chosen field. I was studying graphic design. I decided that year was my chance to pursue dance. I recorded a video of myself dancing and I sent it down to Dublin. They accepted the video and said they would like me to come and dance for them. I went down and auditioned at The Gaiety Theatre, funny enough. I got an email a few weeks later inviting me to go on tour. So I went on tour around Europe for a year and a bit. It was incredible. I was one of the troupe dancers and I just fell in love with it. I went back to University to finish my degree and then I went back to RIVERDANCE. Since then, my career really took off. It all started as a video sent to Dublin. It filled me with confidence and it's been my passion ever since.
HANNIBAL: How did it feel for you when you landed your first lead?
O'NEILL: It was incredible. I had just returned from University and was performing in RIVERDANCE. A few shows in, I got offered the lead role, which was a dream come true and unexpected. I trained for a few weeks and my first performance was at The Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. All of my family came down. I was so nervous and so excited, but it went really well. My sisters really helped me learn the craft. They pushed me and supported me as a child, so it's great when they get to come down and see me. I have now been doing lead for 8 years, so it just snowballed from there.
HANNIBAL: Do you have a favourite moment from the show?
O'NEILL: It changes all the time, but for me, I think one of the most iconic moment for me was my first lead performance because of the anticipation and the nerves. I dreamt about it as a young boy. I dreamt that I was on stage and everyone was clapping. It was a dream come true.
HANNIBAL: What is your favourite thing about tour life?
O'NEILL: Being on stage, of course. But also, being with my friends. They are like a family that you bring on the road. I just love the memories you make. I love going to different restaurants. I love going hiking around different cities and meeting new people. It takes you out of your comfort zone and opens your eyes. I just love going to explore.
HANNIBAL: Have you ever been to Montreal?
O'NEILL: I was there in 2012 with RIVERDANCE. I really loved it there and I'm so excited to go back. The idea of snow is really exciting to us!
HANNIBAL: How do you maintain your health when you are doing such a long run of a big beast of a show?
O'NEILL: It's a strenuous job. You have to look after your mental health and your physical health. I watch what I eat. Before I go on tour, I always prep really well. I look at my diet. I look at what muscles need to be worked on. I do a lot of running, skipping, swimming. I make sure my body and my mind are prepped. I'm going to be away from my family. I'm going to be on the road. I make sure I am in the best possible condition. When I'm on the road, I just try to have fun. I tell myself that this is my passion and this is what I was born to do and 'you're a very lucky person.' We always make sure that we keep ourselves in tip top shape. I keep that mindset of 'you're not alone' and that really helps.
HANNIBAL: Do you find that there are major difference in North American audiences versus Irish or European audiences?
O'NEILL: North American audience are not afraid to show their appreciation. They are not afraid to clap, stand on their feet and really tell you how they feel. We welcome that. It gives us energy for our performance. It invigorates us. I always find North American audiences one of the best and I can't wait to hear that big applause. Everywhere go from Canada to the States, I just meet so many nice and welcoming people. They are not afraid to have a conversation and tell me their background and story. It's an incredible feeling.
HANNIBAL: Do you have any advice for dancers or aspiring dancers who may be reading about you?
O'NEILL: Always remember why you dance and what you are trying to say as a dancer. You should remain positive and have a good outlook about dancing. It's your passion. It's something I used to use as an escape from the realities of life and school. I use dance as my self expression, so I don't want to lose sight of that because it's my job. I make sure to always have fun. Always remember to be passionate and ambitious, but also keep the fun alive.
HANNIBAL: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
O'NEILL: We are all very excited for RIVERDANCE to come to Montreal. It's the premiere of the 25th Anniversary of the show, so it's a new version that you've never seen before. It's got new screens, new lighting design. The music has been remastered by Bill Whelan who won a Grammy for the show [in 1997]. It's going to be an amazing experience. We are so excited to see this new chapter of RIVERDANCE and this new version of the show.
RIVERDANCE began its journey as the interval act in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, produced for television by Moya Doherty. This electrifying and innovative seven minute dance piece was then developed into a full-length stage show by Producer Moya Doherty, Composer Bill Whelan and Director John McColgan. With its fusion of Irish and International music and dance, the show broke all box office records during its world première run in Dublin in early 1995. When the show transferred to London the reaction was unprecedented. There followed a hugely successful tour starting in New York in March 1996, where 8 sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall heralded the start of two decades of touring by RIVERDANCE companies throughout North America. Since its inception RIVERDANCE has packed theatres throughout North America, Oceania, Asia, Europe, South Africa and South America.
RIVERDANCE runs January 10-12, 2020 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts, 175 Saint-Catherine St W, Montreal, Quebec H2X 3X5
Tickets are on sale by telephone at 1 866 842-2112 or by visiting www.evenko.ca
Photo Credit: Jack Hartin