Back in 2010, dancers Suzanne Cleary and Peter Harding — former Riverdance cast members now known as “Up & Over It” — became a viral sensation after a video of the pair “hand dancing” to “We No Speak Americano,” by Yolanda Be Cool & D Cup ft. Cleary & Harding, hit the web. Recently, their fame enjoyed a resurgence with the release of a new video featuring “Hands (Michael Woods Dub Remix)” by the Ting Tings.
After the initial release of the “Americano” video, the dancers captured the attention of the fickle web and world press, scoring appearances on Good Morning America and America’s Got Talent, as well as their very own MacDonald’s commercial.
After the premiere of their new video last week, we contacted Jonny Reed, the videographer behind those viral videos (and Harding’s husband) to find out more about the art of Irish hand dancing, and whether the ex-Riverdancers’ fame has gone to their heads.
How did you and the dancers start working together?
Suzanne and Peter have been performing together for 15 years, first in Riverdance and then in various other Irish dance shows. Peter and I are married but the three of us worked together on one of those stereotypical Irish dance shows –- Suzanne played the personification of the famine.
How did this whole project begin? Did Up & Over It come first, or did it form after ‘Americano’ caught on?
Up & Over It came first. Suzanne and Peter were frustrated with the career options that were open to them as professional Irish dancers in their 30s. There’s a handful of respected shows you can tour with, but these are more museum pieces and present an archaic or fetishised vision of Ireland and Irish dance. We wanted to create work that said something new and that would resonant with our peers who may have been turned off Irish dance because of Michael Flatley. Hand dancing is just one part of this project.
What exactly is Irish hand-dancing? Did you guys come up with it?
All Irish dancers practice with their hands but Suzanne and Peter are the first to turn it into performance. We were getting ready for Up & Over It’s first full-length show and needed to make an online trailer, but had no access to a dance space. I suggested we film a simple, domestic argument, but just using hands, in our kitchen. That’s how the whole thing started.
What has the response been like after ‘Americano’? I know the dancers were on TV/in commercials etc.
We made ‘Americano’ to get noticed. We would have never chosen that song as an Up & Over It anthem, but we knew it would resonate with a lot of people. Still, the film was a statement against the Flatley effect; it was the antithesis of everything he’s done. There’s a picture of him at the beginning of the film and Suzanne and Peter sign ‘We no speak Americano.’
The reaction however was amazing. Doors opened and we said yes to everything. It’s not easy being independent, self-producing artists. It’s hard to get funding, so we needed the commercials and TV appearances to fund and publicize our work. But you definitely pay an artistic price for commercial success. People like to put you in a box and project on to you their own image of what they think you should be.
What has the response to the new video been? It’s significantly darker than the last.
We were in a dark place making it! After a year of doing the circuit we lost touch of what Up & Over It was. The concept is more than just two people Irish dancing to pop music. There’s a meaning behind everything we do. We knew there would be mixed reactions to this video because it’s totally different to ‘Americano.’
We felt that people were passively watching our work, so we wanted to make something that really shouted at people, to sit up and take notice. We’re poking fun at our Internet fame and the image we projected over the past year. Our work has always had a darker, twisted edge to it. Even ‘Americano,’ believe it or not.
What are your plans for the future?
We want to continue making online videos and performing our live shows. Our main aim is to make Irish dance relevant as an artistic expression. We’re in this for the long haul, so over the next five years there’ll be dark films, funny films, even irreverent films, but they’ll also be entertaining.
By Brenna Ehrlich
Image courtesy of Facebook, Up & Over It