Co Antrim dancer Ryan O'Neill on the building blocks of his career

Belfast contemporary dance company Maiden Voyage will tour its new show Pause and Effect next month. Performer Ryan O'Neil tells Joanne Sweeney why dance is now his life

Ryan O'Neill appears in Maiden Voyage Dance's Pause and Effect, which is at the MAC in Belfast, then touring, next month – see for details
Joanne Sweeney

BELFAST performer Ryan O'Neill may have gotten into contemporary dance at the relatively 'late' age of 18 but he has managed to carve out a career for himself which has seen him travel all over the world to perform.

Now 30, he is one of four performers who will dance in the new commission Pause and Effect, from Belfast contemporary dance company Maiden Voyage, when it does a short tour of the north next month. Pause and Effect has been created by Co Antrim choreographer Eleesha Drennan, daughter of Ulster-Scots musician and composer Willie.

Also next month, O'Neill will take on the challenge of doing his first solo performance in Bangor-based dancer and choreographer Oona Doherty's collaboration with top DJ David Holmes, Hard to Be Soft – A Belfast Prayer, which will premiere at the Belfast International Arts Festival from October 26-28.

O'Neill admits: "I'm excited but nervous as well as it's the first long solo I've ever done and it's a bit daunting. But I'm looking forward to it."

After that he's off to Shanghai, to work with world-renowned British theatre company Punchdrunk International.

Raised in Dundrod, Co Antrim, O'Neill, who studied for his A-levels at St Louise's Comprehensive College on the Falls Road in west Belfast, toyed with the idea of becoming a jockey before discovering dance.

"I kind of fell into dance, and once I did, it didn't stop after that," he says. "I was involved in theatre when I was at high school and I had to do a dance section in a show and needed to go to a dance class. I just fell in love with it there and then."

He has been dancing off and on ever since, initially as an amateur and now professionally. O'Neill not only has the moves but the academic credentials too, having gained a first-class honours degree in Dance at Ulster University before gaining an MA in Dance performance at London's Trinity Laban conservatoire.

His success has seen him dance in the US, New Zealand, Canada and the Netherlands but he knows he's lucky that most of his work now is based in Ireland.

"A lot of other dancers go away and don't come back but there's actually quite a rich seam [of work] here and it's now possible for dancers to have a career here," says O'Neill. "It does take time but if you plug away at it there's a lot on offer here."

He has just finished dancing with the Irish Modern Dance Theatre in the Dublin Fringe Festival in the Everything Now Working production and is rehearsing for a new show, 12 Minute Dances, which premieres tonight in Tallaght, Dublin.

It's his second time out with Pause and Effect, having performed it last year at the MAC in Belfast. It returns to the MAC for three performances from October 6-7 before moving to the Island Arts Centre, Lisburn, (October 11) Armagh's Market Place (October 17) and at the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey on October 19.

Described by Culture Northern Ireland as, "a clever blend of playful humour, playground antics and precisely timed sophisticated dance", Pause and Effect creates a whirlwind of action and sound based around 60 building blocks which are used to build, destroy and create a chain of events over and over again, to music composed by the choreographer's father.

It's aimed at children, but O'Neill says it will appeal to adults too.

"There's certainly a lot of stuff that adults would enjoy in it, the chaos of it all and the patience required in building something again and again, the apprehension of everything coming down again. I would say that while it's exciting for children, it's a bit stressful and heightened for adults but a fun experience for all."

Also a qualified Ashtanga yoga teacher, O'Neill says that his yoga helps condition his body for all the thrashing around on stage, adding: "It helps me unwind in between shows. And as a freelancer, it's also good to make some extra income too!"

:: For show details see and

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