Northeast Ohio native Brandon Asazawa, a five-time Mid-American champion in Irish dance competition, found a way to turn his passion for his chosen art into a full-time career. Now in his eighth year with the popular Riverdance production, Asazawa has worked his way up to the show’s leading role. From his humble beginnings growing up in Eastlake, Asazawa began his foray into Irish dance at only four years of age! Before hitting his teenage years, Brandon was determined to be better than almost anyone at his art of choice.
Now, the 27-year-old is part of arguably the most popular Irish Dance performance outlet and is coming home to perform in the very venue where he found inspiration to pursue his passions.
Asazawa checked in with CleveRock via ZOOM for a brief interview while taking a break during his travels in Germany to discuss his Cleveland area roots and spill the beans about Riverdance’s upcoming performances at KeyBank State Theatre in the Playhouse Square complex from March 3 -5.
CleveRock: How excited are you to be returning to your hometown to perform in front of family, friends, and people who helped make you the performer that you are today?
Asazawa: “It means the world to me. When I was a kid, I went to see Irish dance shows at Playhouse Square. I was so eager. I wanted to get up on the stage with them. Obviously, at the time, I was too young, but now, to have my teachers come out, other students I worked with come out, my family; my friends, I mean, they are all the people that got me there. I don’t view coming home for these shows so much about me. It’s more about giving back to them and showing them my gratitude and appreciation. I wouldn’t be here without them. I feel very lucky to be able to fulfill this dream. It’s great for the Cleveland community, too. To see someone who grew up and do Irish dance around there… You wouldn’t expect someone from Cleveland to perform in a big Irish company. It’s great for kids to see. It’s great for my family to see.”
CleveRock: Can you discuss your Cleveland upbringing and where you received your education in Irish dance?
Asazawa: “I went to The Leneghan Academy of Irish Dance in Westlake. It’s run by Katharine Leneghan. I started there when I was four years old. I spent from 4 to 18 learning dance and competing with schools all over the country and all over the world. I went to the world and national championships.
Katharine really helped me understand the fundamentals of what I had to learn in order to get to the place I am now, up until I graduated high school and decided to go into professional dancing. I knew I wanted to do Riverdance at the time. They helped me to get to where I wanted to be and help me get through that process.”
CleveRock: Many youngsters traditionally turn to athletics or music as their extracurricular activity of choice. what inspired you to choose Irish dance instead?
Asazawa: “I think that it’s similar to sports in a lot of ways. You have to learn to be a team player. You’re working within a school, working with other people; constantly competing against yourself and other people. You need so many things. I have friends from all over the world. I’m very fortunate to have those kinds of connections with some of the people I’ve competed against.
For my family, it was a family outing. We would go to competitions together. A lot of major competitions happened over Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July and it is a different kind of celebration as well. Whatever you’re passionate about, there are kids that come into Leneghan all the time and they love soccer or basketball. They love dance, too.
This is an outlet where you push yourself both physically and emotionally. The kids that I know that dance throughout the week are tough. They work through a lot of injuries and a lot of challenges and face a lot of failures. I think it’s a great opportunity to grow. For me, it’s been an outlet. It’s been my lifeline for everything.”
CleveRock: For a theater patron with only a vague idea of what to expect at a Riverdance performance, can you describe what someone attending one of the upcoming shows in Cleveland will be treated to?
Asazawa: “The show is really somewhat a celebration of Irish Culture. It’s a display of Irish culture and tradition.
The first half of the show focuses on the myth and legend and the origin of where the Irish culture kind of comes from; where the pride comes from in ourselves and in the community. If you have any Irish American friends, you know they are very proud people and take a lot of pride in who they are. The first act kind of talks about where that comes from.
The second act focuses on moving beyond the homeland and moving outward to find a better opportunity; but also keeping that tradition and sharing the culture with other people in the shows. We have other dancing besides Irish. We have Eastern European folk dance, we have flamenco; we have American Tap. That second half is kind of this opening and we see how Irish Culture has spread throughout the world, and it shows the passion behind the culture and how it resonates with so many people, even if they aren’t Irish. You find that on St. Patrick’s Day, people find a way to feel Irish, even if they aren’t Irish. If you’re coming to the show, you’ll find a way to feel part of that community, no matter where you are from.”
CleveRock: Riverdance is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Productions come; productions cease, what makes Riverdance successful enough to have sustained a 25-year run and still maintain its popularity to a level that it can presumably last at least another 25 years?
Asazawa: “I think that it’s somewhat to do with that it resonates with any country; any people. We’ve had success in China and America. We’re going to Mexico soon. When you go to see Riverdance, by the end of the show, everyone is on their feet and dancing with us. I’ve been in the company for eight years. At every show, people are on their feet by the end. It doesn’t matter what country we are in. People feel included. It’s a very inclusive show. There’s a magic combination of music that’s composed by Bill Whelan, a legendary Irish composer, and it’s just a mixture of the music and the dance and the atmosphere. It really blends perfectly together to create this celebration and I think that people want to be involved. You see people dancing in the stands. I think that it is something that everyone can relate to.”
CleveRock: When a fan of a traditional rock concert goes and sees a band like, Lynyrd Skynyrd, for example, while the whole performance is enjoyable, the crowd is anxiously awaiting the moment when the group plays “Free Bird.” What is the “Free Bird” equivalent in Riverdance?
Asazawa: “It likely is the Riverdance number, which was the original number. Riverdance was born from a Eurovision Song Contest. It’s a contest that goes on in Europe. It’s massive. It is an interval act and it isn’t very long. That number, Riverdance, essentially went viral before there was technology to make it go viral. By word of mouth, it became this sensation. That music is the number that hits the hardest. It gets people clapping, smiling, and having a good time.”
CleveRock: Is the original Riverdance number that you just mentioned your favorite part of the show to perform? Or, is it something else?
Asazawa “I think my personal favorite is a number we do with the tappers. It’s called Taps. It’s basically a back-and-forth a cappella and it mixes the Irish and Tap techniques. It’s kind of like we’re meeting the tappers and they are meeting us and we are not sure about each other. By the end of it, we are jamming together and finding these similarities in our cultures. I love jamming and improving and getting out there and performing in that sense. It’s a fun number.”
CleveRock: As somebody who has fulfilled his childhood dream of making a career out of his passion for the performing arts, what advice do you have for the current generation of young students in Northeast Ohio who are interested in one day turning their own passion for the arts into a full-time job?
Asazawa: “The biggest piece of advice I can give is that if you really, truly want it, it will happen. It takes a lot of patience and dealing with a lot of failures. There are a lot of times that you’re not going to know how that dream will work out. For any artist, the persistence behind working beyond the failures and challenges. Keep pushing against all odds. That’s the thing that I find in my profession, people who push to the top are the ones that didn’t give up.
When I came out of high school I just told myself that I was going to show. There was no Plan B. I didn’t want to college at the moment. When you have the blissful ignorance that this is going to happen, it helps you get to where you want to be. You just have to move past all the no’s, because there will be a lot of no’s. It’s all about the passion and keeping the dream alive.”
CleveRock: Next weekend, you will be on the same stage where you watched performers who inspired you. How gratifying is it for you to be able to inspire a new generation of potential performers?
Asazawa: “I just think that it’s paying It forward. I had people that were role models to me as a kid that really ignited my passion. If I can do that for one kid or two kids, or twenty, if I can be that person for anyone to make them believe that maybe, ‘this is a possibility,’ maybe I have some sort of path to get there. Whatever I can do to help out that next generation is a blessing and a gift.”