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2005-03-22 Riverdance footwork blows me away

I am certain that many of us can conjure up a clear black-and-white mental image of a middle-aged man in a white pressed shirt and tie, black slacks, polished shoes, Brylcreamed-coiffure, stiff upper-body and mouth, footwork the envy of any `Fred and Ginger', followed by a big `bualadh-bos' and a bilingual summing-up by Liam Ó'Murchú

 

In 1994, Moya Doherty was asked to devise an interval act for the Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin.

Aided by the insightful guidance of John McColgan, with music by Bill Whelan, and headlined by Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, a seven-minute interval act of blinding footwork changed the image of Irish dancing, and possibly Ireland, forever. The reaction on the night was the most sustained ever witnessed before or since. Riverdance captivated and enthralled, quite literally taking the audience's breath away, with the sheer force and energy of so many bodies in thundering unison motion. 

The less stiff, and more sexy and cool approach, defined body shapes with cleavages leaving little to the imagination, and physically fit dancers who exuded enjoyment, suddenly catapulted Irish dance into the new millenium. In seven minutes, Ireland showed the rest of Europe that it was a cool, sexy and happening place, not a nation of downtrodden, sad and `troubled' people who were victims of history. Traditional dance in its most basic form gives a sense of national pride, its steps and rhythms passed down through generations. But, as new influences had transformed art and music, so too they ought to have transformed dance.

People emigrate, especially perhaps in Ireland's case, but they don't just leave their music behind them, they bring it with them, and absorb influences from their new homes. In "Riverdance  the Show", Spanish flamenco, Russian folk ballet and Afro-American tap all merge into one seamless unity, and suddenly Irish dancers found themselves on Broadway. Cheeky, quirky melodies and rhythms are juxtaposed with lonesome `keening' airs on the low flute. Whistles, bodhráns, pagan drums, uilleann pipes and fiddles  each with their distinctive Celtic timbres  blend effortlessly with 20th century guitar, sax and keyboards, as well as assorted ethnic instruments.

Ireland had produced the biggest and most lavish dance-show the world had ever seen  a musical mirroring of `the Celtic Tiger'. Before long, other copycat shows had sprung up  "Lord of the Dance", "Gaelforce", "Feet of Flames", "Spirit of the Dance", "Magic of the Dance", and "Would you ever sit down, stop your dancin' and have a cup of tea?" However insulting at times, imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery, and before long "Riverdance" was being referred to in such cult TV shows as "Father Ted", "The Simpsons" and the Hollywood blockbuster "Shrek".

Now, over 8000 performances later, "Riverdance-the Show" has been seen by over 18 million people worldwide. Three different "Riverdance" companies tour the globe, and continue to `wow' audiences the world over. On our most recent tour of the USA, we were personally invited by John McColgan to attend the 10th anniversary performance of his show at a jam-packed Radio City Music Hall in New York, and more specifically to perform at the after-show party in the exclusive Metropolitan Club on Central Park. I had recently had the pleasure of enjoying John McColgan's quirky and rather tongue-in-cheek production of "The Shaughran" at the Abbey. I had seen "Riverdance" once before at the Gaiety, and so, I knew it was not the strongest story/libretto ever to have graced the musical stage.

A loose thread traces Irish history vaguely, skipping out huge chunks of our nation's history, a certain amount of vocal miming and `tracked feet' can be a little annoying, and yet, one can't help but be caught up in that infectious "I like to be in America" rhythm, and being blown away by the footwork, in particular for me the American and Russian contributions to the evening. Of course there are purists and snobs in every walk of life, and people question whether or not Riverdance is `art'. Who cares? It projects a positive, vibrant image of our nation, and gives its audiences a `feel-good-factor'. It has lasted 10 years and must be doing something right.