THOUGH OFTEN RELEGATED TO POP-CULTURE PUNCH LINE, RIVERDANCE STILL HAS THE ABILITY TO AWE
As of last week, Riverdance has left Toronto. The Irish-dancing phenomenon, which has toured the world several times over since its creation in 1994, bowed to its final Toronto audience after a three-day, four-show performance at the Sony Centre on the final leg of the show’s North American farewell tour. Now that it’s apparently all over, it’s a great time to look back on the show’s origins, its cultural significance, and the lasting resonance of what appears to be such a straightforwardly simple concept.
While it now seems impossible to separate Riverdance from its arena-filling performances, the worldwide hit came from unlikely origins. Originally crafted as just a seven minute space-filler during Ireland’s hosting of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest (a kitschy Europe-wide competition responsible for springing both ABBA and Celine Dion upon the world), the dance sequence proved so wildly popular that a chart-topping single and full-length stage show were quickly assembled by husband-and wife-team John McClogan and Moya Doherty. Nearly 300 million people watched the original Eurovision broadcast, and they turned out in droves for the stage shows; it’s estimated that almost 22 million people have watched Riverdance performed live.
This incredible, and almost instantaneous, fame made the show a cultural touchstone of the mid-90’s, even in North America. Riverdance arrived right alongside the surge in interest in Irish culture that included musicians such as Sinead O’Connor and The Cranberries. Of course, Riverdance was also an easy target for jokes: Chandler Bing’s pathological fear of Michael Flatley, the original star of the show(“His legs flay about as if independent from his body!”), instantly comes to mind. But the show’s popularity survived long after this brief fascination with modern Irish culture waned, and the decision to end the still-successful touring production was met with surprise.
So what is it that makes Riverdance so enduringly popular? The show should rightfully be a flop: traditional dancing, devoid of dialogue and structured around the history of Irish emigration, is a long way off from the obvious appeal of Broadway mainstays like The Phantom of the Opera or Mamma Mia. The show has no big-name stars, and there are no special effects, other than the skills of the dancers, on display. That such a straightforward premise could have such universal success and critical acclaim is pretty unparalleled, especially in our current age of showy blockbuster musicals like Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The answer is in the sheer quality of the performers. Youtube doesn’t do it justice: Riverdance really needs to be seen to be fully appreciated.
Indeed, with their performance on April 19th, the Riverdance troupe proved themselves far beyond other relics of 90’s nostalgia. The farewell tour is simply an incredible show. Using only simple backdrops, traditional costumes, and a rather vague storyline, Riverdance is able to elicit a real emotional response from its audience. The show evenly combines its famous high-energy group sequences with more mellow, ballad-like songs for the leads, and the live music accompaniment of the fiddle, pipes, and saxophone provide melodies that will stick in your head for days.
The lineup of Irish dancers performing in perfect unison somehow never loses its appeal, but by far the most exciting part of the show is the dance battle set on the street of New York City. Two African-American dancers, in a loose jazz and hip hop-inflected style, challenge three of the traditional Irish lads to a dance-off of sorts. What follows is an astounding melding of their disparate styles as the two groups try to mock each other’s moves. It’s clear that the show has a sense of humor about itself, as the two Americans riff on the Riverdance’s classic severe posture. Likewise, Flamenco dancer Nelida Tirado also provides a unique take on the show’s traditional choreography, with her Spanish-influenced solo dance that proves such traditional dancing has a much farther reach than the green fields of Ireland. As producer Julian Erskine told the Toronto Star, “[There’s] a new Ireland, a more sophisticated Ireland, and we’re proud to speak to that,” says Erskine proudly. “It’s always been one of our biggest pleasures to be able to show people that the old-fashioned Hollywood view of Ireland is a thing of the past.”
Riverdance may now also be a thing of the past to North American audiences, but I think it’s quite clear that the show’s lasting popularity and immense cultural significance will not allow it to remain gone for long.
To those who missed the final performance, all hope is not lost. If you can afford the plane fare, the show will tour Asia, South America, and possibly Africa in the coming months. For evidence on Riverdance’s total world domination, look no further than the site of its next home: rumors are circulating that after their farewell tour, Riverdance will establish a permanent show in (where else?) Dubai.