Riverdance started life as a seven-minute interval act during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin, but has gone on to become a lasting, worldwide phenomenon, totally changing the view of Irish dancing.
It was first choreographed by its stars Michael Flatley and Jean Butler; with music composed by Bill Whelan, and produced by Moya Doherty.
Bill Whelan's music is an evocative and magnetic blend of traditional Irish airs and original melodies, given a new twist with Eastern European rhythms, a splash of Flamenco, and vast instrumentation. The orchestra includes guitars, keyboards, violins, accordions, saxophones, bodhrán, Uilleann pipes1, and a massive percussion section. It also features à capella choral pieces from Anúna, who perform their haunting songs with a piercing harmonic purity, while wearing dramatic, hooded, black velvet cloaks. (Interestingly, one of their members, Eimear Quinn, went on to win the Eurovision Song Contest in 1996.) The music of Riverdance has sold millions worldwide, with albums going platinum, and earning Whelan a Grammy Award in 1997 in the 'Best Musical Show Album' category.
Flatley was born in 1958 in Michigan, USA, although he regards Chicago, where he grew up, as his home. Fiercely ambitious, he twice held the Guinness world record for 'number of taps per second', and he is also a talented boxer and flautist. He has a worldwide fan base who call themselves Flatheads. He is very wealthy (worth over £350m), which has attracted some negative attention and extortion attempts; and his colourful personal life comes in for a lot of media interest.
Titian-haired beauty Butler was born in 1971 in Long Island, and was a very successful Irish dancer in New York, having started at the age of four. Aged 17, she began touring with The Chieftains. Post-Riverdance, she has created the show Dancing on Dangerous Ground with old partner Colin Dunne, and worked on her acting career, most notably in The Brylcreem Boys.
The show begins
The reaction following the first performance at Eurovision was so overwhelming that its producers quickly realised the potential for a full-length show, which premiered at Dublin's Point Theatre in 1995. It was a sell-out, and the show began to tour Europe and the United States. After a year, Flatley fell out with the team due to a disagreement over contracts, and has since gone on to devise his own Irish dancing shows: Lord of the Dance, Feet of Flames, and Celtic Tiger. He was replaced by the technically brilliant but perhaps less charismatic Colin Dunne.
The full-length show tells the journey of Irish people, flowing like a river out into the wider world: Act 1 deals with the settling of the land, and various legends, while Act 2 deals with emigration, and settling in the New World. The individual pieces vary slightly in the different productions, but will usually include:
- Reel Around the Sun - an ensemble piece celebrating the sunrise and the power of the sun.
- The Heart's Cry - a love song.
- The Countess Cathleen - the women of Ireland.
- Caoineadh Chú Chulainn - a lone piper mourns for the legendary hound of Ulster.
- Thunderstorm - a piece performed by a group of male dancers with no musical accompaniment: their hard shoes represent the sound of heavy rain.
- Shivna - the legend of Mad Sweeny, an Irish chieftain, cursed to roam the woods of Ireland with an old crone.
- Firedance - created by Flamenco dancer Maria Pages
- Slip into Spring - the Harvest - a celebration of the seasons, including a wild virtuoso fiddle solo.
- Riverdance - a recreation of the original interval entertainment from the 1994 Eurovision.
- American Wake - as Irish families prepared to leave for a life in other countries, a wake was held, filled with joyous singing and dancing to help them on their way.
- Lift the Wings - a song of lovers parting.
- The Harbour of the New World - a medley of the variety of cultures that meet in the New World. It includes the crowd-pleaser Trading Taps - a duel between traditional Irish dancers and African-American tappers.
- Slow Air, tunes/Heartland - tells of those who return to Ireland.
- Riverdance finale - a reprise of the earlier version, but with participation from all the dancers and singers.
The staging and set is simple but effective: Two ancient stone pillars form a representation of an archway, but most of the visuals are achieved with swirly, coloured lighting effects. The floor itself is miked to capture the sound of the dancer's hard shoes.
The show's legacy
The show has been described as dragging Irish dancing into the 20th Century, and credited with making it sexy. The iconic visual image from it is a long line of hard-shoe tapping dancers, absolutely in perfect unison, and as a cultural meme it is referenced in everything from Shrek to Scary Movie to Marge Simpson's idea of Catholic heaven. It doesn't attempt to follow the strict rules of competitive Irish dancing - most noticeably, the Riverdancers are allowed to use their arms. Touring companies of the show are given the names of Irish rivers - Lee, Liffey, Lagan, Foyle, Shannon, etc.
The format of the show has been adapted to other forms of traditional dance around the world, and while they have had less commercial success than Riverdance, they are testament to its pervasive influence.