In 1994, a seven-minute dance piece changed the course of traditional Irish dance and music. The short interval act produced for the Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin was called Riverdance. Dancers Michael Flatley and Jean Butler dazzled TV viewers with their new style of percussive choreography. It didn’t take long for producer Moya Doherty to expand the act into a full-length production and tour the world. Composer Bill Whelan won a Grammy for the sound-track.
The Riverdance 20 Years tour is floating the popular formula to more than 60 American cities. If you miss the San Diego show, drive to Palm Desert or Vegas this month. There’s lively dancing, music, and strange poetry read by a voice that sounds like actor Russell Crowe.
If you dig deep you might find a vague narrative about the life of a river and replenishing, but forget all that lofty stuff. The best part of Riverdance is the step dancing that sounds like an army or a few dozen drums played at one time. Beautiful men and women dance with upright torsos and their fast feet become a blur of clicking, stamps, vertical jumps and kicks. Some dance on their toes in hard shoes. It could be called Drumdance, or Traindance because their pounding feet sound like a runaway train inside the Civic Theatre.
After so many years, we are stuck with the title Riverdance. There are moments when you may long for that first seven-minute version. This one grows long if you’re sound sensitive.
Did you know? Hard shoes are not a tap shoe. They have fiberglass tips. Soft shoes are more like ballet slippers. Clicking is striking heels against each other. Trebles have toes of the shoe strike the floor. Stamps involve the whole foot. Step dancing competitions began in the late 1890s.
There are pure musical sections. Mark Alfred’s solo with brushes, stick, and hand on the bodhran drum is a highlight of the production, especially when he steps close to the stage edge. We can see the studded rim of his drum. Having him pound on two full drum sets during most of the show is more than annoying. He drowns out too much of the dancing, which is percussion on its own. His chime-tree accents border on silly.
New splashes of, Flamenco, American tap, and Russian folk dancing add culture to the production of 18 vignettes, but key elements are missing from this high-priced show.
This new Riverdance features a lovely woman in red dancing flamenco forms, but there is no authentic passion or conversation. Seems they sent her down river but left her guitar player in Spain. There is room for one. Just seat him with the band, the admirable Pat Mangan on fiddle, Matt Bashford on uilleann pipes, and Ken Edge on sax.
In “Trading Taps” two talented tappers with brown skin have a dance off with white guys. The dancing is top notch, but theatrically awkward. Savion Glover needs to step in for some rehearsals to smooth out this New York, Chicago, across-the-pond dance.
The Riverdance Russian Ensemble performs thrilling stunts, such as a propeller sequence with two men locking arms with two women and rotating at high speed.The women get double-takes during insanely fast turns along the diagonal. Not only are they splendid dancers, their skirts rise up to reveal more than long legs. Surely they wear tiny leotards, but for a second you’ll wonder if it’s a wardrobe malfunction. That may be a plus for some viewers.
Riverdance remains a phenomenal dance show. An exciting new section has women dance an acapella hard-shoe piece. The principals and troupe are rock stars of this genre. For many fans it’s about the music. Those Irish pipes and low whistles are still calling. The solo voice that sings about “nourishing you” hasn’t changed, and those perfect choirs chime in. Still, there’s a moment when you think of that lip syncing duo Milli Vanilli from the 90s because voices and lips don’t always line up. What’s up? Much of the music is canned, and that’s a production choice that needs revising. Audiences expect live music. Several million already have the recording.