Ipswich/Southend: Seven minutes turns into 20 years and counting for Riverdance
- Credit: Archant
It was seven minutes that captivated the world. When the first full-length Riverdance show opened in Dublin in 1995, fresh off the back of that Eurovision performance a year earlier, nobody expected it would be running a year later let alone 20, confesses executive producer Julian Erskine.
“We all knew it was really good, really exciting, fresh, different but ultimately you’re talking about an Irish dance show in Dublin at a time when Irish dancing wasn’t known outside Ireland, certainly not on any commercial level. None of really considered the fact it could move beyond Ireland. When you say that now it sounds like ‘ why wouldn’t you’?
“It was put together as a major show in Dublin that was going to be televised, videoed... There was no plan to go anywhere beyond Dublin. There was such a reaction to it... People, promoters, came from London, New York because they heard this buzz about this new show and said ‘you have to travel this’.”
Travel it has. Composed by Bill Whelan, produced by Moya Doherty and directed by John McColgan, it has been performed across the UK where it has been experienced by more than 2.9million people over more than 1,000 performances in 18 cities. Its worldwide TV audience is in excess of 2billion people.
Riverdance, says Erskine, responsible for keeping all the Riverdance companies and productions worldwide on the road, changed everything.
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“There was no such thing as an Irish dance show before Riverdance, no such thing as a professional Irish dancer before Riverdance. Irish dancing was a competitive amateur hobby – kids did it at school, when they left school they gave it up.
“At one stage there were 15 Irish dance shows touring the world, before Riverdance there wasn’t one. We’ve had thousands of people through our companies over the years. Nowadays when a kid is taking Irish dance lessons they can consider earning a living at it.”
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The 20th anniversary tour had just visited Limerick when I caught up with him. What was a real eye-opened was how many of the audience had never seen the show.
“I think it’s an age thing. People who were maybe 13-15 when the show was around last time who mightn’t have come are now in the their 30s. They’re happily coming now and and really surprised. I remember in 1995-1997, the audience would sometimes actually shout at the end of a number, almost a shout of surprise... That was happening over the last few days in Limerick, at the end of some of the numbers there was an automatic, instant roar of delight from people who’d seen something they’d never seen before.”
Standing at the back of the auditorium, Erskine got a huge belt of emotion at the end when the audience went wild; forgotting the affect the show can have on a big audience.
“There’s a collective emotional response to Riverdance that is quite particular. We’re very lucky because this show is 20-years-old and there’s no sign of it slowing down.”
He puts its continued success down to several things. Most important is not messing with the music and the choreography which have barely changed since those early years. Although they have, as Erskine puts it, gone backwards in order to go forwards - getting some of the original performers back in to give the latter a tidy.
A lot of work has gone into how the show’s presented. For the 20th anniversary tour they’ve commissioned a new lighting design, switched from projection to LED screens, upgraded the sound system and introduced a new range of costumes.
“There’s a feelgood factor with Riverdance... You see people dancing out of the show, people who have never done Irish dancing trying to do the steps going down the road on their way home,” he laughs.
The success of Riverdance across the whole world has gone beyond everybody’s wildest dreams, adds producer Doherty.
“The fact the show continues to draw and excite audiences is a tribute to every dancer, singer, musician, staff and crew member who have dedicated themselves to the show. This 20th anniversary tour is a thank you to our UK audiences and a celebration of what has been an incredible journey across two decades.”
The Riverdance 20th Anniversary Tour comes to Southend’s Cliffs Pavilion from September 2-7 and the Ipswich Regent from September 9-14.