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A scene from Riverdance

The last dance for legendary 'Riverdance'

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A scene from Riverdance

The word “Riverdance” isn’t in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, but surely it should be.  The closest you get to Riverdance is Riverton, which the dictionary tells us is a town south of Salt Lake City in Utah, with a population of just over 25,000.

No offense to Riverton, but Riverdance is a far more worthy entrant. How would Webster define the international phenomenon that is Riverdance?  Much space would be needed.  

The show that started out as a seven minute intermission filler at the 1994 Eurovision song contest in Dublin has since blossomed into one of the most amazing success stories ever to come out of Ireland, a full-length celebration of Irish heritage and music and dance with a modern twist that is beloved by audiences the world over.

The statistics that Riverdance has piled up since its beginnings are simply staggering – the show has played nearly 10,000 performances in 40 countries, and more than 22 million people have seen it live in four continents.  The show also enjoyed a prosperous run on Broadway for 18 months.

Composer Bill Whelan’s soundtrack has sold more than three million copies, and he won a Grammy Award in 1997 for Best Musical Show Album.  Various Riverdance DVDs have been scooped up by more than 10 million fans, making it one of the most popular entertainment offerings in the world.  

And the show is still setting records no matter where it travels.  Riverdance just finished a 12-city tour of China, playing to more than 150,000 fans in the process. The tour marked the first time a western show has staged such a popular run in China, and plans are afoot to build on that success with another engagement later this year.

But in the meantime, there’s a special series of shows coming up next week for the St. Patrick’s season at Radio City Music Hall in New York, the home away from home for Riverdance.  

Radio City is, in many ways, where the show’s global seeds of success were planted.  It was first introduced to American audiences there in March of 1996, after it was expanded into a full-length music and dance extravaganza that earned raves during a run in London.

The reception on this side of the pond was even more ecstatic.  Fans – not just Irish ones – clamored for the completely unique show that offered something for everyone – flamenco dance, tap, vibrant music – all stitched together with a connection to Ireland that no one had ever before tapped into.

For John McColgan, the show’s director since day one (and husband of its producer, Moya Doherty), the Riverdance train has provided a thrilling 15-year journey that, truth be told, took him completely by surprise.

“No, I never thought we’d have this level of success for this long,” McColgan told the Irish Voice during an interview last week.   

“I did think that the show would work in Ireland, England and the United States. I thought that it would play maybe for a number of months, something less for a year.

“Nobody could have thought this. We are incredibly fortunate. It’s a unique success and a unique Irish production.”

The show has toured and sold out major venues throughout the U.S. ever since the Radio City debut, but all good things have to come to an end at some point.  Though Riverdance will continue to tour the world, the end of the current U.S. production will be celebrated with an eight-show farewell engagement that begins on St. Patrick’s night at Radio City, and concludes on March 21.

“This will be our sixth time in Radio City. We’ll have done 95 shows there to an audience of about a half million, which is huge,” says McColgan proudly.

Not that Riverdance will disappear off the U.S. radar screen entirely.  McColgan says the show will be re-tooled and eventually brought back so it can tour smaller venues that have never been able to host the show due to its vast size.  The new version will debut in Dublin this summer at the Gaiety Theatre, and then return to the road.

“What we’re hoping to do is a tour where we can play venues that we’ve never been able to play, that we can play for two nights or one night. There’s a huge number of venues. That’s the normal thing that lots of shows do,” says McColgan, who adds that the show is booked for the next two years in various corners of the world, thus making an unprecedented 20th anniversary celebration a distinct possibility.

Asia, particularly China, seems to be fertile territory for Riverdance to replicate the success it has enjoyed in the U.S.  A production of the show – currently there are three companies touring the world – is currently playing to packed houses in Seoul, South Korea, yet another first for the Riverdance juggernaut.

Asian, American, Irish, Mexican . . . no matter what the nationality, Riverdance has mass appeal.  McColgan isn’t surprised.

“The show has something that transcends cultural boundaries. It can be enjoyed by audiences who don’t need to be Irish, or don’t need to understand Irish culture,” he feels.

“But there’s a primal element in the show that’s to do with the music and the percussive dancing that really excite people. I was talking to the minister for culture in china, and he said this is more than a show; it’s an expression of a country. It’s a country presenting itself in a very proud way.”

The dancers – to date, Riverdance has provided steady employment to over 1,500 dancers, most of them Irish – are always thrilled, McColgan says, to show off their talents.  For them – and the musicians who provide the soundtrack – every night’s show can be considered opening night.

“We say to the dancers, remember who you are, and what you represent, and they take great pride in representing their country and their culture. And I think the audiences pick up on that,” McColgan says.

“We say that the performance you give tonight gives you employment in a year’s time because of the people who come to the show and have an exciting experience. When that happens they will want to come back the next time we’re around, and they’ll want to bring a friend.”

That seems to be happening in China already thanks to an overwhelming response to the just completed 12-city tour.  The Chinese promoters of the show were so pleased with the end result that they’ve asked McColgan to bring the show back at the end of 2010.  They’re also convinced that Riverdance could conduct a long and profitable yearly tour of China for the foreseeable future.

“I think for the promoters it was a breakthrough because they knew we had a strong reaction in Beijing and Shanghai, but the other cities had never had western shows before doing that sort of a tour,” said McColgan.

The Chinese tour was captured for a DVD release this summer which will be titled Riverdance: Live in Beijing.  The performances were filmed with hi-def cameras for Blu-ray, which will undoubtedly enhance the experience of watching Riverdance even more.

It’s hard to think of an Irish cultural touchstone that has had a deeper global impact than Riverdance.  U2 certainly can stand shoulder to shoulder with the show, but nothing else comes close.  For a small country with a population of four million, it’s quite a boast to have contributed not one but two acts with such significant brand recognition.

“If you say Ireland in China people respond with Riverdance and Bono and Roy Keane,” McColgan said – Keane being the controversial but brilliant soccer player who now manages in England.

“Obviously at some point Riverdance must come to an end, but while the show is still entertaining people, and people want to come see it again, we’ll keep doing it.”

For tickets to the Radio City engagement, visit www.ticketmaster.com. For information on further Riverdance performances, visit www.riverdance.com.

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