Riverdance, about to go, but never to be forgotten

As sure as shamrocks are green, you could be sure that Riverdance would pull into Radio City’s Music Hall in March to capitalize on the greenery of our big holiday. Sadly, that tradition comes to an end this year as the current production of the show takes a final bow.

Just as the bible is divided into two parts, Irish culture must be viewed as life before Riverdance and life afterwards. You’d have to go back to the Clancy Brothers playing on the Ed Sullivan Show in the sixties to find a time when Americans of all races were seduced by Irish music on such a broad scale.

And why not? There was something in the show for just about everyone.

Bill Whelan’s brilliant arrangements tangled the roots of Irish music with branches from other cultures. The hand claps and flamenco guitars of “Firedance” seemed right at home with the fiddles and flutes.

“American Wake (The Nova Scotia Set)” blended traditional Irish melodies with the tambourine and other flourishes and phrasings from Celtic nations. As the name would imply, “Marta’s Dance/The Russian Dervish” spun a furious reel and broke down the walls of Eastern and Western European culture in the process.

With the finger percussions and Middle Eastern chants, “Andalucia” dips Irish soda bread into hummus to create a tasty international dish. Dancing feet are percussive elements through the spirited reels, another innovative flourish.

The Irish are all high on the show now, but I remember the purists viewing the music and dancing as something this side of blasphemy. Simple bodhrans were banished in favor of booming drums to add a big show drama to the beat, and Michael Flatley’s flailing hands upset the High Mass in many parts of Ireland.

Those same Irish dancing schools discouraging this new way soon found a flood of youngsters busting down the doors of their establishments. Thanks to Riverdance a new generation of Irish step dancers was born, and the tradition, though modified, would enter a new generation in roaring form.

Every cultural touchstone is not without downsides. Riverdance ushered in an era of big Irish shows, starting with Flatley’s Lord of the Dance. The less than cheerful split between dancer and producer actually created two great shows, and composer Ronan Hardiman created inventive musical beds for Flatley’s feet of flames without sacrificing an ounce of Whelan’s emphasis on craft and arrangement.

With two successful shows out there, others jumped on the bandwagon. PBS played host to a number of Irish-themed shows in their March telethons, introducing the world to Celtic Woman, Celtic Thunder and the High Kings.

None of those shows came close to approaching the seismic cultural transformation of Riverdance, and it became obvious that the show’s producers never intended to aim that high. These shows are more about strategic brand building instead of cultural contribution.

For instance, if you put the words “Celtic Woman” into the iTunes search engine, you will find no less than 13 releases connected to the brand. You’ll see the dreadfully predictable holiday album (with a commemorative ornament taped to the box for you CD buyers), solo albums from each member that recycled the same songs, and a string of follow-up productions that offered diminishing returns with each passing year.

When the producers decided to change the plumbing, they offered up the High Kings, a nostalgic wink to the Clancy Brothers that placed the sons of Irish musical royalty into Aran sweaters.

Celtic Thunder began promisingly enough under the watchful eye of Phil Coulter, who combined talented new voices from either side of the Irish Sea with some of pop music’s greatest compositions (including some of his own) to make a uniquely Irish vibe.

But success makes good men do strange things, which probably explains why some decent folks keep going back to get milk from the cold udder of a dead cow.

Whelan should be commended for not taking that route with Riverdance, for doing so would have been akin to taking a crayon to the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Though the show takes a bow with its head high and integrity intact this month, the music lives on.


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