“Riverdance”– 20 years, and still dancing strong

It seems like only yesterday the international Irish singing and dancing phenomenon “ Riverdance” first blazed to life. Since opening in Dublin in 1995, the production has dazzled more than 25 million theatergoers across six continents. The milestone 20th Anniversary World Tour will be performing at Boston’ s Citi Wang Theatre from May 10 to May 15.

“ Riverdance” originated as a seven-minute dance number created for the 1994 Eurovision broadcast, the world’ s longest-running international television song competition. With a score by Limerick native Bill Whalen, the electrifying performance at Dublin’ s Port Theatre was an instant hit, bringing the audience to its feet.

Ironically, the extraordinary number was not part of the competition. Instead, it was meant as entertainment to fill an interval in the show. Based on the thunderous response it received, producer Moya Doherty and director John McColgan saw the potential in developing a full scale stage production.

Mixing traditional music with his own rock and rock influence, Bill Whelan envisioned a show with the band onstage to interact with the dancers. The musicians would play a variety of instruments ranging from the classic uilleann pipes and the ancient bodhran to jazzy saxophones and synthesizers. In turn, the dancing would incorporate traditional reels and jigs blended with contemporary Russian, Spanish and African-American turns. Less than a year later, “ Riverdance” was back where it all began – at the Port Theatre. That seven-minute number was now a mesmerizing, evening-long fusion of music and dance that played a sold out five week run. “ Riverdance” was officially part of the cultural landscape. At heart, the Grammy Award-winning “ Riverdance” tells the story of the Irish people – coming from many places and moving on to blend and interact with cultures around the world. Whelan has been quoted as saying he was inspired by The Liffey River, which begins in the Wicklow Mountains and travels through Dublin on its way to the Irish Sea. His concept was based on the life of the river, quiet at its origin, interacting with the land while feeding it and nourishing it, and thenrushing out to the ocean and beyond.

The current tour, directed by McColgan, features new costumes, lighting and projections plus a new number, “ Anna Livia,” featuring the female members of the dance troupe in an a capella hard-shoe number. To remain fresh while continuing its remarkable international outreach, “ Riverdance” also hosts an annual summer school for new dancers. Lauren Smyth, one of the show’ s Lead Dancers, has been performing with “ Riverdance” since 2011. Born in Newtownards, Northern Ireland, she began dancing at St. Patrick’ s School of Irish Dance. She was soon competing, winning multiple regional championships including Ulster and Northern Ireland titles. At 16 she transferred to the Reilly School of Irish Dance where her success in competition continued. She joined “ Rhythm of the Dance” in 2007, performing the lead role for three years.

We spoke by phone when “ Riverdance” was playing in Chicago.

Q. Tell me about the “ Riverdance” Summer School.
A. Last year was the first year I took part in it. It was such a great expedience, you know, to be on the other side of things. I think we had 300 dancers over three weeks. Even though I’ve been in the show for six years, time does go so fast. You kind of have to pinch yourself and be like, “ God, I’ m here, I’ m teaching these other dancers and trying to inspire them” . . . (And now) it’ s so nice to have dancers on this tour who came from that process last year.

Q. You started dancing very early.
A. I come from a musical background. My granda played the accordion and my aunties were singers and my Mom was actually an Irish dancer when she was younger. So it kind of was only natural that she was going to send me to Irish dance lessons at a young age – of course, not knowing what it was going to lead to.

Q. Were you dancing for pure enjoyment, or did you envision something more coming from it?
A. I was four when I started and obviously it was just purely a hobby, purely for the enjoyment – the love for the music and everything that came with it. I think I was seven or eight years old when I watched “ Riverdance” on the Eurovision song contest for the first time. And although I was very young, I do remember that moment. I remember that special feeling –“ That’ s what I want to do when I’ m older.” And thank goodness it’ s worked out. It’ s definitely been a dream come true from a very young age.

Q. Why do you think “ Riverdance” connects so incredibly with audiences?
A. There’ s something for everyone. There’ s not only the Irish dancing --we’ ve got our tappers, our Russian dancers, Flamenco, singers . . . 20 years ago, the cast were based in Dublin. Now, 20 years later, it’ s become a global phenomenon. We’ve dancers from all over the world. Australia, New Zealand, America, Ireland, England. It’ s crazy . . . For me, the special part of the show is the music. There’ s just something about it, even though I hear it every day . . . It can still give you goose bumps, six years down the line.

R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com. •••“ Riverdance: The 20th Anniversary World Tour,” May 10 - 15, Citi Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont Street, Boston. Info: 800-982-2787 or citicenter.org.