Riverdance lead dancers Will Bryant and Anna Mai Fitzpatrick
‘Riverdance’ at 27: It’s right for the times, still larger than life, but perhaps closer to us
Dancers parse message: ‘Unity’ … ‘A journey’ … ‘A love story, too’
Among the many millions of people who watched the original “Riverdance” – the seven-minute performance piece broadcast during the intermission of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest – was one Sharon Fitzpatrick of Navan in Co. Meath. Active in ballet and gymnastics before marriage and motherhood, Fitzpatrick was instantly smitten by the grace, power, and artistry she saw on her TV screen.
Although she likely never imagined that two of her children – one of whom wasn’t born yet – might someday both be part of this groundbreaking, innovative production, the possibility was certainly an appealing one, recalls her daughter, Anna Mai.
“Mom didn’t know what she was watching, but she was just overwhelmed by it,” said Fitzpatrick, 24, who arrived four years after that memorable event, by which time “Riverdance” had been expanded and developed into a full-length stage show and world-wide phenomenon. “The feelings she had about it stayed with her. So when I was four, she signed up my brother Fergus [then eight years old] and me for Irish dance. We were at the age when you’re told, ‘You need to start focusing on one thing.’”
Two years after that, Anna Mai got her first in-person glimpse of “Riverdance.” Her mother, she recalls, pointed to the stage and told her, “Someday, you’ll be up there.”
Last month, the Fitzpatrick siblings came to Boston’s Wang Theatre as part of the “Riverdance” 25th anniversary tour, originally slated for 2020 but delayed by Covid-19. The quarter-century milestone has provided a natural impetus for a look back at the show and the cultural and social as well as artistic impact it has had, in Ireland and well beyond.
The 25-year mark also is a significant demarcation point for Anna Mai and Fergus Fitzpatrick and their contemporaries who are part of what might be called “the Riverdance generation”: Irish dancers – professional and amateur – born during the show’s lifespan, their development inspired and informed by its pioneering choreography and staging, and the star power of Michael Flatley, Jean Butler, Colin Dunne, Joanne Doyle, and others who, like both Fitzpatricks, have played lead roles. It bears mentioning, too, that there are children of past “Riverdance” performers in the company now.
The day before the show opened, Anna Mai and another lead dancer, 27-year-old Australian Will Bryant, relaxed in the Wang’s lobby and mused about “Riverdance” and its place in their lives, and in the larger world of art and culture. On the one hand, they feel a connection – one for which they are grateful – with those who have trod the boards before them. Yet they also exhibit confidence that the roles are theirs to mold in their own images, and according to their own talents and personalities.
“What I remember from that first time seeing ‘Riverdance’ is the faces of the dancers,” said Fitzpatrick, who first joined the show in 2018 and moved into the lead role on its 2020 North American tour. “Everyone up on the stage looked so happy, so energized, and the feeling they gave me, at age six, was thrilling and exciting. I still get that feeling now. I consider myself very lucky to be part of this legacy, and so for me, doing the best I can is a way of giving back to ‘Riverdance.’”
Bryant was born around the time “Riverdance” transitioned into a full-fledged stage show; he first saw it at age 10, six years after he had started Irish dance (he also trained in ballet, contemporary, and tap dance). Like Fitzpatrick, he was struck as much by the pure emotionality as the dancing.
“The part I remember in particular is the lament, ‘Caoineadh Cú Chulainn,’ played on the uilleann pipes,” said Bryant, a seven-year “Riverdance” veteran who has toured in more than 10 countries. “The music was so emotional, and it had a big impact on me. I thought, ‘I’d like to be part of this someday.’
“Now that I am, one of the most important things I do is to experience the show as part of the audience. You really want to be aware of the impact it has on the people watching it, because that helps you better appreciate the show and the part you play in it.”
Once they joined the show, Fitzpatrick and Bryant – both of whom have also performed in “Heartbeat of Home” (a show by “Riverdance” producers Moya Doherty and John McColgan that blends Irish, Latin, and Afro-Cuban music and dance) – were able to appreciate why it made such an impression on them and so many others.
“I have never been around so many people with such an incredibly good work ethic,” said Fitzpatrick. “Collectively, there’s this incredible desire to put on the best show possible. I’ve learned so much just by being around them.”
“What you learn in a show like ‘Riverdance’ is that it’s not only about you, it’s also about the other person,” said Bryant. “I see that attitude on stage but also behind the scenes everywhere, whether it’s the crews handling sound, lighting, costumes, stage – anyone and everyone. You develop a real admiration for the way people put their various skills and know-how together, and make things work.”
One of the more challenging aspects of becoming a “Riverdance” performer, according to Fitzpatrick, who like Bryant competed in Irish dance for many years, is that technical excellence – being able to move your legs and feet the right way at the right time, and hit those rhythms – isn’t enough.
“Yes, you need to be a good dancer, and I feel competition helps you do that: You develop the mindset as well as the skills,” she explained. “At the same time, in this show, you have to remember you’re playing a character. It’s totally different than dancing at a fleadh or feis. You have to have a good sense of yourself and what you’re trying to project as you’re going through the choreography, or interacting with other dancers. Everybody has to do that their own way, but one of the great things about ‘Riverdance’ has been that there are people you can talk to, and who will help you, so you can look in the mirror and see the character you’re trying to be.”
As both appreciative viewers and cast members, Fitzpatrick and Bryant have seen the accumulation of changes to "Riverdance" over time, whether new or revamped scenes, advances in audio or stage technology, or transitions in the cast and creative team. But there are some constants to the show that resonate even after 25-plus years, and the pair unhesitatingly cited one in particular: the score by Bill Whelan.
"The music, absolutely," said Fitzpatrick. "It's been remastered for the 25th anniversary tour, and there are some slight variations from earlier, but you just get that timeless feeling when you hear it. There's just nothing like it – it's a celebration of culture and experience."
"The different moods [Whelan] creates, the way the music builds and releases, the energy it brings – that's always been a constant," agreed Bryant.
What is “Riverdance” about? There are any number of views on that, of course: a collection of set pieces that attest to the Irish love of music, dance, and story-telling, perhaps, or a comingling of great, universal humanistic and literary themes. Bryant and Fitzpatrick contemplated the question and gave answers that were slightly different from one another yet not all that dissimilar.
"I think the message of 'Riverdance' is unity," said Bryant. "You have different styles of dance, different rhythms – Irish, American, Latin, tap – that encounter and collide with one another, sometimes forcefully, and in the end there's a common bond formed."
"It's about a journey, one that shaped Irish culture but also where Irish culture shaped others," said Fitzpatrick. "In 'Riverdance,' we go around the world, and share and learn elements of one another's lives, and it changes us all.
"But I see 'Riverdance' as a love story, too, one that transcends time and distance. There are many things going on, and it gives you a lot to think about, even as you watch and listen."
A short while later, Fitzpatrick and Bryant headed off, the hours counting down for the curtain to rise and the story to begin once again, as it has for a generation.
A few thoughts on “Riverdance” 25 (actually 27) years on:
•The adjective “reimagined” has often been used to describe the current production, and part of that reimagining entailed scaling it down. The set was more compact, and so the action took place in a proportionately condensed area. That might have been a function of the Wang’s dimensions, at least in part, but there was other streamlining: The cast was smaller, with some members taking on multiple roles and certain segments featuring fewer performers than in earlier incarnations (“Morning in Macedonia/Russian Dervish” had two couples instead of three, for example).
Part of what made “Riverdance” so compelling at the outset was its expansiveness: the sheer size of the cast, what with lead and featured dancers as well as the troupe, plus singers and musicians; that long, long line of stepdancers in the finale; the wide-open spaces in which Butler, Flatley et al cavorted – in the process mapping out this broad new territory for Irish dance. The current show acknowledges this, in the brief video tribute screened on stage at the very beginning.
But none of the recent alterations, or those that have been implemented over time, diminished the show’s power or intensity. The scaling down serves to center and focus your attention, and there’s less possibility of some detail getting lost at the margins. (The outstanding high-definition visual projections also enhance the experience.) Ultimately, of course, the strength of “Riverdance” is in the performers, and these folks are clearly at the top of their game.
Over the course of the pandemic, there have been musings about Covid’s long-term impact on live entertainment. One scenario goes like this: After all these months – years – of taking precautions, many people will find they prefer smaller, socially distanced outings, which means a general diminution in the staging of concerts, theatrical productions, and other events. And this is related to a more general reckoning about the whole concept of extravagance and excessiveness, and their presence in our lives.
That all remains to be seen, especially because there is such a debate about defining the “normalcy” for which we’re supposedly yearning – and concerns about inflation and other economic indicators undoubtedly factor in our leisure-time and entertainment activities, too. But whatever combination of financial- or artistic-based considerations might have gone into reimagining the show, something about this (relatively) smaller incarnation of “Riverdance” felt right for the times. It’s still larger than life, but perhaps closer to us.
•Whatever the size of the stage or the production, sometimes it’s the little things which often stand out, and “Riverdance” is no exception. For example, there’s been a noticeable trend toward more vocalizing by the dancers. The all-male a cappella-step “Thunderstorm” segment has been full of roaring and shouting for several years now. You also could hear spontaneous whooping during the “American Wake” and the “Heartland” grand finale.
None of this comes off as contrived. In fact, it serves as a reminder that much of traditional dance, Irish or otherwise, has a social rather than performative context, where you express the joy of the moment. You wouldn’t want them doing this a lot, mind you, but the whoops and hollers give a bit more of an animated, informal feel at some junctures of the show than one might have noted in the past.
•Over time, "Riverdance" has given its musicians more of a visible presence in the show, instead of having them sit off to the side of the stage. They are integral to the action in the "Trading Taps" sequence, of course, in helping contrast and then unite the Irish stepdance and American tap dance partisans. Now there are a couple of scenes in which the musicians have the spotlight all to themselves, and they don't exactly stay rooted to the spot, either; they strut, walk around, give one another a how-do-you-do, sometimes acknowledge the audience with a quick nod and wink. Therefore, the musicians – much like the dancers – have to be more than technically adept: They have to display charisma and showmanship.
The US tour features an ensemble of three melody players (fiddle, sax, and uilleann pipes/whistles) and a percussionist, and the aforementioned trio all are women – a welcome development considering the concerns raised via the #FairPlé ("Fair Play") campaign a few years ago about gender balance in the Irish traditional and folk music scene. Playing fiddle is Haley Richardson, familiar to many in Greater Boston through her appearances at the Burren Backroom series and the Christmas and St. Patrick's Day "Celtic Sojourn" shows. A former student of Brian Conway, Richardson has been with "Riverdance" since 2019, and to say she seems entirely suited to the role is putting it mildly.
It’s not just a matter of playing the Whelan score and the occasional traditional tune: During her solo, Richardson improvises, slides in a few jazzy licks, and – in one particularly enjoyable sequence – trades riffs with the percussionist, employing some atonal bowing or plucking of the strings. She pulls it all off with aplomb.
You like to see good things happen to good people – especially promising young musicians – and Richardson, who turns all of 20 this summer, has clearly reaped all manner of benefits from her “Riverdance” experience.
•You don’t necessarily have to know Irish dance lingo to speak to an Irish dancer, but a little basic orientation can be useful in broadening one’s knowledge of things. So, talking with Anna Mai Fitzpatrick about specific “Riverdance” scenes, I asked if there was some technical term – quadruple-batter, perhaps? – for the rapid four-beat flourish the dancers step in the introduction to “Reel Around the Sun.”
“Ah, yes,” she said, “the diddily-stomp.”