April 6, 2012
Riverdance in farewell visit to Boston- Don't miss it!
In 1996, Bill Clinton was president, William Weld was governor of Massachusetts, the old Boston Garden was still standing, the Red Sox were still in search of their first world championship since 1918 – and a show called "Riverdance" began touring cities in the United States, including Boston, hoping to duplicate its success in Ireland.
Long story short? It did.
Now, "Riverdance" is preparing to make its seventh and final stop in town, on April 13, 14, 15 at the Boston Opera House, as part of an extensive farewell to its US tour that will conclude in June.
The show will go on elsewhere in the world, but the imminent end of its 16-year run on American soil is prompting reflection on the "Riverdance" phenomenon and how and why it has made such an impact in the US and around the globe. Toward that end, the show's composer Bill Whelan penned his own musings in last month's Boston Irish Reporter: "For the dancers and musicians, Boston's audiences always feel a bit more like their Dublin counterparts – rowdier, more familiar, and eager to celebrate their Irish roots.”
Whelan readily acknowledges that he did not foresee how a seven-minute performance created as an “interval act” for the Eurovision Song Contest would become a two-hour extravaganza that not only spawned world tours but also TV specials, DVDs, and CDs. But as Whelan, along with numerous other commentators, has observed, the commercial and critical success of "Riverdance" has only been part of the story; there seemed to be a national-pride component to the show, as if it were an advance guard for Ireland's ultimately short-lived but undeniably optimistic Celtic Tiger era.
The artistic aspects of "Riverdance," of course, were what attracted the most attention. Its innovative transportation of Irish music and dance traditions into a modern, multicultural setting struck a chord with audiences, and most critics, everywhere – even, or perhaps especially, those who wouldn't know a hornpipe from an Uilleann pipe. For better or worse, in the wake of "Riverdance," Irish music and dance became a bona-fide pop culture "meme," glimpsed or heard on Hollywood movie soundtracks, TV coffee commercials, even a "Simpsons" episode or two.
So what did "Riverdance" mean to Americans, and how will it be remembered? Several Irish music and dance experts recently offered their thoughts.
“Many contest the ‘pop’ nature of ‘Riverdance,’ but in my mind, the most important contribution it made was to bring Irish dancing and Irish music to a much broader audience than it previously reached,” says Susan Gedutis Lindsay, musician, author and former Boston Irish Reporter arts and music writer. “Now, even kids’ movies like ‘Shrek’ and ‘Barnyard’ have ‘Riverdance’-style dancing sequences, even if just for fun. That never would have happened before ‘Riverdance.’”
"'Riverdance' put Irish dance on the world stage," says Boston-area Irish dancer, teacher, and choreographer Kieran Jordan. "Before that time, Irish dance was mostly known in its own circle of participants – among dancers, dance families, parents, musicians, feis goers, the Irish diaspora, and also folk festival audiences."
The Chieftains, along with the Green Fields of America and Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann tours, did a lot to bring step dancing around the world into concert settings, she says, but "Riverdance" went in a dramatically different direction. "It was a major dance theater production with dance at center stage, which is not to say the music was less important in any way. The large cast of dancers, the Broadway style lineup of percussive dance in unison, plus professional lighting, new costuming and stage design – all of this brought the folk dance form into contemporary theater and contemporary culture, and made it accessible to a worldwide audience.
"On the one hand, it was this powerful, electric rebirth of Irish dance, but at the same time it became a global dance. You did not have to be Irish to get it, or enjoy it, or feel its powerful pull. Its influence is still felt for all of those reasons.”
Bill Black, a Cape Cod-based Irish music and event organizer, says, "'Riverdance' served the same purpose for a later generation of people potentially interested in Irish music as the Clancy Brothers, Dubliners, and Chieftains did for an earlier generation. I'd like to think that for folks knowing little or nothing about Irish music, 'Riverdance' provided a kind of 'foot in the door' to allow them a look inside at what the tradition might look like. And once they had the look, they could decide for themselves to what extent their interest in what was presented would continue.
"Where in the 1970s, you could make the move from the Chieftains and Clancys to the Bothy Band and De Danaan, in the '90s and later you could make the move from 'Riverdance' to any number of traditional experiences, provided and enhanced by technology that had never previously existed."
WGBH-FM "A Celtic Sojourn" host Brian O'Donovan agrees. " 'Riverdance' did an amazing job of turning people's heads towards traditional music." O'Donovan notes that at a recent concert in The Burren, local musician Joey Abarta recounted how seeing a video of the show practically changed his life to one of dedication to playing the Uilleann pipes.
"Riverdance" may have set the stage for other major Irish/Celtic-themed productions, such as "Celtic Woman," but O'Donovan says there's no comparison with the original. "One thing that always did, and still does, set 'Riverdance' apart from other big, blockbuster 'Celtic' shows is the quality of the musicianship and dancing. Top notch. Always. Just look at the personnel that have toured with them over the years, like Eileen Ivers and Anuna. That is not the case with subsequent shows currently touring. Many of these are simple commercial efforts with little artistic integrity but a lot of marketing savvy. 'Riverdance,' while big and extravaganza-like, has delivered on artistic quality."
Yet there exists a certain ambivalence about "Riverdance" and its relationship with Irish tradition, a feeling that while the show may be rooted in the old music and dance, it exists outside that domain.
"Put it this way: Have you ever heard a musician play a 'Riverdance' tune at a session?" says Black. "I can't be entirely sure, but I don't think its producers ever pretended that 'Riverdance' was anything but a reflection – maybe an idealization? – of what has existed 'on the ground' in the tradition for many years, performed by the old guys in the then-smoky pubs and the little girls in the outrageous dresses.
"It could be argued that the whole 'Riverdance' phenomenon took infinitely more from the tradition than it gave back, at least in terms of content. But if two percent or 10 percent or 20 percent of its audience allowed themselves to go beyond 'Riverdance' to the point where they at least became conscious of the trad world 'behind the door,' then on balance we'd have to say that the show has been a good thing."
The journalist Earle Hitchner, whose March 1996 article in the Wall Street Journal helped to fuel interest among the US media and public for the show's debut in America, says the "splashy, novel, iconoclastic" depiction of Irish tradition unquestionably influenced other modern stage showcases of Irish stepdancing, "typified by sexy or sleek attire and moving arms."
In commercial and critical terms, Hitchner adds, "Riverdance" may have set the bar impossibly high. "What most dance and music critics today want is something different from 'Riverdance' but equally galvanizing. That's a tall order and an ongoing challenge for Irish choreographers, composers, dancers and musicians: how to make it new. Retreads or knockoffs won't do," he adds, noting the negative reviews for "The Pirate Queen," produced by the "Riverdance" team of Moya Doherty and John McColgan on Broadway a few years ago.
For Jordan and many others, however, the most salient feature about "Riverdance" has been, and will continue to be, its innovations with traditional Irish dance, like percussive rhythmic exchanges and fusion with tap, Flamenco and other genres or traditions. Seeing the show in Dublin about a year before it came to the US was unforgettable, she says.
"I was sitting in the audience, deeply moved, but maybe also a little rattled or disturbed. I was seeing the very same dance steps that I grew up doing, but here it was so dressed up. It was professional and so beautifully executed. It was also jazzy and snazzy. Flashy. And in the years that followed, its success led to a real commercialization of the dance form."
A truism of "Riverdance" is that the doors to Irish dance schools throughout the US were driven off their hinges by hordes of youngsters (or even non-youngsters) wanting to be the next Jean Butler or Michael Flatley. Inevitably, as with most any pop culture phenomena, some converts' enthusiasm has burned out or been superseded by other interests and commitments. But there is little question that Irish dance has an energy level it has seldom seen since before "Riverdance."
Lisa Chaplin, co-director of the Boston-area O'Shea-Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance, says the trend – a surge, followed by a leveling-off – has certainly been in evidence where her school has been concerned. But the numbers aren't as significant as the level of interest, performance opportunities, and experiences the school and its members have benefited from during what might be called the "Riverdance Era." In fact, where "Riverdance" is concerned, O'Shea-Chaplin has come full circle: One of their dancers, Scott Doherty, had a stint in the show, and last year more than 20 O'Shea-Chaplin members performed in NBC's "Riverdance on Ice."
"'Riverdance' continues to combine the best of traditional and contemporary Irish dance along with music and song," says Chaplin. "It has opened the Irish culture to both the younger and older generations, and that ensures that we are carrying on our heritage and traditions."
Jordan echoes that sentiment. "Right now, Irish dance seems to be experiencing another rebirth in performance. I am glad to see some original, authentic voices in the choreography of the shows and solo works that are emerging now. There seems to be less copying going on, and more risk-taking, and that is good for any art form as it develops. 'Riverdance' certainly laid the foundation for this kind of risk-taking. Its legacy is impressive. As a lifelong Irish dancer, I am grateful to have witnessed and participated in this period of Irish dance history."