Now that we’ve reached modern times in our origins series, it’s impossible not to mention Riverdance. If you were around in the 90s or early 2000s, chances are it’s how you heard about Irish dance in the first place. Riverdance was a global phenomenon that’s still considered one of the most successful dance performances of all time, grossing, by its 20-year reunion, over a billion dollars worldwide. And while the most traditional aspects of Irish dance live on, it would be impossible to deny the new life and interest that Riverdance helped breathe into the time-honored artistic sport that is Irish dance.
It all began in 1981, when composer Bill Whelan was asked to write and produce an interval act for the Eurovision Song contest (which is now something like a pan-European X-Factor, but all music-based, and at the time was considered a very serious music competition.) This first piece was called “Timedance,” and featured Irish folk group Planxty playing baroque-inspired music with ballet dancers accompanying. When Bill Whelan was approached again (with 7 wins, Ireland has won the Eurovision contest more than any other country) in 1994, he decided to do something closer to Ireland’s roots. He created the most successful interval show in Eurovision history, “Riverdance”—a score filled with traditional Irish instruments like drum and fiddle, paired with “haunting vocals” and, of course, Irish dancers, all with a modern twist!
People around the world (the performance was initially seen by 300 million people worldwide) were stunned and amazed by this seven-minute introduction to traditional Irish dance and music, which up to this point was only well known in Ireland and areas with high populations of Irish immigrants. The audio recording stayed at the top of the Irish singles chart for 18 consecutive weeks (it’s still the second best-selling single in Irish history, only following Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind”) and a repeat presentation was held at the Royal Variety Performance (a yearly charity event held by the British royal family) that year. Husband-wife production team Moya Doherty and John McColgan saw the opportunity for this short performance to become a full-length theatrical event, and within six months Riverdance, the show, had its first performance in Dublin.
Gathering together the music stylings of Bill Whelan and choral group Anúna with choreography largely by American-born Irish dance champions Michael Flatley (yes, the “Lord of the Dance”) and Jean Butler, Riverdance was not only an immediate, but a consistent hit. The opening night didn’t just sell out, but the first five weeks at the Point Theatre in Dublin, as well as a four-week run at London’s Apollo (and a second run, which was extended twice--over 120,000 tickets initially), as well as every date at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. The original production of the show would run for 11 years, but additional tours stretched the longevity to 23 at 515 venues in 47 countries on six continents!
But Riverdance wasn’t just your grandmother’s Irish dance—it combined new, sleeker costuming (no elaborate, heavy dresses with Celtic designs or high-bouncing curls) with influences from other dance traditions, expanding the insular world of Irish dance for the world stage. While it made use of Irish dance’s iconic forms and steps, it also used choreographed arm movements and emotional ebullience to complete the performance, instead of the traditional stiff upper body and relatively controlled expressions. Drawing from other cultural dance traditions, such as flamenco and tap, Riverdance placed Irish dance as part of world dance tradition rather than completely apart (and engaged the audience in new, theatrical ways not entirely reliant on technique, as is all-important in the world of competitive Irish dance, as well!) The producers likened Riverdance as a mirror to the cultural revolutions happening in Ireland and throughout the world. Ireland of the 1990s was embroiled in the Troubles and Riverdance became a symbolic representation of the way Irish society was changing.
Little known to the casual Riverdance-enthusiast, Flatley actually wasn’t in the show for long. While he and Jean Butler were the stars of and choreographed the original, Eurovision performance, Flatley left the theatrical show only a few months after it originally premiered. There appears to not be one reason he left, but many—Flatley’s desire for complete creative control, his refusal to sign a contract over profit-sharing, salary, and royalty disputes, or, according to Jean Butler: his own ego. (Click that link for Butler’s more detailed description of working with Flatley—it’s an interesting read!) Flatley’s lawsuit against the production wasn’t settled until 1999, but it didn’t stop Flatley from garnering international acclaim from his own spin-off shows, Lord of the Dance and Feet of Flames among them. Flatley even holds the title of “Highest Paid Dancer” in history in the Guinness Book of World Records.
While Riverdance might not be exactly the traditional Irish dance we teach at SRL, its influence lives on and had the positive affect of making Irish dance a household name worldwide. The show opened this once narrow cultural practice to those outside of Ireland, revived interest within its home country, and no one can deny—it’s quite a show! If you’re ever able to catch a performance don’t hesitate--the 25th anniversary show is even touring now!
This post is part of a series. Read our last origins of Irish dance post, all about sean-nós, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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