Citizens Report American Irish Culture

Danahey on the Loose at Riverdance 25

I headed to see Riverdance 25 Tuesday night with Irish buddy Shay Clarke.

Dundee-Crown High School staged it. Very innovative. Set along the Fox River. No dancing. Interpretive kayaking at the local park district pool, instead.

Ok, we went downtown to the Cadillac Palace Theatre for the 25th anniversary version of the Irish music-and-dance spectacle that in its way shaped a bit of show business.

For those not up on its history, Riverdance began as an intermission piece during the1994 Eurovision contest. If you haven’t seen Eurovision, each competing nation is represented by one singer and one song. The winner this year should get a date with Boris Johnson, but usually does not get much of a career bounce.

Eurovision’s most famous winners have been Sweden’s Abba in 1974 and Celine Dion in 1988. She represented Switzerland, of all neutral places. Yeah, Eurovision is pretty weird, but not as weird as The Masked Singer, America.

The producer and director of Riverdance recently recalled the origin story for the Belfast Telegraph.

That relatively short performance led to a Riverdance video, with the proceeds going to help famine-and-genocide ravaged Rwanda, then to what’s become an iconic 2-hour theatrical piece.

Riverdance also unleashed Chicago plumber/dancer/guy who doesn’t like to button or wear shirts, Michael Flatley, on a weary world. Lead dancer and choreographer Flatley either was fired from or quit Riverdance, most likely because his ego is probably bigger than his dancing skills.

Flatley went on to put together Lord of Dance, which premiered in 1996, and other very glitzy shows that made him very wealthy. With Flatley’s tan and love of gold, a blogger named Sheila O’Malley likened Flatley to a big cheese doodle.

A 3D movie version of Lord of the Dance came out in 2011, apparently because two dimensions can’t adequately hold Flatley’s self-importance. Flatley even self-produced a spy movie, starring himself a couple years ago. Called Blackbird, it’s yet to see the light of day.

Anyway, Riverdance became a big hit without Flatley. It also ushered in the era of Irish entertainment of its sort becoming the stuff of PBS pledge drives. Think Celtic Woman, Celtic Thunder and the like, with all their Irish gossamer, fog, slickly produced music and genius marketing.

Riverdance came out at a time when Ireland was the “it” country. The economic Celtic Tiger was roaring. What would become The Good Friday Agreement for peace in Northern Ireland was taking shape and would be signed in 1998.

Riverdance, with its new take on Irish dancing, wowed the world. By including American tap, Russian folk and Spanish flamenco, Riverdance showed Irish dance’s connection to other styles. Bill Whelan‘s Grammy-winning Riverdance score also is/was part and parcel of a time when “world music” had become hodgepodge Grammy and Billboard chart categories.

The late 90s and early 00s may have been the heyday of Irish fests. And think of all the money spent over the last quarter century on curly red wigs and those space alien-like dresses girls wear for Irish dancing.

Riverdance also debuted at a time when more and more pop concerts featured dancing as part of the experience package. Remember the Spice Girls, as but one 90s example? Okay, we can blame Madonna and probably Janet Jackson for that. But still…

Now, just about every act travels with dancers. In fact, Shay and I brought our own respective troupes to Riverdance. We made them wait in the car and promised to call them in case one of the Riverdancers literally broke a leg. We also needed them to raise the $55 it cost to park.

But back to Riverdance. Its influence continues in strange ways to this day.

Mixed martial arts champ who takes Peaky Blinders as a lifestyle guide, Conor McGregor, even claims he has a Riverdance walkout now, as a tribute to Riverdance and to Flatley.

In the recent Super Bowl halftime spectacle, I swear Shakira and J-Lo did a bit of Irish dancing, too. They did pretty much everything else in their highly aerobic, multi-culti act. 

As the Pitchfork critic said of that performance, the theme was “be proud of where you came from, lift your voice and raise hell.”

Which (finally) brings us to the current production of Riverdance. The Trib’s Chris Jones pretty much sums it up well here.

It’s an affable production.  While there are plenty of bedazzled outfits, only one guy has a shirt off, and that’s just for one number.  There are funny bits with a bodhran and another with tap dancers. 

There’s Enya-like singing, if you’re into that sort of thing. If not, you can rest your eyes for a bit. 

There are also soprano saxophone solos. Nothing against the player, but given the 1995 timestamp for Riverdance, this reminded me of Kenny G, who has forever ruined the soprano sax for me. 

Come to think of it, Kenny G has/had hair like a traditional Irish dancer. Kenny G can also be blamed for frappuccino

But back to the current Riverdance show.

Most importantly, it still holds lots of impressive precision, percussive dancing. I’m a sucker for the big numbers with all those feet working in unison. They really seemed to click Tuesday night. Pun intended.

Riverdance plays the Cadillac Palace through Sunday, Feb. 9.  A version of the show will be screened in some local cinemas on March 15. Another cast is currently performing this week in Dublin. Pick up a tote bag while you’re there.

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