Riverdance Shifts Irish Dancing Into High Gear

The company's precision movements, combined with Celtic music and cross-cultural dances, are taking American audiences by storm

Riverdance. For two years, this meteor shower of Irish dancing - a high-stepping folk genre performed with back held straight, arms down at sides - has been bringing audiences to their feet on both sides of the Atlantic. Two hours of thundering ensemble work and quicksilver solos are accompanied by a thrilling mix of electric and acoustic, traditional and contemporary Celtic music played by onstage musicians.

The evening is marked by spectacular cross-cultural dialogues, or dance "conversations," between Irish dancing and flamenco, American tap, and even Russian folk forms.

There are also short choral and solo vocal interludes. The singing is beautiful, although the atmosphere of the arrangements does not seem to flow from the same primeval source as the dancing. And it's the dancing that's driving everyone wild.

Sizzling tour

Riverdance began its current sold-out American tour in New York, blazed through Chicago and Los Angeles, and is headed for Boston.

Cries and comments from the Radio City Music Hall audience members were passionate. "I was weeping; I was blown away," says a homemaker from Queens. "I felt uplifted at a very deep level," a designer says. "I thought it was going to be jigs and reels, and it was, well, life changing."

An American accountant who had seen Riverdance in London and often replays the video, comments, "I was totally stunned by the beauty and raw power."

Riverdance director John McColgan told USA Today that sophisticated theatergoers were crying five minutes into the performance and didn't know why. Why does a troupe of some 30 hard-shoe Irish dancers stomping up a storm evoke such a profound response here in the States?

Colin Dunne, the male star who took over the lead from Michael Flatley in October 1995, says even the dancers are surprised. "It's been an amazing two years for everybody involved in Irish dancing," he says in his dressing room. "Before Riverdance, there were no professional outlets for Irish dancers, unless you toured with The Chieftains, as Jean and I did." (Jean Butler is the female lead - part gazelle, part Celtic goddess.)

"But now, it's just gone crazy. Kids the world over want to take Irish dancing classes. And when I go home, back to the Marion Turley Academy in Coventry where I studied, adults are calling the school - they want to know how to 'do Riverdance' in a week! And many of us in the troupe know of tap and ballet dancers who hadn't really seen this kind of dancing, or even known it existed, now wanting to learn."

But the resonance here in America? It may be less about pockets of Irish-Americans than something buried in the common immigrant experience, a journey loosely traced by the dramatic form of the show itself.

Dunne was originally brought into Riverdance for the show-stopping jam in the second act, "Trading Taps." African-American Tarik Winston, who shares choreographic credit with Dunne, and partner Daniel Wooten duel with Dunne and two Irish dancers in an ever-escalating tapping argument that culminates in a crescendo of agreement.

Contrasting styles

Dunne says the "top this" risk differs with every performance. Visually, the black and the Irish dance teams engrave the air in contrasting shapes. The tappers are loose-limbed. They do splits and flips, whirl and tumble, walk up the wall. The Celts are knife-edge precise below the waist, ramrod straight above, and move with the intricacy of lace aflame.

Rhythmically, however, the dancers have common ground. As they lay down their beats and show off their technique, humor and brotherly bravado increase, and the audience participates emotionally both in competition and in the eventual integration of styles.

When all five men are moving in unison, there is a roar of approval and recognition. Jazz, the home-grown American art form, meets the ancient rhythms of the Irish crossroads. Historically and emotionally, oceans, often of suffering, have been crossed.

American audiences instinctively understand underdog traditions, and they also connect, perhaps subliminally, with the fact that many of the performers are not trained show dancers but locally schooled young people who have been drawn since childhood to perfect a folk form ordinary people have enjoyed for centuries.

Along with the stars, who themselves have danced since their earliest days, they have honed their skills in the world of the dance contest, for which the schools prepared them.

Dunne was world champion at age 9, winner of nine All-Ireland, 11 British, and nine world dancing titles by the time he was 23, and has received the prestigious Irish Post Award as greatest male Irish dancer of all time.

He emphasizes that speed, showmanship, and daring are developed through classes that prepare for competitions. Spectators instantly grasp the drive and brio that characterize a popular art.

Cross-cultural songs

The American audience also responds vociferously to the way Maria Pags, Spain's leading innovator in flamenco dance, develops a dialogue between her tradition and the Irish. The fiery Dunne and the vibrant Pags pound out a virtual cross-cultural love song, underscored when Bronx-born All-Ireland fiddle champion Eileen Ivers vies melodically with Pags's stamping feet and castanets.

The flamenco-like use of the torso in the a cappella Irish piece for the male corps, Thunderstorm, always brings on volcanic applause, and Dunne and Butler raise their arms to brilliant effect in a stirring break with tradition. Did the clergy require that rigid upper body? Maybe the posture was demanded by Ireland's small houses and pubs. "You didn't dare fling your arms or you'd spill your drink or get a whack in the mouth," laughs Dunne.

But he doubts whether that stylistic innovation is a major source of the appeal of what happens onstage. "I think at the end of the day, what still grips people is the basic power of the troupe and of what we do that has always been there. In the finale [Riverdance International] when Irish, African-Americans, Russians, the Spanish, are all out there, arms down, dancing in unison, people are responding to the universal dance impulse through this absolutely precisely developed form.

"Whether you're Irish or not, it's irresistible." No question about it. Americans are riveted by the force of a long-neglected culture coming into its own, taking liberties, celebrating its due, as Irish dancing converses with and includes other forms from around the world, enfolding all in an exhilarating embrace.

*'Riverdance' can be seen at the Wang Center, Boston, Jan. 10-26; the Masonic Temple, Detroit, Jan. 30-Feb. 9; and the Orpheum, Minneapolis, Feb. 11-23. It is also currently airing on public-television stations across the country, and both a video and CD of the show are available.

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