Irish dance spectacular.

June 12, 2007
The Eurovision Song Contest has not propelled many performing artists into anything other than obscurity; however, it was during the interval of the 1994 contest that Michael Flatley’s dance sensation was staged and launched into being the phenomenon it remains today. I have had a secret desire to see Riverdance for some time – secret because I would like to think that I am not one to be manipulated by hype and Riverdance is most certainly a brand that has been carefully crafted and promoted across the globe. Still, I was very (secretly) excited at the prospect of observing the world’s most famous jig.

The opening sequence gets straight to business and the audience is charmed by a toe-tappingly steady dance that lets everyone know they are at the right show – ready-salted Riverdance, the kind you might see on Richard & Judy. This paves the way for more experimental sets that play with what I imagine are traditional moves incorporating more modern concepts and influences from other types of dance.

The Irish dances and dancers were certainly energetic but the real depth to the show was brought by the foreign artists. The precise, emotional moves performed by an authentic Flamenco dancer were admirable and powerful. Interestingly, her two sets were the only occasions where there was just a single person on stage. A troupe of Russian dancers performing acrobatic Cossack routines stunned the audience with their skill; and a pair of jazzy New York tappers brought comedy coupled with unbelievable talent – I’m notoriously cold and reserved yet I started cheering during their grand finale.

The musicians – a fiddler, a saxophonist, a percussionist and another playing the Irish pipes amongst other such Irish things – were integrated into the production and frequently took centre stage. The music varied from the comparatively traditional to pieces that experimented with foreign sounds and styles. The fiddler seemed to want to pick a musical fight with the saxophonist on a number of occasions – in fact, there were many instances throughout the show where talents seemed keen to compete in artistic combat.

The show literature stresses the cultural importance of Riverdance, explaining that the production crosses the boundaries between past and present, native and foreign. It encourages the energy that can overcome difference and conflict. I admire the brazenness of this claim and in many ways it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Riverdance is a spectacular, polished performance that entertains by delivering some of the world’s most awesome dance, unashamedly stomping Irishness all over it.

April 20, 2010
Our trip to see Riverdance- The Journey (aka 'The Farewell Tour') last night at the New Theatre should have been the end cap to my father's visit before heading back to the States. Alas, thanks to all the volcanic ash hovering above London-Gatwick, it has instead become a delightful start to Dad's extended sojourn here in the Thames Valley.

I wasn't sure what to expect perched up in the Circle. Would we be faced with interminable Busby Berkeley-style dance routines accompanied by lots of fiddle-ee-dee music? While some elements were a bit dubious (eg. a pre-recorded narration that sounded rather like a museum audio tour, sound production so full of Enya-like gimmicks you could barely experience the musicians' performances in a direct way etc.), I can confirm that Riverdance- The Journey was loads of fun and full of variety. Note: if you haven't yet bought tickets for any of the remaining performances and can swing it, do try for seats upstairs for the best view.

Performed by its UK touring company known as The Corrib, this Riverdance is comprised of set pieces featuring not only traditional Irish step dancing and music but also Russian folk dance, American tap and breathtaking Spanish flamenco. It hardly seems fair to single out particular performances when the evening was so choc-a-bloc with splendid ones, but standout moments included Thunderstorm, an unaccompanied piece for eight male dancers choreographed by Michael Flatley; any time flamenco dancer Marta Martinez Rey is on stage; the extended section known as The Harbour of the New World with its gorgeous "Heal Their Hearts", most ably sung by
baritone Charles Gray, and Trading Taps that pitted New World tap against Old World Irish step in what could only be called the friendliest of showdowns. However, the stars of the show were undeniably the Irish dancers and musicians, headed up by lead dancers Alan Scariff and Deirdre Hamilton, whose grace and athleticism won over even this jaded American, who thought she'd seen it all. And when pressed for his review, even my old dad gave it two thumbs up.

February 24, 2009
A spectacular evening’s entertainment, Riverdance played to a packed house on the first night of the Oxford leg of its farewell tour. After fifteen years, the enthusiasm of both performers and audience seemed undimmed as the dancers danced their way through the history of Ireland from its mythical, mystical beginnings to the present day.

Plenty of dry ice helped with the pagan atmosphere of way back when, whilst mini-skirted, ramrod-backed elves jigged proudly up and down. All the while a portentous voice solemnly intoned ‘The sun is our Lord and father, Bright faced at the break of day…’ and other vaguely poetic profundities. The legendary countess Cathleen appeared as a scantily clad nymph, expertly tossed upside down by her partner, apparently celebrating ‘the power of women as they celebrate themselves, as they challenge men in a dance of empowerment’. This was followed by a superbly mournful lament to the Celtic hero Cu Chulainn, played on the Uilleann pipes.

A crash of drums, a flash of light – and a truly elemental thunderstorm broke on stage. It has to be said that the lighting was one of many stars of this extraordinary performance, with ever-changing and colour-coordinated landscapes playing all the while on the screen behind the dancers. During the Firedance, a blood red sun was the background for the scarlet-clad Flamenco dancer, aptly reinforcing the message that ‘fire and pride and beauty come out of the south’. The silver Star Trek uniforms worn by her coterie of male admirers were a little odd but didn’t really detract from the power of the theme.

If the first half was impressive, the show really took off into the ‘unforgettable’ category in the second half. After a touching start showing how Ireland lost its children, chased over the ocean by famine never to see their loved ones again, the show took a new turn and developed a sense of humour. Life in the big city challenged the Irish boys, who had always been taught to dance ‘straight and tall’, by bringing them face to face with black culture. Initially alarmed, then impressed by the cool hipness of tap-dance and jive, the cultures started to respect and learn from each other. The inter-cultural dance competition delighted the audience and from then on their participation was total, all clapping of rhythms and tapping of feet.

Another ‘unfamiliar’ culture the Irish met was that of the Russians and a fantastic dance, curiously billed as ‘Dervish’, culminated in the transformation of one dancer into a spinning top and had the audience whooping with delight.

Baritone Charles Gray was the highlight on the vocal front and Niamh Fahy’s fiddle solos were performed with gusto, confidence and an infectious smile which made them a real pleasure.

This show comes highly recommended as an amazing night out, and this is one of the few occasions when it pays to buy a programme as its explanation of the stories behind the dances really does add to the appreciation and enjoyment of the performance.
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