By Sherry Lucas, clarionledger.com, Mississippi
The juiced-up jigs and staccato stomps of Irish dance phenomenon Riverdance could kick up a storm of Celtic interest in the upcoming shows in Jackson.
The production’s Friday-Saturday stint at Thalia Mara Hall should tap into much of the same audience that’s swelled the ranks of the annual CelticFest Mississippi to a top draw of around 8,000.
Riverdance turns 16 years old next month, continuing its international rhythmic run.
It had its start as an interval for the TV phenomenon, Eurovision Song Contest, an international song competition in Ireland, as the previous year’s winner, hosted in 1994. The show’s producer came up with the idea of an Irish dance number to what was then contemporary music, said Riverdance senior executive producer Julian Erskine.
“Riverdance was born … as filler for a song contest,” Erskine said by phone from Dublin. “It was a 7-minute interval act that just had such an effect on people in Ireland. People went crazy.
“There was such a demand to see more of it that producers decided to go ahead and create a full-length show based around the original dance number.”
The current Riverdance show is a slightly smaller version of the original, but with nearly all the original content, Erskine said.
It’s more than just an Irish dance show, with a choir, a band, flamenco and African-American tap dancers and a strong Eastern European and Spanish flair to some of the music
“The Irish dancers are pure championship Irish dancers, and they’re the core of the show,” Erskine said.
He described the show’s Irish dance as “traditional with a bit of freedom.”
Traditional Irish dance has been almost exclusively competitive for more than 100 years, with a strict formula for the moves, he said. Riverdance gave dancers a freedom to experiment, introducing new moves. Maybe that’s one of the things that made Riverdance suddenly very interesting, especially for Irish people.
“The challenge for us now, 16 years later, is to maintain that freshness and that energy. So far we’ve managed to do that, and it all comes from the dancers. They’re young, they’re very enthusiastic and … it’s more than just dancing in a stage show.
“There’s a sort of national pride as well.” Plus, with the dancers’ competitive backgrounds “they sort of can’t help themselves,” Erskine said. “They need to be better than the person beside them, on a nightly basis.”
Riverdance connects with audiences across cultures and continents – an appeal Erskine credits largely to its music. “It’s percussive music … foot-tapping music.
It’s hard to resist. Certainly, you’d want to be tone deaf or stone deaf not to click your fingers or tap your feet when the music is going full blast. And the dancers dance percussively.
“That’s probably what really gets to people is the percussion,” with drumming the essential core of most music. “I don’t want to be waxing too lyrical about it, but the first sound that any of us heard was our mother’s heartbeat. … I think it’s probably instilled in us, and I think it’s probably hard to not get carried along by it.”
Themes in the two-hour Riverdance involve the ancient Irish and Celtic worship of the elements and Irish immigration, again a big topic in the show’s home country.
“We just got into a very bad recession and our young people are packing their bags and leaving Ireland in droves which ironically is one of the things that triggered Riverdance,” Erskine said. “In the early ’90s, we were coming out of a long recession and for the first time in a long, long time, young Irish people were returning to Ireland because finally there was work and there was money.”Riverdance heralded that period known as “the Celtic Tiger,” 1995-2008, a period of economic growth. “Now it’s like the plug has been pulled, the tide has gone out and everybody’s leaving again” – both immigrants and Irish people.
“The funny thing was, we had immigration in our show as a sort of thing of the past, and in the great cycle of history, the past has caught up with us,” Erskine said.
The Jackson stop could be another fun rallying point for those swept up in Irish-related celebrations that swing from CelticFest in the fall to Mal’s St. Paddy’s Parade each spring.
“Jackson was doing Riverdance before Riverdance was cool,” joked Don Penzien of Jackson’s Celtic Heritage Society. “Our view of Riverdance is, it’s kind of the Broadway interpretation of the Irish traditions. They’ve done an amazing job of raising awareness all over the world of Irish traditional music and the dance, which has been huge for us, in terms of our mission. They’ve got a popular way to outreach … that would’ve been harder to do if you stayed strictly within the folk genre. It’s different from what we do, but we’re thrilled that they’re coming around.
“It’s just really stunningly good entertainment,” Penzien said.
The high-energy spectacle always drums up interest among those who do it for fun, said Margaret Cupples, a founder of Jackson Irish Dancers, which dates to 1998 in the capital city. The group has a membership of about 35, including families and individuals ages 6 to 60-something, with 15 to 20 who dance regularly.
It’s a kick to recognize moves they do for fun.
“I feel like I enjoy a lot more because I am familiar with some of it – enough to say, oh, that’s what they’re doing, but they’re doing it really fast and there are 50 of them doing it!” Cupples said.