Leave it to me to wait until the last moment to have the Riverdance experience! Wolf Trap has been presenting the farewell performances at their open air venue outside DC, and I caught their third last show there. Their website tells me that Riverdance has been seen live by over 21 million people in over 300 venues worldwide, throughout 32 countries across 4 continents. Of course, I had been aware of the phenomenon. My mother had introduced me to the music many years ago and I had seen snippets on television here and there, but actually to experience the live show was quite something.
As the first wave of dancers burst onto the stage in a diagonal pattern I could immediately understand the electricity the show has generated; there was the energy, the precision, the articulated sound of the hard Irish step dancing shoes on the stage, and the iconic image of the springing dancers with their arms held by their sides. I did wonder how they would sustain that for an entire show and, as the evening unfolded, it was thrilling to see the variety, not only in dance but also in singing and in purely instrumental segments too, in the telling of the Irish story; the primeval mysteries of fire and moon, the folklore and legend; the dislocation and the assimilation.
As the hard Irish shoes beat out the rhythms in the telling of these stories, it crossed my mind to wonder about the foot stomping Flamenco dancing of Spain. Imagine my surprise and delight when a sinuous Spanish dancer was silhouetted against the backdrop and began to beat out her own foot rhythms on the platform. It was fascinating to contrast those undulating arms and the supple torso with the still arms and torsos of the Irish dancers. The comparisons of culture didn’t stop there. An outrageously athletic troop of Moscow Folk Ballet dancers – complete with split jumps, back flips and one-armed somersaults – echoed the tradition of high kicking in the Irish dance. And in the second half was a riveting and very amusing face-off called “Trading Taps” between virtuosic Irish dancers and equally virtuosic American tap dancers. And so gradually the story unfolded of the Irish as immigrants. I wish I could remember the exact words of one of the final voice-overs but it was something to the effect that all rivers flow into the sea and the land all feeds off the rivers, the final message being, “We are one kind. We are one people now, our voices blended, our music a great world in which we can feel everywhere at home”. I hardly need to say that, as an immigrant myself, these ideas are potent.
The Irish dancers are the stars of the show, naturally, and many are world champions. For instance, the lead male dancer for the performance I saw was Marty Dowds from Donegal, Ireland, who began his Irish Dancing career at the age of nine and has had a very successful competitive career. Alana Mallon was the lead female dancer (the only Scottish dancer ever to perform lead in Riverdance) and she began dancing at three and won various competitions throughout the UK and Ireland. What is marvellous about the show, though, is that the musicians also take star turns. For the most part they sat to the side of the stage under the music directorship of the keyboard player, but every so often, they would take the spotlight. Patrick Mangan looked and behaved like a cross between Hugh Grant and Joshua Bell as he flirted delightfully with the audience and darted about the stage playing up a storm on his fiddle; Declan Masterson played a haunting lament on the Irish bagpipes; and the percussionist and saxophonist had their moments too.
I wonder how many dancers and musicians have passed through the ranks during the fifteen years Riverdance has been on the road. And I wonder if they feel a pang now that it is coming to an end. What is great is that they have maintained the energy and the excellence right up to the closing moments.