Billion-Dollar Blarney?

"Irish dance came in from the cold," University of Notre Dame professor Luke Gibbons says of the way "Riverdance" revolutionized -- and commercialized -- Irish step dancing. The show returns to Wolf Trap this week. (By Joan Marcus)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2007

Glitzy, yes, baldly commercial, absolutely. But "Riverdance," the musical whose primal sound of pounding feet and Celtic tunes ignited an unlikely rage for the folkloric art of Irish step dancing, was no fad. Twelve years after its Dublin premiere, its continued popularity proves that it was, and remains, a phenomenon of historic proportions. Thursday marks its 10th-anniversary engagement at Wolf Trap, though as a measure of how its appeal has cooled somewhat, the show will stay only through the weekend -- unlike in 1997, when it packed the Filene Center for two weeks, the longest run in the outdoor park's history.

On the other hand, as evidence of "Riverdance's" enduring status, consider this: There are two full-fledged companies touring North America and the United Kingdom. The production has grossed at least $1 billion so far. Wolf Trap's sales over the years account for nearly $20 million of that.

Dancing and music have always been a potent mix on the roadshow circuit. But traditional Irish dance and music, the old-timey stuff of corner pubs and village crossroads? "Riverdance's" unexpected success broke ground on several fronts: It proved the bankability of an all-dance, no-dialogue musical theater production. It demonstrated that you can market musical theater to men (!), who had always been an elusive target. It has been an economic boon to the Broadway touring industry, a shot in the arm for Irish pride, a gateway for the world to experience the music and dance of Ireland.

Yet key to all of this was another innovation: By using prerecorded sound effects in the dancing and music, it lowered the bar on what is considered "live" theater.

"Riverdance," as its 20 million ticket holders or 1.75 billion TV viewers can attest, is not just lyrical tin whistles and fiddle-playing. It is loud. Rock-concert loud. Its live band is augmented with taped elements, which in the world of commercial theater is not so new. Yet in addition, the traditional hard-shoe step dancing is enhanced with a soundtrack of tapping feet. That thunder you hear when dozens of dancers line up Rockettes style and hammer their heels across the stage? It's their footwork all right -- on tape, captured sometime in the past in a sound studio.

This was new, and it created a stir when it was first reported in the show's early years. "Riverdance" was accused of "tap-syncing," rumbling along on a river of audiotape.

For my money, taped taps are tainted taps. But this is apparently not an issue for the millions who still flock to hear them. And therein lies the "Riverdance" conundrum. It embodies a host of dualities. It reinvigorated interest in folk arts even as it presented a commercialized, mass-appeal copy of them. It celebrates the power of dance, though it doesn't trust uncompromised dance to keep the party going. Where Irish dancing had always been performed with a stiff upper body, arms plastered to the sides, with only the feet allowed to generate excitement, "Riverdance" lets the body loose and imprisons the feet within a false perfection of sound.

What's going on here? Overall, "Riverdance" is a predictable product of the mainstream, packaging for the lowest common denominator the culture it seeks to represent. It features superior dancing, to be sure, but also hackneyed and hokey imagery, pseudo-spirituality and sappy songs about love and freedom. It presents the tear-stained Irish experience as one great dance party. But its branding of native culture has had an extraordinary aftereffect -- perhaps, as we shall see, for the better.

* * *

Think of "American Idol," then imagine if one of those caterwauling hopefuls actually did something original, something wildly exciting, something that tapped into your deepest feelings of patriotism -- and then became one of the hottest acts on the global theater circuit. That's the story of "Riverdance."

It was forged in a seven-minute act televised during the Eurovision Song Contest. The hugely popular TV special seen across Europe is hosted by the nation whose song won the previous year. With Ireland slated to host the 1994 contest, husband-and-wife TV producers Moya Doherty and John McColgan were tapped to work on the show, and they turned to composer Bill Whelan to write a score for the interval section. This was typically a time-filler, which, as McColgan put it, was inevitably "dull and worthy and ethnically correct. In most cases people watching it at home went to make a cup of tea." Not that year.

What Whelan came up with -- Celtic tunes bursting with electronics, percussion and complicated chords, accompanied by explosive Irish dancers unlike any at the community centers -- electrified audiences. "I'd been working in TV for 25 years and had never seen that response," McColgan recalled.

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