Billion-Dollar Blarney?
The Tapping May Be Taped, But Vegas-Style Theatrics Keep 'Riverdance' Fans Lining Up

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.

Whelan, who had worked with the Irish rock band U2, had made a career of modernizing traditional Irish music. He credits Ireland's sympathetic tax code for artists, which kept U2 in its homeland, where the band built world-class recording studios and fed the music scene's confidence. But Irish dance lacked a similar contemporary perspective.

"Dance didn't really connect with that music," said Whelan. " 'Riverdance' brought the two together. I always considered that one of its most important achievements."

Before "Riverdance," Irish dancing had been largely confined to competitions, with women wearing tight curls and dressed in heavily patterned frocks. In this country, the children of Irish expats took it up with special gusto. The stars of the Eurovision interval were two Irish American world champions, Jean Butler and Michael Flatley, who went on to choreograph and star in "Riverdance."

Whelan says it was his idea to add a soundtrack of the footwork when the show became a full-length production. "The reason for it is simply this: If somebody knows how to technologically deliver a dance troupe of 30 people, perfectly miked and moving around with a big orchestra, I'd be interested to see how they do it.

"Believe me, it was not fishy," he continued. "It was not an attempt to fool an audience; it was an attempt to bring the intricacy of the dance right to the audience, and I think it worked. Every single dancer has recorded every single tap you hear. . . . It is simply to help out."

Individual tap dancers, in the brief segment in which a half-dozen Irish American dancers and African American hoofers square off, do wear mikes on their feet and are not part of the soundtrack.

Eileen Carson Schatz, founder of the Annapolis-based Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble, performed in that live-tap section in 1996 in London. "The loudness was one of ['Riverdance's'] innovations, to bring acoustic music and traditional percussive dance to the level of a rock show," she said. "But there are many people in traditional music that have reservations about that because it's not live."

The dance soundtrack was controversial even within the show because there were "people who believed that you were losing some of the live art's specialness and ambiance and feeling," Carson Schatz said. She also noted that the syncing wasn't seamless: "Occasionally you'd feel like you were going crazy because a dancer would be dancing her heart out and the sounds wouldn't be completely matched."

But McColgan counters, "If we hadn't done this, Irish dance would be doing what it always did, with dancers competing in ringlet curls with heavy makeup and stiff embroidered dresses, very austere, and to a certain extent with no personality and no expression."

That's a difficult point to argue.

"You can never now separate Irish dance from 'Riverdance,' " said Eileen Ivers, the famed virtuoso of the electric fiddle, who performed for several years in the show.

In the decades before "Riverdance," Irish dance had become stodgy and decidedly uncool. "It was a bit hand-knitted in its whole aspect," said Angela Bourke, a professor of Irish language and literature at the University College Dublin. It was taught to Irish children in previous generations as a form of cultural pride, with mothers spending their Friday nights curling their daughters' hair and sewing the costumes, Bourke said. But most young students tended to give it up eventually.

Around the time that "Riverdance" rocked Europe, an economic boom was transforming Ireland. Dubbed the "Celtic Tiger," and fueled by high-tech industries, it put money into Irish hands. Also in 1994, the Irish Republican Army announced a cease-fire. Ireland was undergoing swift changes, and a vogue for Irishness was touched off. Timed perfectly, "Riverdance" fit squarely into this.

Part of the thrill was in seeing the old dance custom not only revitalized but sensuously cut loose. It was "an epiphany for the body," said Luke Gibbons, a professor of Irish studies at the University of Notre Dame. Irish dance's distinctive upright stance and rigid torso came from the Catholic Church's view that dancing could dangerously excite the body, and the dancer must therefore be "encased" in a disciplined structure. James Joyce, Gibbons said, referred to the resulting "paralysis" of the Irish body, immobilized except in sports. "Riverdance" set the body free.

"Irish dance came in from the cold," he said. "But at a wider level its regeneration has to do with Irish culture seen on a world stage." There was a certain amount of wish fulfillment involved in the country's rapturous reception of "Riverdance" -- what with the global prevalence of kitschy Irishness, the leprechauns, the four-leafed clovers, "here was a version of Irish on the world stage that literally stood for excellence."

* * *

And yet the early promise of "Riverdance" went unfulfilled, as spectacle overwhelmed style -- particularly in the dancing, which fell into generic showbiz patterns, including the deafening chorus line that became the show's signature moment.

"It kind of moves from one straitjacket to another," Gibbons said. The stylishness and originality of those initial seven minutes were lost in what developed later: not so much a Broadway look but Las Vegas. And how free are you when you are welded to a soundtrack?

With the aggressive edge -- and the showgirl sexiness -- came the men. And with the men came a big part of "Riverdance's" popularity, according to Jed Bernstein, former president of the League of American Theatres and Producers Inc. "It was male-acceptable," he said.

In the final analysis, however, "Riverdance" is mediocre theater. It relies on formulaic notions of what excites audiences, it fabricates much of the experience rather than embracing the risks of live performance, it validates, it challenges nothing.

It has spawned some unwatchable offspring, especially the vanity productions by former "Riverdance" star Flatley. Experimental work in Irish dance carried on by Butler, however, seems more promising. She, like Flatley, left the show after a while to work on her own productions, and recently opened a new piece in Dublin.

On balance, "Riverdance's" greater impact has been in its extraordinary ability to seed Irish dance programs around the world, as well as in its native land. Perhaps they will craft another retooling of the art form. Perhaps next time it won't have to be so bleedin' loud.

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