Let me take you back to the late 90s. Spice Girls, scrunchies, bootleg jeans with sequins on the bottom… And a 7/8 year old me dancing round my parents’ living room to an increasingly worn-out VHS (remember them??) of Riverdance, starring Michael Flatley and Jean Butler. Like a lot of the world, my family and I had never seen Irish dancing before this show exploded onto TV screens as half-time entertainment during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. The music, the athleticism of the dancers and above all the taps had me jumping around in front of the TV trying to emulate the steps. To be honest, it’s a miracle I never injured myself.
20 years later and Riverdance is still going strong – I went to Manchester Opera House on Sunday night to catch the UK anniversary tour, danced by the Liffey Company. The show opens with a sung fragment of the famous title number, before evolving into Reel Around the Sun. This powerful, rhythmic opening begins with the troupe and builds on itself until they circle the stage to a dominant drum beat, before making way for the lead male dancer. Bobby Hodges clearly revels in this role, dancing with a Flatley-esque flair, and leads the troupe back out onto the stage for the conclusion to the number. Even with a reduced company and in a smaller venue, Reel Around the Sun is every bit as electric as I remember. The hauntingly beautiful song Heart’s Cry marks a change of pace, and is then followed by the soft shoe slip jig Countess Cathleen. This dance is a powerful celebration of womanhood, with female members of the troupe confronted by and ultimately victorious over masculine force (danced by male members of the Russian Ensemble). It also gives us our first glimpse of the female lead, Ciara Sexton, who proves a spirited Countess as she leads the women in their charge down the steps and vanquishes their opponents. Similar to this number is Firedance, in which a lone female flamenco dancer battles with blue-clad male members of the troupe, while in Trading Taps, Irish and American tappers engage in a dance-off that features comic parody and incredible bravura turns. These stand-offs allow the dominant Irish feel of the show to blend with other cultures in a natural way, and explore greater questions about gender conflict and mankind’s relationship with the natural world. It’s something I didn’t necessarily realise at the age of 7, but this constant interaction, conflict and assimilation of opposing forces is a very distinctive part of Riverdance.
But back to the numbers. The all-male number Thunderstorm must be guaranteed to elicit whoops and a huge round of applause wherever it’s performed, and the Opera House was no exception. It starts with lightning flashes silhouetting a row of dancers, who march to the front of the stage and begin a fast, furious and powerful dance unaccompanied by music. I could do without the constant shouting and head-to-toe leather outfit on the lead, but maybe that’s just me. It’s my second favourite number, beaten only by the phenomenal exploits of the Russian Ensemble, who fly about the stage performing a mixture of gymnastics and traditional folk ballet in an energetic number that is exhausting to watch. So far, all very similar to the original show. There are new numbers though – the atmospheric Shivna, pairing contemporary ballet and old Gaelic song to tell the story of a man possessed and driven mad by spirits, and a second all-female number that juxtaposes chanting and hard-shoe rhythms to emulate the rushing of the River Liffey.
In spite of the passage of time since its original inception, Riverdance is still its own, unique show – it has an atmosphere pretty much unrivalled by anything else I’ve seen. This is partly down to its fantastic, hard-working onstage band, who have several numbers of their own in addition to supporting the dancers and singers. But the real driving force of the show comes from its core Irish numbers – Reel Around the Sun, Heartland and of course the iconic Riverdance. The entire troupe radiates an energy and enjoyment that is as infectious as the rhythms they create and quite frankly, if you’re not smiling by this point then you need your head examined.
Happy 20th birthday Riverdance! Someone pass me a Guinness…