Riverdance: an Irish success story

Flatley Butler

Millions of people around the world have seen Riverdance first hand, and many many more have seen it on television, online or have at the very least heard about it. What started out as a Eurovision Song Contest interval act has now become what is definitely the most popular and probably the longest running Irish performance act in history.

The traditional Irish music and dance show celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and shows no signs of stopping any time soon. With this year’s Eurovision in full swing right about now, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a look back at 20 years of Riverdance and see how it all began.

The Origins of Riverdance

As almost everyone knows, Riverdance was conceived as the interval act for the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. Ireland has a long history of success in the contest, having entered competitors every year since 1965 except for two occasions. We have won it seven times in total, more than any other country, and up until recently our acts regularly placed in the top 5 or 10. While nowadays it is sometimes viewed as ‘trash TV’ and not taken very seriously by most, up until recently it was still considered a prestigious international musical competition. In 1994, Ireland was enjoying two wins in a row and hoping for a third (which they achieved).

The country was hosting the competition for the sixth time. In other areas we were enjoying phenomenal success too; the national football team had reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 1990, the economy was booming, the problems in the North were almost at a tentative peaceful resolution, and people all over the world were starting to sit up and take notice of Ireland. For that reason and many more, Irish organisers of that year’s Eurovision knew they had to pull out all the stops.

Riverdance was inspired by a previous interval act that was performed during the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest, which was also hosted by Ireland that year. The act was called ‘Timedance’, which was a three-sectioned piece featuring traditional Baroque-influenced music and ballet dancing. The composers were Bill Whelan and Donal Lunny and the music was performed by Irish folk rock band Planxty. For the 1994 act Bill Whelan was at the helm again, and decided to go bigger, better, and back to Ireland’s roots. He composed a score filled with fiddles, drums, and haunting vocals - the only natural accompaniment could be some traditional Irish dancing. It was set to showcase Ireland’s rich culture to the world, add a huge boost to Irish pride, and leave the 300 million people watching the Eurovision gobsmacked.

Image Source: Eurovision.tv
Image Source: Eurovision.tv

Putting the show together

Anuna and the RTE Concert Orchestra were decided on for musical performers. Anuna are a vocal choir group founded in 1987 by Dublin composer Michael McGlynn. They perform early Irish, medieval, classical and contemporary music, and are made up of between 12 and 14 singers, both classically trained and untrained.

Their sound is somewhat different to the traditional ‘church’ choir most people of think of. Instead of standing in a corner and providing a musical backdrop of sorts, they are instead much more emotive and they do not use a conductor in their performances, moving throughout the audience as they perform. They provided the lilting, harmonious opening vocals to the Riverdance act with no instrumental accompaniment, and as the last of their lyrics faded out into the audience, the RTE Concert Orchestra would begin to play Bill Whelan’s upbeat and distinctly Irish sounding score.

Next up was the dancing. Since the music had a traditional style with a modern twist, the dancing needed to reflect this. Of course, the dancing itself needed to be top quality too.That’s where Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, two Irish dancing world champions came in. Flatley was quite simply born to dance, and had been formally trained since the age of 11. Born in the United States to an Irish family, traditional dancing and culture was a big part of the family’s life.

Flatley proved to be a talented Irish dancer, and when he graduated high school set up his own dance school. He became the first American to win the World Irish Dance Championships and also set the Guinness World Record for the fastest tapping speed - an incredible 28 taps per second, which he broke a few years later when he reached an even more incredible 35 taps per second. He was the by far the best person to choreograph Riverdance.

Image Source: Riverdance
Image Source: Riverdance

Jean Butler, another Irish American dancer was invited by the show’s producers to star as the female lead alongside Flatley. Jean had been dancing since the age of four, and training as an Irish dancer since the age of 9. Although perhaps not as well known as Flatley, she was just as accomplished. The two worked together to choreograph the show, which began with Butler all alone on stage as the music started playing, wearing a cloak which she then cast off to begin her dance.

Then the drums would begin and Flatley would leap onto the stage to ‘battle’ with the drummers, followed by the pair dancing together and then a rousing finale of a row of 24 Irish dancers dancing in unison with Flatley and Butler in the centre. The dancing style, although rooted firmly in the Irish tradition, was given a thoroughly modern update. Traditionally Irish dancers kept their upper body rigid with their arms held straight at their sides, and tended not to move about too much on a stage when dancing solo - instead, Flatley practically pranced around with his arms in the air and on his hips.

The traditional reels and formations people were familiar with were done away with, and instead the dance told a story of sorts, used artistic lighting and backdrops, and generally reinvented Irish dancing and made it a hugely enjoyable spectacle for the audience.

The Riverdance stage show

On 30th April 1994 Riverdance was performed for the very first time in the Point Depot, at the halfway point of the Eurovision Song Contest. The act was introduced by Sir Terry Wogan, lasted for 7 minutes, and went off without a hitch. It was the first interval act that directly aimed to create a spectacle and ‘show off’, rather than just fill in the time while votes were counted up, and it set a precedent for every contest since then.

The finale of 24 dancers, their chorus of tapping feet and completely simultaneous movements, the crescendo of music and the final triumphant poses of Flatley and Butler led to a standing ovation from every single person in the arena and cheers from every household in Ireland. Everyone was talking about the interval act rather than the contest itself, which sadly may have overshadowed Ireland’s third consecutive victory! Even days afterwards the act was still receiving rave reviews from all over the world, and the producers jumped on the opportunity and decided to make a full stage show from the simple 7 minute act.

By February 1995, Riverdance was back with a bang as a full theatre show starring Flatley, Butler and a host of top Irish dancers. Bill Whelan’s original score was expanded and Flatley choreographed a host of new numbers, although the finale still remained the same. The first show opened at the Point Depot in Dublin, where the original production was performed the previous year. It ran for a sold out 5 weeks with total ticket sales of over 120,000 before moving to the Apollo in Hammersmith for 4 weeks, then back to the Point again this time for 6 weeks, and then back to the Apollo for a further six weeks.

Every single performance sold out, and the producers knew they could take it much further than the UK. The dancers performed for the royal family, toured all over Europe, and an incredible 8-week stint at the legendary Radio City Music Hall in New York City - again completely sold out.

Image Source: Celtic Cafe
Image Source: Celtic Cafe

The success still didn’t stop there, however. The show was picked up for another astounding 3 and a half month run back at the Apollo in May 1996, although the original line-up had now changed. Michael Flatley left the show reportedly over creative disputes with the producers.

He was replaced by Colin Dunne, Jean Butler’s dance partner, who stayed with the show for three years. Originally invited to choreograph a new number, when Flatley left the day before the 3 month run in the Apollo was due to begin, Dunne took over the lead role with minimal notice and essentially saved the show.

In September Anuna also decided to leave the show, resulting in a slight format change. The rest of the performance stayed the same however, including the all important finale. The mammoth Apollo run of Riverdance proved to be as successful as ever, raking in over £5 million in ticket sales, and was extended to last until January 1997. It had become so popular that different companies were formed and toured over different regions simultaneously.

They were named after rivers in Ireland; first came the Lee and the Liffey for the US and UK respectively, then later as the show expanded even more the Lagan, Avoca, Shannon, Boyne, Corrib, Foyle, Moy and Bann companies came along too. For the next fifteen years the companies toured all over the world.

Eventually they began a farewell world tour in 2009, but even today the show is still going strong, although it has transitioned from huge arena venues to smaller theatres for a more intimate feel with simplified performances. 2014 was the 20th anniversary of the show which meant another high profile tour with a full symphonic score. The current incarnation of Riverdance is set to return to Dublin and Cork this summer, and has just finished a run of shows in Japan.

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