Riverdance is a phenomenon of a show. Since its opening night in 1994, the mosaic of dance and song, loosely organized around the story of the Irish diaspora, has gone on to be one of the most-loved dance productions in the world.
It’s easy to see why this show has enjoyed almost uninterrupted success, and why, on its 20th Anniversary World Tour, it continues to work as a celebration of heritage and identity. What I love most about Irish dance—what made me beg my mother (in vain) for lessons when I was a kid—is the raw power behind it. And Riverdance is all about power: the push-pull dynamics between men and women, old and new, one culture and another, and ultimately the unified power of the collective.
On the most basic level, the fun lies in letting yourself be lifted up by the sheer human energy of the performance. When the clog dancers stomp out of the wings and start hammering their heels against the stage in unison, their faces set in attitudes of determination or defiance, you want to jump up and throw a fist into the air. When Bobby Hodges, one of this run’s lead dancers, slowly raises his arms, his feet moving faster and faster, grinning at his own prowess, then stops dead and strikes a power stance, you want to applaud. And we do. Riverdance plays the crowd, involves us in the dance, as we clap along with the beat of Bobby’s shoes.
Though a booming voice occasionally contributes a few lines of narration between scenes, Riverdance bends into only the most general of plot arcs. The show begins in ancient times with “our ancestors” who negotiate with the elements of the natural world through song and dance. A square screen behind the performers shifts color schemes and classic Celtic imagery—fires, moons, green hills—as the story progresses, helping to guide us through the choreographic interpretations of familiar themes and myths.
Those colorful myths, and the extravagantly dramatic lighting, and the extravagantly dramatic costumes, match up just right with the buoyancy of the music and choreography. There’s a simplicity to the elemental powers theme which plays to a mass audience. Particularly when water, for instance, in the form of a thunderstorm, is represented by a fast-moving chap in black leather pants, and the moon is a shapely nymph leading a troupe of glittering velvet-clad damsels. Perhaps not the most inventive tropes—but hey, they’re crowd pleasers, and they’re Irish as hell. Besides, the warlock-damsel gender politics have been updated, at least to an extent: in “The Countess Cathleen,” the fiery female lead faces off three men who attempt to intimidate her, out-dancing them and banishing them offstage.
It’s not just male-female relations that Riverdance tries to reform. Back in the ’90’s, the show was a hailed as a much-needed breath of fresh air for strictly traditional Irish dance, incorporating new musical rhythms and styles and bringing in dancers from other world traditions. Most of the non-Irish numbers appear in the second half of the show, in which famine has driven the Irish to leave the old country for the new world. In the streets of New York, they encounter a new way of life and new forms of dance representing the various working-class communities of the big city. The message—according the program and 20 years of Riverdance history—is supposed to be that cultures enrich each other and make up more than the sum of their parts when they come together.
There’s more than a little wishful thinking involved in representing the Irish diaspora as a never-ending fest of cultural harmonization, of course. In “Trading Taps,” for instance, what starts as a one-upmanship dance-off between African American tap dancers and Irish immigrants ends in happy collaboration as the two groups kick their heels up together, swapping elements of style. The happy ending is historically questionable—relations between Irish immigrants and African Americans were a mixed bag in 1850s New York. The “Russian Dervishes” and flamenco numbers are similarly lacking in historical complexity.
Then again, accurate social investigation is not Riverdance’s mission. Most things are sugar-coated in this show; it rarely veers from the feel-good realm. And sometimes you need a little bit of sugar. I’ve been thinking about the idea of home a lot lately, as a native San Franciscan seeing the bad guys win in her city—seeing friends forced to emigrate, as it were, due to skyrocketing rents, and wondering when her turn will come. So the last famous Riverdance sequence in which the dancers form an unbroken line across the stage, united for one riotous finale, felt good. Again, talk about a crowd pleaser: with one dance number, all the impoverishment and heartbreak and homesickness of the diaspora have been solved. The dancers bring you home. And you’re excused from thinking about the rough edges until later.