The Jig Is Up

Riverdance sells out while the dance world goes hungry.

Consider this puzzler: On the one hand, critics and aficionados continue to lament a perceived dearth of activity on the national dance scene. This, coupled with a downturn in federal funding and fickle audiences, has placed dance in a very real state of crisis. On the other hand, a number of splashy, highly produced dance shows including Stomp, Tap Dogs, and Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk (all of which have been or will be performed in the Twin Cities) are proving wildly successful, connecting with audiences internationally and enjoying mass appeal unmatched by concert dance since the boom of the 1970s.

Perhaps no troupe has reached the heights currently enjoyed by Riverdance, a big-stage production from the Emerald Isle that marks the evolution of traditional Irish stepdance and its relations to the dance of other cultures. The much ballyhooed show has enjoyed box office success unlike any I can remember in a dozen years working in and around dance. Surprisingly, the show has humble enough beginnings. Riverdance was originally created in 1994 by composer Bill Whelan, producer Moya Doherty, and director John McColgan, as a short, seven-minute bit for television. It wasn't long before a spin-off stage show had spun gold, receiving rousing accolades and extended runs in Dublin, London, and New York before embarking on its first American tour this winter.

No doubt you've heard of it. There's Riverdance the Show, Riverdance the CD, Riverdance the Video, and Riverdance the Website. And this weekend, when Riverdance: The Show pulls into the Orpheum Theatre as part of its eight-city sweep across North America, you won't be going--unless you planned ahead. Because even with a colossal engagement (for this market) of 14 shows in 10 days and ticket prices from $41.50 to $66.50, Riverdance has been sold out for nearly six weeks. These are the kind of numbers the Joffrey Ballet and other touring troupes can only dream of.

What's all the fuss? Some critics attribute Riverdance's success to the overall popularity of rhythm-based dance. I'd agree with them. Stomp, Tap Dogs, and Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk all put rhythmic dance on stage in exciting ways. On the local scene, Bharatanatyam dancer Ranee Ramaswamy, Flamenco artist Susana di Palma, and tap and clogging innovator Joe Chvala are enjoying recognition for their work as well.

Traditional Irish dance fits into this category nicely. A forerunner of Appalachian clogging and good old American tap, the form features quicksilver footwork while the upper body remains starched and stiff, arms at the side. The form is energetic and expressive--even viewers who don't make a practice of watching dance can appreciate the talents of a prodigious Irish stepper with technique to burn.

Prior to Riverdance, Irish dance was mostly associated with the gigs, reels, and hornpipes danced by young, cherub-faced youth in organized dance competitions. All sleek and polished, Riverdance is youth dance grown up. The women trade in the traditional Celtic costuming for velvet mini-skirts; men don leather pants. The result is a calculated sex appeal not previously associated with the form.

That's not all. There are over 70 dancers in this production, a miked floor to pump up the volume, talented singers, world-class musicians, and a new-agey Celtic score by Whelan, who has worked with Van Morrison, Kate Bush, and U2. For good measure, the production throws in a flamenco dancer from Spain, tappers from the United States, and a clutch of Russian folk dancers.

Noted Massachusetts-based dance critic Marcia Siegel, who wrote extensively on the Riverdance phenomenon in the Hudson Review, attributes the show's success to its fusion of ethnic dance and stage spectacle, not unlike that of Bale Folclorico da Bahia and Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba (both of which appeared on Northrop's stage last season). "It's so engaging because it's so big and so loud and there's so much going on," she says of Riverdance. "It's a spectacle and it's meant to be a spectacle. It's always just full out and the talents are amazing."

But the critics are not unanimously enamored with Riverdance. Elizabeth Zimmer, dance editor of the The Village Voice, attributes the shows success to the fact that "It essentially lionizes white people. It's glitz, and enormous, and totally sentimental. It's basically a folk concert with the hype of a rock concert. The show is attractive for people who don't have patience for subtlety."

Zimmer also notes that Riverdance's massive PR campaign helped its ascent. Full-page ads ran in local newspapers, there was a series of TV spots, and, perhaps most importantly, Riverdance the TV Show was aired on KTCA and other public television stations around the country who used it as a draw during their pledge drives. Therefore, many audience members will have seen Riverdance, at least from their living rooms, before they even take their coveted Orpheum seats. (If you missed Riverdance on the tube, not to worry. According to KTCA, the show's airing garnered so many pledges that they plan to run it during the March drive.)

I haven't seen the show live, but from what I saw on PBS, I'm not expecting the unbuttoned bravado of Riverdance to be my cup of tea. Bigger isn't always better. And I can live without the glitz--more authentically staged world-class Irish dance would have me sitting front and center in an instant. But I'm keeping an open mind about the live Riverdance experience. The show's makers had the wherewithal to harness a huge mass audience for a dance production. And that can't be a bad thing.

Or can it? Riverdance's formula is not a Band-Aid for the entire field. As Siegel notes, "Most of what we call art dance isn't popular. It just doesn't command a big mass audience ever, no matter who puts it on or where it is. It doesn't play on a mass scale. I don't necessarily think it should. I don't thinkall art should be all things to all people. We have television for that."

But like all arts, the dance world needs resources to survive. And as Zimmer concludes, "The combination of emerging technology that encourages audiences to stay home and the economic bombshell that the live arts have taken have taken a serious toll on dance." Revitalizing the U.S. dance scene lock, stock, and barrel, will require vision, insight, and probably--if you'll pardon the expression--the luck of the Irish. Competition in the entertainment world is profound (even the music industry is experiencing a downturn) and sometimes it seems that to make a dent you have to make a splash. And Riverdance has done just that.

Riverdance opens Saturday and runs through February 25.

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