January 27, 2011
The essence of Irishness, now in SA
Riverdance — the original if much-copied Irish dance troupe — is performed as it was 15 years ago
writes Tammy Ballantyne BusinessDay.co.za
IT LOOKS like the season’s a sellout,” says John Langford, part of Attie van Wyk’s Big Concerts, which has brought Riverdance to SA for the first time . It must be an enviable position to be in right now when all over the world theatre and dance productions are struggling to bring in audiences. What a high note to start the year on.
Bryan Hill, GM of the Teatro at Montecasino, confirmed this at the dress rehearsal by excitedly declaring the show had broken the box office record for prebookings since the venue opened four years ago: “52000 tickets have been sold, leaving only 6000 in the system.”
I’ve been pondering the worldwide success of this Irish dance show, which began in Dublin 15 years ago, and has travelled the globe and kept people entranced night after night. Julian Erskine, senior executive producer, speaks of its humble beginnings as a seven-minute interval act during the Eurovision Song Contest in 1994: “The theme of the contest was a river and the piece traces the cycle of a river’s life and was simply called Riverdance, from which the show takes its name.”
Moya Doherty’s small but innovative idea caused a sensation and, with music and lyrics by Bill Whelan, she developed it into the stage hit it is today.
So why has it taken so long to get here? Langford explains: “The production is huge, with more than 65 cast and crew, so there have always been issues around being able to afford to mount it in SA, and when we explored bringing it here three years ago, things didn’t work out and the markets crashed and that was that. Erskine and his team have always wanted to come, but we’ve never been able to offer them a large enough venue. The Teatro has completely revolutionised things for us — it has a huge seating capacity and can take the larger musical and dance productions.”
Big Concerts is also a share partner with the Irish production team, which enables a more affordable venture.
SA has been saturated over the past few years with all the spin-offs from Riverdance, such as Michael Flatley’s popular Lord of the Dance, so why is Riverdance so seemingly evergreen? Langford believes it encapsulates the essence of “Irishness”. He says “it transformed the way Irish dancing was perceived and understood; it is authentic Irish”.
All the productions that grew from it became very commercial and began to embody American aspirations and preoccupations; many who have seen Lord of the Dance may agree that it is flashy and over the top, with huge lighting rigs and special effects, as well as recorded music.
Riverdance feels more earthy and informal — and with a live band and simple but effective lighting and great costumes, it really is about the dancers and those blitsvinnig feet.
Although the dance is rooted in Irish traditions, the show includes Flamenco, American tap and Russian folk dancing.
While waiting for the dress rehearsal to begin, the thundering sound of feet in tap shoes comes bursting through the backdrop as the dancers warm up.
The set is simple with static drops, a back projection that changes with each piece, and the band is on stage, so they are clearly visible and part of the action.
Technicians, performers, producers all mill around, seemingly very relaxed and in control. After performing to 22-million people in more than 350 venues worldwide, they have the set-up down pat .
Erskine introduces the three pieces they perform for us as a teaser in his lilting Irish brogue and exclaims how delighted the company is to finally be here. Thunderstorm was in the first production of Riverdance; it’s an a capella piece for the male dancers and the thunder is generated by their feet. The dancers appear in a line lit by strobe lighting and they begin the relentless and astonishing footwork which has made them famous. One can argue we’ve seen it all before but nothing can replace the live, tangible version, the chance to see the technique at work in the looseness of the ankles and knees.
Brendan Dorris, one of the male leads, appears as a leather-clad lightning bolt. He has been with the troupe since 2007 and has danced competitively for several years. He is immensely gifted.
Look out for Trading Taps , a piece that has become a highlight of the show. Two African-American tap dancers perform a modern-day duel with three Irish dancers. It’s about inclusion and respect for difference. And acknowledgement of talent.
Kelly Isaac and Gilbert L Bailey delight with the loose American version of tap in strong contrast to the Irish technique. Lead dancer Alan Kenefick is superb and cut his taps performing with Flatley’s Celtic Tiger and Magic of the Dance before joining Riverdance. Fiddle and saxophone accompany them in a playful encounter.
And finally, the symbolic and probably most-watched excerpt from the production is the piece which gave it its name so many years ago. It is resonant of Irish mist and legends as the gorgeous Maria Buffini and Padraic Moyles lead the entire troupe in a rousing celebration of the river and the cycles of life.
The drums are stirring and provide perfect accompaniment to the drumming of the feet, all in almost unbelievably accurate unison at unimaginable speeds.
I was struck by the energy being given out — there’s no showbiz glitz to distract from the dancing and the strong Irish themes and stories. The dancers seem to be enjoying every moment and there’s a strong rapport amongst the troupe, a genuine love of the art form and the ability to entertain without too much razzle-dazzle.
Just focus on the legs that seem to go on forever and are in perpetual motion.
The show could be criticised for being dated. Langford confirms that very little has been changed since it began, even the costume design , but there is talk of adding new elements and refreshing and updating the production. Perhaps that’s its true appeal — it doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.
Says Langford: “It’s how it was 15 years ago and South Africans are going to enjoy it live for the first time.”
Few people may know it but it also has a place in South African dance history — it has inspired several local choreographers and in homegrown shows such as African Footprint, there’s no mistaking the influence it’s had.
South Africans just can’t seem to get enough of the Celtic music and dance styles and this is their chance to see Riverdance live — that’s if you can get a ticket. The production opened last night at The Teatro at Montecasino and runs until February 20, when it moves to Cape Town’s Grand Arena at Grand West Casino for just seven shows.
As for Langford and Big Concerts, this is only the beginning — they’re also behind the coming tour of U2 and the long-awaited and anticipated visit by Cirque du Soleil, another first for South African audiences.
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