Sailing with the ‘Riverdance’ of life

After performing before 22 million people around the world, the iconic Irish dance troupe is coming to Israel next month for eight performances.

Riverdance 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Riverdance 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
We all immediately conjure up an image when someone’s described as having a Beatles-like enthusiasm, a Madonna-like bravado, or Nureyev-like grace. It’s a sure indication that if such succinct labels are able to create a complete portrayal of a style, trend or mood, then those innovators must occupy an elite sphere of cultural notoriety.
That’s why the term ‘Riverdance-style dance steps’ has entered the universal lexicon to describe dancers in constant motion, spurred by rapid leg movements that seem to defy gravity. Just ask any of the 22 million people who have seen Riverdance – the celebrated traditional Irish dance extravaganza – in performance since the troupe started touring the world in 1995.
Riverdance was originally conceived as a seven minute intermission entertainment for the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest held in Dublin, but it’s evolved into the most successful offshoot of the kitschy event since Abba.
"Ireland had won Eurovision for the third year in a row and the producers wanted to do something special so they decided to attempt to create something special,” said Niamh O’Connor, the dance captain of the Foyle dance troupe edition of Riverdance which performs primarily in Ireland. (The other production companies – all named after Irish rivers are Boyne touring in North America and Corrib in Europe).
“The reaction was so amazing that the producers decided to expand the piece into a full-length stage production.”
The Dublin-born O’Connor auditioned for the original production, led by the husband-wife producer/director team of Moya Doherty and John McColgan, composer Bill Whelan and choreographer Michael Flatley. She performed at its world premiere at the Point Theater, Dublin, in February, 1995, and now holds the record for the most shows performed in Riverdance.
“I was 18 years old and auditioned for Mike. It was really nerve wracking, but I knew I wanted to be part of Riverdance from the moment I saw it on Eurovision,” said O’Connor, who began dancing at age four.
Modern, but totally rooted in tradition, Riverdance focuses on the evolution of Irish dance and it similarities and influences on other cultures through a captivating blend of mesmerizing music and sensual dance.
According to O’Connor, Riverdance has its roots in a traditional piece of Irish music called “Timedance” which was composed by Whelan and Donal Lunny and performed by their band Planxty, with the accompaniment of ballet dancers during an interval at the 1981 Eurovision contest. In a book about the band, Whelan explained the connection to the latter-day Riverdance: “It was no mistake of mine to call it Riverdance because it connected absolutely to ‘Timedance.’ It was a nod in the direction of where I believed it came from.”
Whelan’s song “Riverdance” entered the Irish singles charts at #1 right after the Eurovision debut in 1994 and stayed there for 18 weeks.
Meanwhile, the show became hugely popular throughout Ireland and other European countries before making its US debut in 1996 at Radio City Music Hall. Since then the three production companies have been on the road bringing Irish magic to the world.
“The original concept of the show hasn’t changed,” O’Connor told The Jerusalem Post recently in between rehearsals for an eight annual summer stint at the Gaelic Theater in Dublin ahead of a tour that will bring the 50 dancers and musicians of Riverdance to Israel in September for eight performances.
“It was such a perfect format, there was no need to change it. But of course, it has evolved over the years. Technically, our steps and what we do as dancers is much more athletic than it was 15 years ago. Also, production-wise the show has changed, with everything from the lighting and sets and costumes being updated. In this day and age, you have to keep moving with the times, and we provide the best visual production you can find.”
Sixteen years after starting out with Riverdance, O’Connor still sounds as enthusiastic about the show as if she had just passed her audition.
“It’s such a great opportunity as a professional Irish dancer,” she said.
“Before Riverdance, there weren’t so many career outlets. I’m a dancer and I love performing onstage. I believe Riverdance is the best show out there, it’s the top of the game and I would never go elsewhere.”
Of course, part of what’s keeping her planted is the fact that one of her dance colleagues in Riverdance is her husband, lead dancer Padraic Moyles. He’s been part of the troupe since 1997, aside from two years beginning in 2006 when he joined the Broadway cast of The Pirate Queen. Since she’s the dance captain and he’s the lead dancer, it makes O’Connor her husband’s boss, a situation that both partners find amusing.
“I have to get after him sometimes when he’s not lifting his legs high enough, but he’s generally a very good student and I don’t have to berate him that much,” O’Connor said with a laugh before handing the phone to Moyles.
“Yes, she does have to crack the whip sometimes, but what she’s great at is her constructive criticism,” said Moyles, sounding as jazzed about dancing with Riverdance as his wife.
“What makes the show work is that everybody is doing the same thing at the exact same time – now that we’ve been around for 16 years, that’s what the world expects, and it’s up to us to live up to those expectations every night. And Niamh is great about making sure that we’re all in cue with each other.”
Moyles added that even when he left the troupe to perform with The Pirate Queen (also produced by Doherty and McColgan) he knew he’d find his way back to Riverdance.
“When I got the call to join Pirate Queen, I always knew that there was an open door policy to come back, and I welcomed the opportunity with open arms to return,” he said.
“My experience being away caused me to appreciate Riverdance even more. I found a new love for it.
With both Moyles and O’Connor expressing exciting about making their first visit to Israel, the only dark cloud on the river has been campaign by pro- Palestininian organizations to lobby the troupe to cancel their tour here, going so far as to picket one of their Dublin performances.
One member of the troupe, set designer Robert Ballagh told the Irish Times at the beginning of the summer that he was not going to travel with his colleagues to Israel and would donate his proceeds from the tour to an Irish organization involved in the flotilla of vessels aimed at breaking the blockade of Gaza.
The Riverdance management recently posted a notice on their website stating in no uncertain terms that there were no plans to cancel the Israel performances. The statement read: “The upcoming inaugural visit by Riverdance to Israel follows an invitation by an independent concert promoter to perform in three cities... and this tour will allow all Israeli citizens to experience a show that has been seen live by over 22 million people across 35 countries for the past 16 years. Riverdance supports the policy of the Irish Government and indeed the policy of every other EU state that cultural interaction is preferable to isolation.”
According to O’Connor, the brouhaha surrounding Riverdance’s tour of Israel hasn’t had any effect on the production.
“We don’t want it to become a huge issue – we’re just focusing on performing our show, rather than what goes on in the media,” she said.
“It doesn’t really have any effect on us.”
Riverdance will be appearing in Tel Aviv at the Tel Aviv Opera House for four shows - September 1-4, in Haifa for three shows at the Congress Center on September 8-10 and in Jerusalem on September 12 at Binyanei Hauma.