Riverdance still going strong after 21 years

Julian Erskine

Julian Erskine

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It started as a interval piece for the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, but the seven-minute slot began a worldwide phenomenon.

Bill Whelan’s music combined with the energetic Irish dance to create something that overshadowed the whole contest (go on, who won Eurovision that year? Actually, it was Ireland.)

The producers, Moya Doherty and John McColgan, realised that they had something and decided to bring in a team of experts to produce a show based around the original show, and thus was Riverdance born.

It made a huge star of choreographer and chief male dancer Michael Flatley, who went on to create his own shows.

But the original show is still touring the world 21 years after the first shows in Dublin in 1995.

Executive Producer Julian Erskine was one of those experts brought in and he is still in charge, overseeing every aspect of the production; and even he had no idea how the show would dominate the entertainment world.

“The original plan was to do a month in Dublin,” he tells me. “But the truth of it was, it just took off. The whole month of shows sold out before it opened – and just based on that seven-minute piece.”

Even though it was Irish entertainment, it proved popular everywhere.

“That’s right,” the soft-spoken Irishman said.“There was a phenomenal reaction and a London promoter called Barry Clayman said that we had to bring the show to London – and the same thing happened there.”

“Nowadays, as well as the Riverdance troupe touring the UK and Europe, we also have one in North America.”

In the UK alone, the show has been enjoyed by nearly three million people in well over 1000 performances.

Julian struggles to understand why the show has remained so popular for so long.

“I think one of the reasons is that people come to the show over and over again, and then they bring friends who bring their friends and so on. Also we keep it fresh, with changes in the presentation as well as some of the numbers.”

This time around, there are two new numbers in the show.

“We also have a lot of new performers in the show – some of whom were not even born when the show started. Plus we have added some new lighting and costumes. We spend a lot of time on the quality of the show.”

As well as the original ‘Riverdance’ piece which closes the first half, one mainstay of the production is the ‘dance-off’ between the Irish dancers and the American tap-dancers.

“That one, and the flamenco dance was in the original concept, I thought at the time that just Irish dance wouldn’t be enough, but the other styles allow the Irish dances to shine; and of course Flamenco has a strong Celtic feel.”

But was the dance-off a conscious effort to show both the differences and similarities in the styles?

“I couldn’t have put it better myself,” said Julian. “There’s the loose-limbed US jazz and the stiffer Irish styles. Don’t forget that all these styles got together when all these nationalities were immigrants in America and there

was a lot of mixing.”

Despite the physicality of the show, the production has very few injuries.“Yes, that’s right. The dancers look after themselves and we have a team of masseuses and physiotherapists.”

“We do get the odd accident, but we can put them in another part of the show – ‘light duties’ as it were. Plus we rotate the dancers, for instance if a dancer injures their ankle, we can put them in a section where there is less

strain on the ankle while they heal.”

But it is very hard work so there must be a big turnover in dancers.

“Not as much as you’d think. We had one girl start in 1994 and was with us for 19 years, and we have had some dancers stay for about 16 years.

However, I’d say the average is five to six years.”

This particular tour is quite a long one, as Julian explains.

“We’re in the UK for seven weeks, doing about eight shows a week; and after that we’re off to Germany, so it’s pretty much full on.”

And they don’t plan any major changes to the format.

“People love Riverdance the way it is, so we don’t do radical changes. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Riverdance will be celebrating its 21st anniversary at Sheffield City Hall on Tuesday, April 5, Wednesday, April 6 and Thursday, April 7. Performances at 8pm.

Tickets £37.95-£48.40. Contact 0114 2789789 or www.sheffieldcityhall.co.uk

The tour then moves on to O2 Apollo, Manchester from Friday, April 8, to Sunday, April 10. Performance at 8pm on Friday and Saturday with matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday at 2.30pm. Tickets £30-50-£44 (plus booking fee), from the box office on 0844 477 7677 and all the usual agencies.