25 years of Riverdance: How ‘filler’ act became a ‘global phenomenon’

Dance phenomenon Riverdance will be taking its 25 year anniversary tour to Bournemouth next month. Martin Hutchinson finds out more.

HARD to believe I know, but what was originally a ‘filler’ – the interval act at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest – went on to become a global phenomenon and is now celebrating its silver anniversary.

Riverdance captured the essence of traditional Irish dancing and transformed it into an exciting art-form.

So popular was it that a whole show was built around the short, spectacular Riverdance piece and it opened in Dublin in 1995.

From there it went around the world, with audiences seemingly unable to get enough of the show – which now included other dance-forms such as flamenco and American Tap.

The show has been reimagined to celebrate its 25 years with innovative and spectacular lighting, projection, stage and costume designs.

Coincidentally, the Silver Anniversary UK tour is visiting 25 venues, and many shows are close to selling out.

Executive producer Julian Erskine has been there from the beginning and I caught up with him at his Dublin home.

“It’s fantastic,” he enthuses. “Not just to get to 25 years, but to have a whole new surge of interest.”

The production recently had a gala performance at the place where it all began – The Point Theatre in Dublin.

“The reaction to the show has been great,” Julian says. “For the week we just had in Dublin, the reaction from the audience was amazing. There were 8,500 seats filled every night – it was like starting the show again.”

It is rare for a show to remain so popular over such a long period of time, but Riverdance bucks that trend and Julian puts it down to it being so entertaining.

“From day one Riverdance has done really well in repeat business. People keep coming back, and we’re very lucky that people come to see it over and over again.”

“We have people who have seen the show 10, 11 and 12 times; and that’s a testament to it’s entertainment value. And people like to bring people with them to see it and share the experience.”

The show is always changing.

“We have deliberately kept it as fresh as possible. A lot of the cast were not even born when the show started and have grown up with the show and of course the young performers gives the show it’s energy.”

Julian then revealed some details about the revamp.

“We had a long hard think about it and decided not to tinker with the music and choreography.”

“However, Bill [Whelan – the original composer of the Riverdance music] has re-recorded the music with a new orchestra. It sounds very fresh and new.”

“Visually, the show looks completely different. The biggest single change has been with the lighting and the set. We had a whole new design team to create a new set.”

“It’s familiar yet different. People are sometimes resistant to change, but it has been overhauled.”

And the show has quite a large company.

“That’s right,” agrees Julian. “It’s similar in size to when we first began with 55 in the company altogether. 15 technical staff and 40 performers.”

With such an energetic and physically demanding show, injuries must happen occasionally. But Julian says that it doesn’t affect the show.

“We have extraordinarily very few injuries.” He says, with a hint of pride.

“It’s unusual to have any dancers off. However in the Dublin week, we had three injuries, but two were back on stage in three days.”

“We have a great support team of medical people and physiotherapists. We look after the dancers and they all look after themselves.”

The dancers agree.

Dudley-born Lewis Childs joined the company in January.

“I danced originally with the Carey Academy in Birmingham. I started Irish dancing when I was five and I’m 26 now.”

Lewis has danced professionally all his adult life.

“Yes, I left school at 18 to join the cast of ‘Lord Of The Dance’ and I was with them for eight years. In fact, I was a lead dancer in the show being The Dark Lord – the bad guy.”

“I moved to Riverdance in January and took part in the gala show in Dublin.”

“To perform at the 25th anniversary of the opening night was great.”

To help cover for any injured cast members and to keep things fresh, the dancers are rotated and keep themselves in top condition.

“That’s really important,” says Lewis. “We train everyday and rotate the line-up. We all watch what we eat and we work out to keep ourselves fit and healthy.”

“We don’t get a lot of recovery time between each show as we’ll be doing eat shows a week. After each show, we do some stretching and use buckets of ice to replenish the leg muscles and reduce any swelling. Then we’ll eat and have a good night’s sleep to be ready to go again.”

Lewis is really looking forward to the UK tour.

“I can’t wait,” he says. “Not many have done both Riverdance and Lord Of The Rings.”

And what of the future? Julian lets me in on the plans.

“Well, firstly, for those who missed the Dublin shows recently, the final two shows were filmed for cinematic release and they should be shown sometime in March.”

“Also, there’s going to be ‘Riverdance – The Animated Movie’. It’s a mythological story set to the Riverdance music. Part of it involves Irish deer doing the Riverdance section in a forest. It’s due to be launched on St Patrick’s Day next year.”

The 25th anniversary show catapults Riverdance into the 21st century and will completely immerse audiences in the extraordinary and elemental power of its music and dance.

It is still Riverdance, but not as we have ever seen it before.

*Riverdance, the new 25th Anniversary Show will be coming to the BIC Windsor Hall, Bournemouth from Tuesday March 10 to Thursday March 12. There are shows at 7.30 pm on Tuesday to Thursday with a matinee at 2.30 pm on Wednesday. Tickets are available from the box office and all the usual agencies.

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