Today we’re giving you the chance to try your hand at Riverdancing. Katy Wheeler speaks to the show’s executive producer about staging the fastest feet in theatre.
Almost three million Brits have tapped their feet in tune to Riverdance over the past two decades of the touring show.
Globally, that audience stretches to more than two billion at a host of weird and wonderful places, from palaces to pyramids.
A winning combination of talent, timing and passion has led to the performance created as seven-minute interval entertainment at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest becoming a timeless classic, which shows no signs of slowing down.
Executive producer Julian Erskine has been with the fast-paced spectacle since the early days and says it’s still got the X Factor.
“At the start I was brought in as a contract worker, I was theatre consultant on a show that was being put together for four weeks in Dublin,” he recalls.
“I had other work at the time and was touring with a play. It was only after Riverdance went to London that it became obvious that the show had legs and I was asked to come back. I remember being blown away when I first saw it. I had never seen dancing or heard music like it. It still has that effect. Whatever it is, it has that magical combination. I happily sit there and watch it, after twenty years, and still be entertained.
“There have been many attempts to copy it since, but nothing’s come near it.”
This year, Riverdance is touring with its twentieth anniversary show, which touches down at Sunderland Empire in November.
Not many shows make it to twenty. Julian explains why Riverdance has: “I think timing was key to the show’s success. If it had come about ten years earlier, I don’t think it would have worked. But it came at a time in Ireland’s history called the Celtic Tiger, people were getting money and there was a sense of confidence and pride in Ireland. Riverdance came through the door and said ‘we’re Irish and we’re proud of our culture’. It was like a rallying call.”
Over the years, Riverdance has spread beyond the stage to change the face of a traditional artform and strip it back to its purest form.
“When I was growing up, Irish dancing was a niche activity,” said Dublin-born Julian. “A lot of people who were involved in it would keep quiet about it because it had become stale. What Moya Doherty (the show’s producer) did was to make it sexy and fresh. In those days it was the days of big stiff dresses and girls in curly wigs, it had got itself in the beauty pageant realm.
“But Moya realised that the real beauty was in the dancing. She put the girls in short skirts and the men in tight trousers so you could see what they were doing with their legs, she revealed it to the world.”
Riverdance has a rotating set of dancers who can each perform every spot on the stage, helping to maintain the show’s fresh edge.
The most coveted spot, however, is to become a Riverdance principal.
“The dancers help to keep it fresh. Every so often a talent comes along that is really exciting,” said Julian. “The music and dancing is so challenging that it allows that talent to come to the surface. To become a principal in Riverdance is a real badge of honour, it means you’ve made it up through the troupe. There are very few leads in the show, so it only goes to the chosen few.
“There’s been so many fabulous dancers. We have a very hard auditioning process so there’s no one on the stage who you wouldn’t rate as being strong.”
Riverdance has flown the flag for Irish culture in far-flung corners of the globe, from South America to China, where it was the first show from the West to perform at The Great Hall of the People.
Audience members over the years have included First Lady Michelle Obama and The Queen.
Julian says its heavy focus on dance makes it the perfect export.
“You can take the show anywhere because it speaks the universal language of dance, although we do translate the poetry sections,” he said “You can take Riverdance on many levels. You can look at it in an esoteric way, about being about the circle of life and emigration or you can just sit there and be entertained.
“In shows like an opera, the audience can sometimes feel inadequate because they might not know what’s going on, but you don’t have that with Riverdance.” Working with Riverdance opens the door to perform on some unusual platforms.
Julian says: “We’ve done some odd performances and requests over the years. We did a promo for a mobile phone network at the base of the Pyramids and a society wedding in Mumbai at the most expensive private home in the world. It had 47 storeys and they changed a ball room into a theatre just for Riverdance.
“We’ve performed on the QE2, at parties in hay barns in America and on top of a hotel in Singapore. But the ultimate experience is to see it in the darkness of a theatre.”
•Riverdance is at Sunderland Empire from November 10-15. Tickets are priced from £37.40 – £44.90 from the box office in High Street West or on 0844 871 3022.
•We’ve teamed up with Riverdance to give away two pairs of front row tickets for the opening night of Riverdance at Sunderland Empire on November 10.
The winners will also be invited to take part in a Riverdance masterclass with dancers from the show on November 11 at 4pm.
To be in with a chance of winning, answer this question: how old is Riverdance?
Email your answer to Katy.Wheeler@jpress.co.uk. Closing date: September 18.