Performing in an international language Music and dance speak to everybody.

This may help explain the phenomenal success of 'Riverdance,' which comes to the Lyric this week.

November 29, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Riverdance" seems to have been around forever - especially in public television fund-raisers.

In fact, the hit show is only 4 years old, and Tuesday's opening at the Lyric Opera House will mark its first-ever visit to Baltimore - reason enough to provide a primer on the Irish dance extravaganza.

First, however, a few words on the show's megahit status.

Kevin McCormack, dance captain of the company coming to the Lyric, has been with "Riverdance" since its earliest incarnation in 1994. He admits its success took him somewhat by surprise. "Irish dancing was not the coolest or hippest thing in Ireland at the time," says the Dublin native, who is in charge of keeping the choreography precise on a daily basis.

On the most basic level, the wild popularity of "Riverdance" can be explained at least in part by the fact that dance and music are international languages, accessible to all without translation.

McCormack offers several other theories as well.

"For the Irish dancers it's something they did as a hobby for years and never would have considered that it would ever have been a job or given them their livelihood. So, when they perform, it's something from the heart," says the 27-year-old, a world-champion Irish dancer who worked as a pharmacist before joining the show.

When "Riverdance" began, "Irish dance was an under-exposed dance form, except in Celtic folk-dance circles," he explains, adding that it had never been produced "in a show with big production values and a spectacular setting." Finally, on a more subliminal level, he feels, "The rhythm in it is almost hypnotic. I think that gives people a thrill as well."

But on to the nitty-gritty - a roster of "Riverdance" facts, from the basic to the recondite:

* The show got its start as a seven-minute dance segment televised during intermission in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. Seen by more than 300 million viewers, it was so well-received that director John McColgan and his wife, producer Moya Doherty, decided to turn it into a full-length stage show.

* McColgan and Doherty put up most of the show's original $1.8 million financing, mortgaging their house to do so. No doubt they're glad they did; to date, "Riverdance" has grossed $250 million worldwide.

* "Riverdance" has been seen on stage by more than 6 million people. Performances are booked into the year 2001.

* Six million copies of the two videotape versions have been sold, along with more than 1 million CDs.

* There are currently three touring companies, two in North America and another in Europe. The company coming to the Lyric includes three dozen Irish dancers (29 of whom appear in each performance), eight Russians, three American tap dancers, flamenco dancer and 20 onstage musicians and singers.

* As those demographics indicate, Irish dancing isn't the only form showcased in "Riverdance." It also presents forms that influenced Irish dancing, or were influenced by it. These include a flamenco number, a Russian number featuring members of the Moscow Folk Ballet and a tap number (photo, above) in which African-American dancers square off against their Irish counterparts.

* The show's name was coined by its composer, Bill Whelan. The original Gaelic title translated as "water of life," and the production is loosely structured like a river that gathers momentum as it rushes out to the sea.

* The action is divided into two acts. The first focuses on myth and legend, typified by the number "Shivna," based on a 17th-century chieftain who angered a saint and was forced to live out his days in trees in Irish forests. The second act is devoted to the themes of departure and discovery, including Irish emigration to other cultures.

* There are various theories to explain why traditional Irish dancers keep their arms motionless at their sides. According to director McColgan, one of these holds that many Irish dance schools in the 1920s and 1930s were headed by the clergy, who tried to keep dancing as asexual as possible. Or, as principal female dancer Niamh Roddy has pointed out, the reason may be that when dancers performed in pubs, they had limited room and didn't want to knock drinks out of patrons' hands.

* The dancers coming to Baltimore are young, ranging in age from 16 to 29. Many of them had never performed professionally before this show, but worked in fields ranging from teaching to medicine. In some cases, they were still in high school.

* There are three sibling pairs in the company coming to Baltimore, including dance captain McCormack and his brother Ronan. There are also three families that have members spread among all three touring companies.

* Despite a full rehearsal every other week and a half-hour warm-up of stretches and aerobic exercises before each show, injuries do happen. The most common are shin splints. The company employs its own chiropractor and two massage therapists, who remain backstage during each performance to help minimize injuries.

* Composer Whelan created the entire score for "Riverdance" in approximately two months. His previous credits include writing for U2 and Van Morrison.

* Although Michael Flatley's name remains associated with this show in many people's minds, the former male lead performed in "Riverdance" for only 13 weeks, in Dublin and London. He left due to artistic differences; a lawsuit is still pending. (The show he subsequently created, "Lord of the Dance," is coming to the Lyric in May.)


Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: Dec. 1-20. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Tickets: $19-$62.50

Call: 410-481-7328

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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