Twenty-five years since the first time the theatrical production known as Riverdance premiered at The Point Theatre in Dublin, igniting a phenomenon that to date has been performed at over 450 venues worldwide, it now stands singular and unique like the Eiffel Tower of the theatrical world as one of the most successful dance productions in the world.
Consisting primarily of traditional Irish music and dance, and served with an iconic score composed by Bill Whelan, it originated as an interval performance act during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, featuring Irish dancing champions Jean Butler, Michael Flatley and the vocal ensemble Anúna. Shortly afterwards the husband/wife production team John McColgan & Moya Doherty expanded it into a stage show, which opened in Dublin and today has been seen by over 25 million people.
And now from Tuesday through Thursday, May 17-19th, audiences from the Great Lakes Bay Region and beyond will be able to witness a special production of the Riverdance 25th Anniversary Show at the Midland Center for the Arts as part of their Huntington Bank Broadway & Beyond Series, which is also a centerpiece of the Center’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations.
For this special production, composer Bill Whelan has rerecorded his mesmerizing soundtrack while producer Moya Doherty and director John McColgan have completely reimagined the ground-breaking show with innovative and spectacular lighting, projection and stage designs, accompanied by new costume designs by Joan Bergin, to further augment the power of possibility embodied within the DNA of this landmark production.
While there is little storyline per se in Riverdance, one of the unique characteristics that distinguishes it is the manner in which it engages the senses and serves as an exploration of contrasts as the elements and the natural world are celebrated in all their fragility and power.
Recently and in advance of the Midland performances, I had the good fortune to interview Executive Producer & Associate Director Padraic Moyles, who dancing under the tutelage of Donny Golden, joined Riverdance in 1997, going on to become Dance Captain and Principal Dancer. Born in Dublin, he emigrated to New York when he was nine years old and at the age of twelve starred as the principal actor in the Off-Broadway production Grandchild of Kings, directed by Harold Prince. In 2006 he joined the Broadway production of The Pirate Queen as Dance Captain before returning to Riverdance in 2008. He has also had the privilege to perform for a number of heads of state and notable individuals from around the world, including Michelle Obama and Queen Elizabeth II.
Indeed, to calibrate the magical alchemy created by Riverdance, on July 21, 2013, it set a world record when a line of 1,693 dancers from 44 countries danced to Riverdance on a bridge overlooking the River Liffey, led by Jean Butler and Padraic Moyles.
REVIEW: You’ve been involved with Riverdance since its debut 25 years ago, so I guess a good place to begin is with the impact this production has carried upon audiences over the years. What do you feel distinguishes it amidst the lexicon of contemporary musical theatre and what are the attributes that make it one of the most successful dance productions in the world?
Padraic: First and foremost is the music and Grammy award winning score written by Bill Whelen, which when you add that with the incredible talents on stage for the past two decades are constantly focused on improving their performances as if every night is opening night. When you have that collective mindset as a team and go out and perform your very best each night, it touches a chord with the audience. Plus I feel there is something primal about Riverdance - the sound of the foot on the stage - the perfect synchronicity with the team on stage and the music upon the performers themselves. There’s not a lot of spoken word in Riverdance, so the connection and resonance with audiences goes beyond words and speaks in a universal language.
REVIEW: Has the production evolved or changed much since you first started performing it?
Padraic: Yes, it’s evolved considerably and has changed a number of times over the years, but its core is always the same. There’s a couple numbers in the show that have witnessed slight evolutions, along with the performers; and most recently a shift of empowerment in terms of the powerful and strong females we have gracing the stage.
REVIEW: Do you have much turnover with the cast and are there any particular challenges for the actors and dancers that diverge from traditional musical theater?
Padraic: The average length for our cast members is about five years, although there’s people who have been with the production for 12 or 15 years. For whatever reason, a dancer might only do one tour and maybe that’s their goal - to perform it once and move on, for whatever reason. I also think society tells us a lot, especially in the arts, that it’s not a real job whereas it is very much a real job. But this can be hard for some people to get their heads around at times when there’s pressure from people outside.
REVIEW: What is the most challenging component involved with bringing an ambitious production of this nature to the stage?
Padraic: I suppose if we take today’s circumstances into consideration it’s the rise in costs to stage these productions, along with the amount of uncertainty that currently exists. You can’t be in everybody’s head, but some people are still fearful to go out in public, so there are many challenges on the business side. This can be challenging for us because we regard every night as opening night and strive to constantly improve, but that challenge also inspires and focuses us on becoming the best we can be.
REVIEW: How would you distinguish Riverdance from traditional musical theater?
Padraic: Traditional musical theatre usually consists of different forms like jazz or modern dance, or tap dance or commercial dance. Riverdance is more of a traditional art from but shown in a new way that allowed the form to evolve and the dancers to use their arms more. When Executive Producer Moya Doherty who developed the original concept for Riverdance and was explaining the concept, many asked ‘Why would we do that?’ and her response was, ‘Why not do this?’. She had the vision and knew how it could be accomplished and put a team around her that was able to deliver; but deeper than that, it keeps an indigenous form of dance alive. There’s a huge amount of value in creating a music and soundtrack that’s inspired so many dancers every night, regardless of how many times they perform it - so in that sense I feel this production is epic in nature.
REVIEW: Are there any particular moments or highpoints with rendering this performance over the decades that stand out in your mind as career high-points or unforgettable moments that you will always cherish?
Padraic: Certainly, the first show I ever performed in Riverdance and the first time I got to dance the lead role stands out; but even today when I’m not on the stage I take immense pride in watching people that are on the stage be the best they can and reach for the best. I take pride in watching our alumni go on to bigger and better things and becoming directors or singers or dance instructors. It gives you a sense of pride watching them grow as individuals.
REVIEW: Are there any particular themes within the narrative that you try to highlight and feel are significant for audiences to grasp?
Padraic: Everything about Riverdance is timeless. It comes down to the music and the sound and the experience of watching artists going out there and give 100 percent of themselves. Audience reaction may change from territory to territory, but the universal reaction is watching them standing and cheering and shouting as if they were at a rock concert. This is true with America in particular. I always used to want to be on the American Tour because the energy one gets back from the audience is next to none. America is an incredible place to perform and the gratitude one feels from the audience on stage is unlike anywhere else in the world.
The magic of Riverdance is how it hits a universal chord within us.
Riverdance 25th Anniversary Show takes place May 17-19th at the Midland Center for the Arts. Tickets can be obtained by visiting midlandcenter.org or phoning 989.631.8350.
16th November, 2023