From the moment John McColgan steps onto the Riverdance stage to announce that this 25th Anniversary performance will be the first since lockdown was enforced, it is clear that this spectacle will be something very special. The delighted cheers from the expectant audience demonstrate just what a following Riverdance has amassed since its conception for the 1994 Eurovision song contest. Now in its 27th year, this quarter-century celebration is somewhat (and inevitably) delayed but that has just built the anticipation as McColgan goes on to tell the audience of the excitement backstage with the performers so eager to get back onto the stage after a long, long wait. And so Riverdance returns…
The drums and the historical video footage capturing the spirit of the dance build the anticipation as dry ice creeps onto the stage framing a haunting acapella. The voiceover informs that “out of the dark they came”, and so they do, the disciplined, passionate, dedicated, graceful and energetic Irish dancers, ready to entertain and enthral; there really is something quite spectacular in the uniformed movements as every leap is timed to perfection, every step is synchronised and even the facial expressions of concentration, joy and a little seduction, are mirror images. The senses are absolutely bombarded as the audience is transported back to an ethereal world of primitive splendour. There really is too much for the eyes and ears to take in. Blink, and the shape of the stage will have changed, such is the pace of this exhibition.
While there is little storyline per se, there is, at least for this reviewer, an exploration of contrasts as the elements and the natural world are celebrated in all their fragility and power. The lighting by Andrew Voller compliments and emphasises these dichotomous journeys; from the natural, tranquil green forests and plains of Ireland to fiery, intense reds, the lighting helps to set the mood and the emotion of the dance. The shocking strobe lighting is used to great effect, emphasising dominance and unrelenting force.
Another contrast explored is the conflict between male and female and this reviewer just loved to see the fierce female empowerment on display in the Countess Cathleen. Small changes to the choreography over time have made even more of this battle than was originally conceived with the suggestion of violence more overt, and it is these small alterations that keep this production fresh. The coming together of male and female in the final dance of Act 1, Riverdance, from which the name of the show is derived, is joyous. As one of the lead dancers, Bobby Hodges has already demonstrated his prowess through his powerful command of the stage in dances such as Reel Around the Sun and Thunderstorm; it is in this closing dance of Act 1 where his regal poise, dignified demeanour and frivolity really bring the cheering audience to the edge of their seats – Hodges is the Rockstar of the Riverdance! Amy-Mae Dolan perfectly encapsulates the beauty and grace of Jean Butler, the original Riverwoman, but arguably brings more joy, more delight and more sensual physicality to the dance.
Act 2 of Riverdance is much less well known than Act 1 and charts the displacement of the Irish people and their heritage. The dance is seen now more as entertainment and community than other-worldly and as the Irish people move to other areas of the globe, they take their love of the dance, and all that it represents, with them across the sea. Trading Taps, is an unexpected comical treat, and is unlike any of the other dances in the entirety of the show. Two new dancers are introduced, Kenji Igus and Tyler Knowlin, and in a dance-off that far surpasses other theatrical rumbles, three Irish immigrants trade steps with Igus and Knowlin who represent the African American dance phenomenon against a backdrop of 1980s Brooklyn. Each side shows an intense pride of their own cultural heritage as the tall and straight Irish dancing is mimicked and the freer movements to a jazz beat are mocked. The journey of understanding, acceptance and learning from each other’s movements, culminating in a dance that encapsulates both cultures is something that the world today could learn much from. The message here is clear and moving; community extends far beyond the confines of a small geographical space.
From this point, there is a dip in energy in the auditorium (not on the stage) as the performances are mainly solo or small group numbers, rather than larger spectacles. The audience energy is revived by Mark Alfred, percussionist extraordinaire, who breaks the fourth wall to interact with the audience, encouraging the audience to clap along with his solos on the Bodhran. While Alfred is dressed in black in a back corner of the stage, he may think that he is somewhat hidden behind the vibrant costumes and passionate performances, but this is certainly not the case. He bounds from one percussion instrument to the next with impressive vigour and his fervour is infectious. His role in the performance is absolutely crucial. Bravo Mark Alfred!
Riverdance is certainly known for its dance performances, and rightfully so, but the music, the music is enthralling. Originally a larger orchestra, there are now only 4 musical performers who put their all into the performance, delighting with their group numbers as well as their solos. At one point, this reviewer closed her eyes and was transported to the rural Ireland of her own heritage while Tara Howlen beautifully plays the Uilleann pipes. Haley Richardson is an accomplished fiddler and took centre stage at many points throughout, demonstrating her astounding talent, with a little flirtation to boot. Emma McPhilemy’s flair on numerous wind instruments completed the trio and their intoxicating melody.
All of the performers are insanely talented, and it would be remiss of this reviewer not to mention that not only are the dancers masters of the Irish dance, but also harmonising; the singing was evocative and stirring, causing goosebumps and held breath. Simply stunning.
At the end of the show, the entire auditorium are on their feet and the performers are clearly overwhelmed after such a long time away from the stage. It is a privilege and an unforgettable experience to be present as Riverdance returns. The whoops of joy from the performers can even be heard from backstage as the grinning audience exits the auditorium.
While the two day run at The Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham has now ended, Riverdance will be returning to the East Midlands playing at Leicester’s DeMontfort Hall between 31 October and 2 November. It really is a unique, one of a kind show and while it may not be for everyone, this reviewer feels that it is a spectacle not to be missed.