Over the past two decades, the “Riverdance” company has consumed 400,000 gallons of water, burned through 6 million pounds of dry ice and celebrated 60 in-house marriages — now they’re coming back to the Paramount Theatre.
Twenty years, 11,000 performances, 25 million viewers, gross revenue of over $1 billion: Is there anyone who hasn’t seen “Riverdance”? Or at least heard of it?
Since this percussive, feet-flying Irish step-dancing show debuted in Dublin in 1995 — after a well-received intermission performance during the Eurovision Song Contest in 1994 — it’s been touring the world almost continuously, inspiring a number of spinoffs and turning its first lead dancer, Michael Flatley, into a megastar.
Even without Flatley, who went on to found his own ensemble, “Riverdance” has continued to draw staggering crowds. According to executive producer Julian Erskine, the troupe has played Wolf Trap Performing Arts Center outside Washington, D.C., more times than any other company, drawing 600,000 viewers to its 12 performances. The show sold out Radio City Music Hall’s 6,000 seats for six solid weeks the first time it appeared there and set a merchandise sales record for that New York landmark.
Not surprisingly, “Riverdance” fans are a devoted lot. Some people, Erskine says, have seen the show 30 or 40 times. One fan turns up at every U.K. performance and has become friends with company members; a couple in Germany follows the group wherever it performs in their country. “One of the things that keeps us going is that people come back over and over,” Erskine says.
The three originators — composer Bill Whelan, producer Moya Doherty and director John McColgan — are as involved today as they were in the beginning and remain astonished by the company’s staying power. “The success of ‘Riverdance’ across the whole world has gone beyond our wildest dreams,” Doherty says.
For all its appeal, “Riverdance” may be one of the more unlikely success stories in popular culture, given its roots in a little-known craft. Irish step dancing had ancient beginnings dating back to pre-Christian times, but until “Riverdance” burst onto the scene, it was mainly a competitive activity confined to Ireland and places with large Irish populations.
By glamorizing and modernizing step dancing, which features rigid torsos and rapid-fire footwork, “Riverdance” has inspired students all over the world to study the form, resulting in a global circuit of competitions, as well as other step-dancing shows. That globalization is reflected in the makeup of the company; the vast majority of dancers in the early “Riverdance” productions were from Ireland — though Flatley is from Chicago — but today’s company includes a wide mix of nationalities.
Although this 20th-anniversary production has new costumes, new lighting, new projections and one new number featuring the female members in an a cappella hard-shoe number, the show’s signature elements haven’t changed. There’s the pistonlike pounding of a chorus line moving in unison, dazzling theatrical effects and infectious music, all of which have delighted the millions of fans who have made “Riverdance” a worldwide cultural phenomenon.