What a better way to open the new year than a trip to the theater? I ventured out into the cold on New Year’s Day to see Riverdance: The Farewell Tour.
In one sense, it was a lot of what I expected to see. There were lots of cheesy video backdrops with images of nature – flickering flames and a smoldering sun for the flamenco dancer, lightning and thunder, and rolling green hillsides, and the obligatory fog machine at work at every possible moment. There was a lot of melodramatic folk music, with Enya-like singers and rollicking fiddle tunes (by the amazing Pat Managan), and lots of overdramatic spotlight and strobe light use.
Despite all this, the dance snob in me couldn’t discount everything I saw on stage. Although trite elements covered the stage in unabashed glory, there was something genuinely awe-inspiring about the entire ensemble tap-dancing in thunderous unison at its opening. I immediately understood why Riverdance has been such a tour de force, and shockingly has attracted non-dance audiences into filling the big auditorium to Jersey Boys-like levels in a completely sold out house. On a holiday! I’d also like to mention that Riverdance has completely sold out its run here in our city. Who knew that Riverdance could sell out more than ABT and Miami City Ballet, combined?? That completely floors me. But if it brings more audiences to see dance, perhaps that can’t ever be a bad thing.
In addition to the compelling aspects of Irish step dancing in a Ravel’s Bolero-like way – mesmerizing in its repetitiveness and anticipation – Irish step dancing also provides a moving metaphor in representing Irish history. On the surface, Ireland is a serene land of green bucolic hillsides with rivers flowing with Guinness, hiding a deep undercurrent of a history of strife, suffering, and struggle for independence. This history is represented in the Irish step dancers’ upper bodies that remain upright and rigid in only a handful of positions (arms akimbo, for one) opposing their tumultuously tapping toes.
The best choreography occurred in the ensemble dancing. Can anyone resist the drama of a V formation of tappers in unison, slowly tapping downstage? Can anyone resist the entire ensemble tapping in a straight line downstage, which is the equivalent of a Chorus line kickline? I’m not sure what it is about this that I buy into, but I did – and I’m not ashamed to admit it!
The Irish step dancing was interspersed with a flamenco dancer (danced by Carmen Armengou), the Moscow Folk Ballet Company, and two tappers (more of the “Tap Dogs”/Savion Glover style, not sure what it’s officially called). It was a bit jarring to switch, for no reason, in between these dances, and I still don’t understand the logical flow of these dances. My favorite number was in the second Act, “Trading Taps”, where three Irish step dancers, Marty Dowds, Craig Ashurst and Marcus Maloney, engage in a friendly ‘tap-off’ with the two tap dancers, Jason Bernard and Parker Hall (pictured above, with a different cast). You could tell that the competition was in jest, yet it really brought out the competitive edge in everyone, and it pushed all the dancers to their best and tap faster. The funniest part was when the two groups imitated each other – the American tap dancers teasing the Irish dancers with arms akimbo and disciplined tight feet, and the Irish dancers making fun of the tappers with floppy flailing arms and jazz hands in its ending flourish. It was also fascinating to see the two tyles of tap dancing seen side by side, and mutual respect on both sides were apparent as they watched each other dance.
In all, I went in with low expectations, but was pleasantly surprised at the spectacle that I saw onstage. I felt manipulated into buying into the Riverdance hype, and yet I still did, and had a great time doing it. I love the way that Irish step dancing is a culturally relevant dance that represents its national history in a meaningful way, and has been able to commuicate it to audiences all over the world.
I was disappointed that the program provided almost no details on the dancers and the musicians seen on stage. In fact, I don’t even know the name of the guy who was dancing the lead, Michael Flatley’s original part. I was curious about the number of dancers that came from Ireland, versus elsewhere including America, and their credits and training. Don’t the dancers and musicians deserve more credit than that?
In all, it was a great way to start the new year.
It’s titled the Farewell tour, not sure what that means, but be sure to catch it in your neighborhood. Riverdance website