Ten years old this year, Riverdance returns to Britain in a glow of anniversary celebrations and commemorative DVDs. One is tempted to get statistical in describing the show's success. Seen by 18 million people! In 30 countries! Using 4,500,000lb of dry ice! After a decade of furious jigging, this is the last stadium tour. Next time the show comes round, it will be in theatres rather than arenas.
Riverdance started out as a seven-minute dance number at the Eurovision Song Contest. The line-up of Irish dancers is still the show's most famous image and the most cheering thing about it. The Irish dancing is good, tightly drilled chorus work. However, in stretching the idea into a two-hour show, the producer Moya Doherty and the director John McColgan threw in a lot of blarney.
A thunderous voiceover burbles cosmic platitudes to put the dances in context. Singers parade around with candles, praising the power of women, the moon or liberty, in winsome high soprano. There's always the danger that the Spirit of Ireland will turn up, usually in green sequins. The composer Bill Whelan takes traditional Irish music and adds thumping beats. The dancers' taps are amplified for the climax of each number; otherwise, the soundtrack is loud enough to drown out their stamping feet.
With their eyes on an international hit, Doherty and McColgan brought in other dance styles, other nationalities. In the emigration scene, a baritone turns up to praise the suffering masses. "Yes! They may be poor in birth," he declaims, "but yes! How great each one is worth!" I note that the Riverdance producers specify an "African-American baritone" for that scene. They want a showboat moment, an unstated link with the idea of slavery.
Jazz, tap, flamenco and Russian dance have nothing to do with Irish stepping, but they're here anyway, packaged to within an inch of their lives. Some survive the treatment better than others. The Spanish scenes are choreographed by the flamenco star Maria Pages, but they're watered-down clichés. Whelan's score leaves no space for improvisation. The Moscow Folk Ballet is much more fun, whirling all over the place in a series of stunt steps. The tap dancers are also given more space. Their long number turns into a competition dance, contrasting Irish and jazz taps.
Riverdance started out with two stars, Michael Flatley and Jean Butler. Flatley quickly left, in a well-publicised strop; Butler led the company for some time. The show has created no new stars. Dancers slot into packaged roles: even the leads are essentially chorus dancers.
Still, some of the exuberance of Irish dancing comes across. Jumps are lively, and these dancers can cross the stage with dashing speed. Riverdance is at its best when it sticks to its original idea. This Hammersmith audience listened with polite attention to the singing, but saved its cheers for the chorus line of stamping dancers.
To Sunday (0870 606 3400), then touring to the National Indoor Arena, Birmingham (0870 909 4144)Reuse content