Saturday 24 February 2018

Why the dance never stopped - Riverdance 20 years later

It will be 20 years next week since 'Riverdance' first wowed the world. Now – 25 million happy customers later – Graham Clifford profiles the show that rivals U2 as Ireland's greatest cultural export

‘Riverdance’ productions have been seen by 25 million people worldwide
‘Riverdance’ productions have been seen by 25 million people worldwide
John McColgan and Moya Doherty

Graham Clifford

When Andreas Eschemann took his seat in Munich's Olympiahalle last month to watch Riverdance he didn't realise he was about to make history. As it reached its finale Mr Eschemann was called to the stage and presented as the 25 millionth person to have attended a production of the show.

The success of the Irish dance extravaganza, which grew out of a Eurovision Song Contest interval act, is simply astonishing.

More than five times the population of our country have paid to see Riverdance, putting it on a par with U2 in terms of its global standing as an Irish entertainment export.

It was 20 years ago, on April 30, 1994, that Riverdance was first performed during the interval of that year's Eurovision. By the time Michael Flatley and Jean Butler had pounded out their last tap everybody knew they'd witnessed something truly unique.

The intake of breath when the music stopped was followed by a second of stunned silence before the crowd went wild.

But the challenge facing Riverdance co-founders, husband and wife team John McColgan and Moya Doherty, was how to turn a captivating snippet of Irish traditional dance into a full-length show. They expanded Bill Whelan's composition, developed story lines and worked with Flatley and Butler to create a 'wow' show.

On February 9, 1995, Riverdance – The Show opened at the Point and ran for five weeks, selling out each night. More than 120,000 flocked to see it.

"Riverdance became a monster," revealed Butler after she quit the show adding: "I earned loads of money and travelled the world but . . . it's unreasonable to ask someone to do the same thing every night for so long."

A global audience couldn't get enough of it.

Night after night the dancers skipped, tapped and jigged to packed houses.

Over the years the show has visited more than 350 venues in 45 countries.

By 2000 it was on Broadway.

In the most recent Sunday Times Rich List John McColgan and Moya Doherty's combined fortune is said to stand at €75m.

It's gold-plated, a national marketing tool Ireland Inc could only dream of.

It's spawned many spin-offs, including Heartbeat of Home and Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance, and has given employment to thousands of Irish dancers, musicians and singers from around the world.

Now touring smaller venues with a redesigned set and format Riverdance is reaching cities today it could never have played before. It shows no sign of stopping.

"We never thought we'd have this level of success for this long," said John McColgan recently. "Obviously at some point Riverdance must come to an end, but while the show is still entertaining people, and people want to come see it, we'll keep doing it."

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