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Sights and Sounds

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Leisure and Cultural Services Department

Celtic journey: five Riverdance spin-offs that blend Irish dance with magic and dazzle

The step-dance style mixes well with other forms and is featured in a host of phenomenal shows, with one of the hottest acts set to perform in Hong Kong this December

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 December, 2017, 9:31am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 11:34am

It started with a seven-minute interval act during the Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin in April 1994.

A soprano looking like a river fairy opened the performance, joined by a choir dressed in hooded capes, which emerged mystically from a cloud of dry ice. A woman in a short black skirt began to dance with her hands by her sides, performing an Irish step dance with a difference. And a man in a blue satin shirt, flowing like water, also began to step dance, but combined it with tap.

Riverdance, the completely unexpected dance and entertainment phenomenon, was born.

Irish step dance dates back to the 18th century when dance masters used to travel from town to town creating entertainment for the locals. It was revived in Ireland, and America, after the foundation of the Gaelic League in 1893, which was pushing for Irish independence and identity.

It was introduced as a “uniquely Irish performance”, although both dancers – Jean Butler and Michael Flatley – were born in America.

But what began as a few minutes of entertainment would within months become a full two-act theatre show. It was an instant hit and would tour around the world again and again – though not with Flatley, who absconded from the show after its first performance to start his own rival spin-off, Lord of the Dance.

The spin-offs begat spin-offs and the river became a flood. Here are five of the Riverdance spin-offs, as well as the original – including one, Eclipse, which will be in Hong Kong at the end of December, blending Celtic dance with magic.

Riverdance

One seven-minute routine would never be enough to base a whole show on – nor, the team thought, would Irish dance itself. So for the touring theatre spectacular, the team built up the Celtic theme with its mist and Gaelic drumming, but added surprises. A flamenco dancer appeared at one point, and Middle Eastern-inspired dancing. And, building up the Irish Immigrant to America story they choreographed a terrific dance duel between an Irish gang in New York and three African-American jazz tappers. More than 20 years on the show is still touring to big theatres. Right now it is touring in China, visiting 24 cities and ending on February 3 and 4 in Guangzhou. We don’t know who is in it though. After the Flatley debacle the Riverdance producers decided never again to celebrate or even name individual dancers in their programme.

L ord of the Dance

Riverdance had no plot. But loosely, very loosely, Michael Flatley’s 1996 hit show Lord of the Dance did – the story of the good lord of the dance and his battle against a dark lord who wanted to rule Ireland. Lots of Irish folklore seemed to sell and within moments this show was bypassing theatres and finding its way straight into stadiums, which sold out. Michael Flatley who starred in that until 1998, then created a version called Lord of the Dance, Feet of Flames. In 2014 he choreographed a new one called Lord of the Dance, Dangerous Games. That’s still touring too with a vengeance – it’s on a 200-plus date tour across 15 countries, most recently in Taipei, Taiwan. Unlike Riverdance, this show advertises the names of its 40 dancers, with the men pictured in the programme with their shirts off and their muscles revealed. The video of the finale to Lord of the Dance has been seen 11 million times and counting.

Dancing on Dangerous Ground

This was the show Jean Butler – the female dancer in the Eurovision piece – created after Riverdance, with another dancer Colin Dunne. It had the same rock-venue-style production values, with pop concert lights and huge acoustics but was more subtle than Riverdance and certainly more subtle than Lord of the Dance. The New York Times loved it. “Spectacular … What Ms. Butler and Mr. Dunne accomplish through their choreography is exactly what Riverdance does not, which is to channel Irish step dancing into genuine artistic expression.” But the public didn’t want subtle, they wanted spectacular and showy and noisy – or perhaps the other two just had more aggressive marketing and production teams – and it closed in 1996 after six months. Butler continued dancing, launched her own jewellery line and with Dunne, and appeared as a judge on the Irish TV talent competition Celebrity Jigs ‘n’ Reels.

Spirit of the Dance

When Riverdance had just launched in 1996 one of the early members of the audience was a former market trader and unsuccessful songwriter from Northern England. David King was the son of a music hall comedian and a dancer. He not only loved the show, but noted that the concept of mixing Irish dance and a contemporary rock type stage was not patented. He had a hunch that if he got it right it could make him considerable amounts of money. Riverdance was not booked for the provinces, so he could perhaps fill the gap. So he devised a story, hired some dancers and musicians and designers and created a show himself. He sold all his possessions to raise the cash. It paid off. King made millions from the investment. Between 1998 and 2006 there were 14 troupes, performing the show around the world. And as it reaches its fifteenth year it has apparently been seen by 30 million people.

Celtic Illusion and Eclipse

One of the videos of the original Riverdance found its way to the grandmother of a young boy near Melbourne who was then dreaming of becoming a magician. The boy became obsessed with watching the video; it was the first thing he would do when he came home from school. At 14 Anthony Street started learning to step dance; though as a boy growing up in Chum Creek he was afraid to tell his friends he was learning to dance, so had to practise secretly.

At the age of 19 he was offered a five-month contract to tour with the dance spectacular, Gaelforce Dance. This was soon extended to 11 months after Street auditioned for the show, Dance of Desire, created by Daire Nolan, the original male lead in Lord of the Dance. Street later lived in Dublin for five months and eventually went on to tour France and Germany.

He was so good that he landed the leading role in Lord of the Dance, becoming the principal dancer of the classic show for four and a half years.

The Australian, who had been an enthusiast of magic since the age of 10, then collaborated with a group of his friends in 2011 to combine his two passions in life and create Celtic Illusion. As the production also features songs, he turned to Irish tenor Michael Londra, the musical heavyweight who had starred on Broadway in Riverdance, the show that inspired Street’s dance career.

“We are both part of the Celtic community,” Londra says. “He was the star of Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance and I was the lead singer of Riverdance on Broadway. It is [made up of] a small group of people so everyone knows everyone else.”

Londra, named best Irish tenor at the 2011 Irish Music Awards, and hailed as “one of the greatest Irish singers of our time” by the online Celtic forum, Capital Celtic, has performed on the biggest stages in the world, including Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall in New York, the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and Kremlin Palace, in Moscow.

“When I left Riverdance I started producing my own shows around the world,” Londra says. “I am based in the US and made a name for myself on public television, got a few Emmy nominations as a singer and as a producer. Anthony saw what I was building and contacted me.”

Londra is producer of Celtic Illusion.

Eclipse, using scores written by Londra, combines “illusion with dance in all of its forms”. Its Celtic feel is complemented by choreography from the world of Broadway, tap, ballroom, jazz and contemporary dance. Londra says: “What I love about the show is that, aside from Anthony’s obvious talent as a magician, dancer, choreographer and showman, there’s so much to take in: the costumes, especially the magic costume changes, are spectacular; the athleticism, sheer brilliance and energy of the dancers; and the fact they perform to such a high level in so many forms of dance.”

Neither Londra nor Street are strangers to Hong Kong as both have performed here. Yet, the city’s audiences will be among the first to appreciate Eclipse, before it heads to the US in 2018.

Eclipse has its Hong Kong premiere in Tsuen Wan Town Hall on December 29, followed by Tuen Mun Town Hall the next day, before welcoming in the New Year at Yuen Long Theatre on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The show is presented as part of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department’s “Cheers!” Series.

The Riverdance story will keep going for a while, it seems. There is apparently even an Irish Dance Barbie. Now that is a certain kind of fame.