Twenty years ago, a continent sat, transfixed for seven minutes, as a troupe of dancers fronted by the then unknown Michael Flatley changed the face of Irish dance forever.
Riverdance was commissioned as the interval act for the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin, the pulsing Gaelic rhythms of composer Bill Whelan’s score sending the skirts of the girls’ simple navy blue dresses swirling as their natural loose curls bobbed in time.
Gone were the garish neon gowns and the almost comical Shirley Temple-style hairpieces previously associated with the dance form.
But little did Whelan and producer Moya Doherty know they had created a stage phenomenon, which, two decades on, would still delight audiences around the world.
Next week, Riverdance returns to Blackpool’s Opera House on its 20th Anniversary Tour, and audiences are set for spectacle.
Senior executive producer Julian Erskine has been with Riverdance since the days of it being an ‘interval act’ in Dublin.
“There was such a huge reaction from people wanting to see it again and again that the producer and composer Moya Doherty and Bill Whelan decided to work on a full length show,” he said.
“But the thing is that we didn’t even prepare for London.
“We prepared for four weeks in Dublin and nothing after that.
“No one knew if it would work. There was no such thing as a professional Irish dancer. There were all sorts of reasons that it didn’t even cross our radar that it would run and run.”
But the show sold out in Dublin before it even opened, and then booked into London, where it sold-out a 10-night run at the Hammersmith Apollo.
Even 20 years on, the show still draws in an audience, wherever it goes and this is its third visit to Blackpool – with the Opera House hosting the final leg of the 10th anniversary tour as well as a return visit four years ago, as part of the Riverdance farewell tour.
“People come over and over and over,” Julian said. “We can go to a place for the 12th, 15th time but it is not the case that you will run out of people, they come back, then they bring other people and are such loyal fans.
“Now, because we are 20 years old, kids who were 10 when we did Eurovision are coming aged 30 with their own children.
“But there is very much a sense of a newer, younger audience – and you sometimes get a real feel that people are genuinely surprised and seeing it for the first time, which bodes well as long as we keep standards high. It’s almost self perpetuating.
“When we did a farewell tour in 2009 we really felt we had done all the business that there was to be done. Four years on and one of the main reasons we are back is that the promoter pointed out that it was the 20th anniversary and that people want to see it. We are in the hands of the punters; if they want us, we are definitely available.”
Julian attributes much of the show’s long-standing success to the ‘pure motivation’ behind its creation.
“That fantastic interval piece, a collaboration of music and Michael Flatley coming from America with this new way of doing Irish dance,” he lists. “Then building from that, the first Irish dance show which was so fresh and new.
“Now there are so many Irish dance shows and every one is an attempt in some way to copy Riverdance and hopefully make serious money for those involved. But because that is the motivation, rather than just doing a new show, it’s never the same.
As the show continues in the UK, much of Julian’s work centres on these future plans.
“Could it be The Mousetrap of the dance world?” he pondered, in reference to the Agatha Christie play which has run in the West End for more than 60 years.
“As much as no one knew in February 1995 what would happen next, we are booking a year or two ahead now – but that’s all we know.
“It’s never not busy. We have done a lot of work this year on the show – including a brand new number for the first time in 10 years, which is going really well.”
Other updates have included a redesign of the lighting and new costumes – but keeping them in tune with Riverdance’s modern image for Irish dance.
“One of the seminal moves by Moya as producer of the show was to get rid of the day-glo dresses and curly wigs, and to strip it back with the short navy dresses for the girls and black trousers and shirts for the boys. That stopped you looking at the dancer and let you see the dance; how fast and intricate it was and not being bedazzled by the extraordinary colours on show.”
But reinventing Irish dance came with its own challenges, besides combating public perception of the art’s image.
“One of the earliest things we had to do, was get the dancers to smile,” Julian said.
“Traditional competition dance had to be very serious, they had to loosen up and lighten up in order to entertain. Now competitions have a ‘show section’, where the whole performance is looked at.
“Strict Irish dance organisations used to say we would be the death of Irish dance, but we have given an injection of life it never would have seen and there are more Irish dancers than ever before.
“It was tough to recruit at the start – they had to be 17 or 18 to tour but most had stopped by that age, and people weren’t sure it was something they could do for a long time so viewed it as a hobby.
“Now it’s seen as a profession and they are so professional; the kids when we started would come to the theatre at 7.15pm with a take-away burger, now they’re there at 5pm doing their cardio, stretches and warming up. Their bodies are completely different now; they’re fabulously athletic.”
While millions of fans around the world have seen Riverdance, there are sure to be some Blackpool residents new to the show, or still considering booking their tickets.
“It’s certainly high energy, family entertainment,” Julian said, when asked to explain Riverdance for someone without a clue what to expect.“You can get all sorts of insight into Irish myth, legend and history, but if you want to sit back and enjoy a dance show you can do that as well. It is not threatening, like opera or ballet can be where you realise half-way through that you’re not getting it. It’s all there on the stage for you.
“There’s a huge commitment, and pride, from all the performers, and that’s infectious.
“As executive producer, for me, standing at the back of a theatre, seeing people trying to dance their way up the aisles and that you have implemented a want to dance, that’s a great night’s work.
“It’s in the British lexicon now; I heard an MP once saying he would Riverdance down the street if he won his seat and I liked that.”
Riverdance 20th Anniversary Tour, Opera House, Blackpool, Tuesday to Sunday, October 21 to 26. Call 0844 856 1111 to book
See today’s Gazette for a chance to win front row tickets!