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REVIEW: Riverdance: The 20th Anniversary World Tour (State Theatre)

The cast of Riverdance, led by Anna Livia. Photo by Rob McDogall.

Tall and straight my mother taught me,

This is how we dance.

Tall and straight my father taught me,

This is how we dance.

These words by Irish poet Theo Dorgan are used in Riverdance: The 20th Anniversary World Tour and sum up the message exuded by show’s 2-hour display of Celtic dance, music, and poetry. The ensemble of dancers, led by Stephen Brennan, are all fairly young. To a certain extent, Riverdance is like watching a kids dance recital. But these kids are really good dancers.

After a four-year hiatus, Riverdance returns to Minnesota and opened for a 3-day run this Friday at the State Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. As the title indicates, the Riverdance phenomenon started 20 years ago and, based on last night’s performance, it is still going strong. This tour was composed by Bill Whelan, produced by Moya Doherty, and directed by John McColgan.

Celtic dance (known colloquially as Irish jig) is a militaristic synchronized and syncopated dance style usually presented with a group of dancers in marshalled order. As the poem describes, backs are straight and arms are kept severely at sides. It creates a uniquely Celtic image of quick and intricate foot work juxtaposed with still and straight torsos.

Thunderstorm. Photo by Jack Hartin.
Thunderstorm. Photo by Jack Hartin.

This Riverdance presents a series of scenes based upon poems by Theo Dorgan and narrated by John Kavanagh. Dorgan’s poetry tells the story of the Celtic people’s coming to the island later to be known as Ireland. There a myth unfolds told theatrically in song, costume and stage fog. At times the dancers are beautifully silhouetted in front of Luis Poveda’s colorful projected images. A very intriguing effect repeatedly occurs when dancers come from the side, merge with the screen and then appear to emerge from the projected image. The music is wonderfully Celtic, provided by an electric bagpipe, Irish fiddle, and traditional Irish drumming. There is also a drum kit on-stage that would be the envy of any rock group.

In contrast to the intricate dancing, Riverdance exudes a simple theatricality. Dancers enter and exit. They face the audience, turn their back and face profile. At one point, a tableau of mythological characters stand in profile with their heads turned to face the audience as they sing the story. The beauty of the tableau makes no other movement necessary.

Act 2 leaves the mythology behind as it tells the story of Irish immigrants coming to the United States during the 19th-century potato famine. In the world’s melting pot, the Celtic dancers are exposed to the fancy footwork of other folk cultures such as Russian Cossack-style dancing and Spanish flamenco dancing.

The highlight of the entire performance is a good-natured intercultural face-off between three Celtic dancers and two African-American tap dancers. Straight-backed, intense Celtic jigs interact with the fancy-footwork of black street-corner tappers who move with the sense of style/humor epitomize by the Harlem Globetrotters. Rohan Pinnock-Hamilton and Christopher Broughton show a level of tap virtuosity comparable to Gregory Hines dancing with Mikhail Baryshnikov in the movie White Knights.   This dancing standoff results in the usually stoic Celtic dancers loosening up quite comically while the black tappers provide satirical impressions of Celtic dancing, much to the audience’s delight. All-in-all, the unexpected intercultural moment provided an interesting perspective on dance as a universal human language without words.

Watch “Trading Taps” from a previous Riverdance tour:

Dan Reiva contributed to this review.
Riverdance plays through March 30 at the State Theatre.

Bev Wolfe