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Issue: Riverdance's faux pas.

Stretch out the withie foot and withdraw the strawrope foot/

Take a crack out of your joints and a stretch out of your knees/

Down to the door and up to the corner/and may the devil

break your feet if you are not hard to teach

(from Folk Music and Dances of Ireland by Breandan Breathnach)

This eighteenth-century Irish jingle, once used by dance masters to teach the jig step, does not sound as if it stems from a tradition that would let one get away with "faking it." But that's exactly what Riverdance--The Show, the step-dancing sensation that has become synonymous with Irish dance, has been accused of doing.

The controversy over whether or not Riverdance has grown too commercial for its own good began in June when executive producer Julian Erskine admitted that some of the dancers' synchronized tapping was prerecorded. Just days after Page Six of the New York Post went public with his confession, papers around the world ran stories about Riverdance topped with headlines like "Tapgate" (the Evening Standard) and "Tape or Tap" (the Ottawa Sun), and U.S. television networks had a ball calling the troupe the Milli Vanilli of step dancing.

The brief flurry of negative attention prompted Riverdance producers to vehemently defend the show's authenticity. Although they have stopped responding personally to media inquiries, they have issued a one-paragraph statement which says: "in Riverdance--The Show, which has a performing ensemble of eighty, all of the dancers are dancing, all the singers are singing, and the onstage musicians are playing live every night. Riverdance prides itself on bringing the highest quality performances to audiences around the world. Like many other Broadway and touring shows, there are special audio effects used in Riverdance that augment the live performing artists onstage. The technology that is used in the show has become common industry practice to create a full and complete production."

The technology used in Riverdance is indeed common for large-scale productions and has been for many years. Known as click tracks, prerecorded sounds can be used to amplify anything from a simple hand clap to a singer's voice on a bad night. David Dansky, a veteran sound technician who worked on Tommy Tune's taps in Tommy Tune Tonight, and those of Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor in Together Again for the First Time, believes that the question of whether or not to use click tracks in a show is not an ethical one but a practical one.

"You're not cheating the audience if the performers can actually do what you are representing them as doing," says Dansky. "if they can dance in unison the way the click track makes it sound like they're dancing, then all you're doing is giving the audience a better quality sound of exactly what's going on. That's different than having someone hit a note that they can't really hit. That's cheating."

Eileen Murphy, arts editor for the Irish Echo, agrees. "I've seen that show and I've seen the dancers afterwards and they're not faking anything," she says. "Even if you couldn't hear a thing you'd still see them moving and stomping and leaping through the air."

There are a number of ways to amplify tap-dancing sounds, the most common of which is to run a cable up the dancer's leg and connect it to a radio transmitter. This is what is used in Broadway's Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, for example. While this may be a more genuine amplification system, it does not come without its share of headaches. "We're constantly adjusting and struggling with sound problems," says Carole Fineman, the show's spokesperson. "The live performance is certainly exciting for the audience, but it can be frustrating for the performers when they can't hear their own taps. But, unlike Noise, Riverdance is all about precision and exactness, so they can't afford to mess up."

Precision and exactness aren't the only differences between the two shows. Like Bring in 'da Noise, Riverdance's principal dancers use individual mikes for their solo numbers. But for the large chorus numbers, which can involve up to thirty-six people, this is not an option. "Putting wireless transmitters on thirty dancers would be like having thirty radio stations right next to each other," says Dansky. Total technological chaos, in other words.

Sure, Riverdance has come a long way since the eighteenth century, when men wore knee breeches and silver-buckled shoes and women were clad in stiff dresses with their hair bound tightly in ringlets. But, states Earle Hitchner, freelance Irish music and culture writer for the Wall Street Journal and the Irish Echo, a tradition immutable is a tradition defunct. "All of the things you and I might lionize as tradition came out of innovation," says Hitchner. "Any nonextinct tradition that doesn't undergo change needs to be dipped in amber and put into a museum."

With that philosophy in mind, Riverdance took traditional Irish step dancing, put it in slick black tights, allowed the women's long hair to flow, and then watched audiences around the world flock to its performances. If it has evolved away from its grass roots, Riverdance has also introduced millions of people to this art form.

"It's a big commercial production, not a traditional arts event," says Donny Golden, who taught Jean Butler (the show's original female lead) and a number of other Riverdance cast members at his New York-based School of Irish Step Dancing. "Of course [prerecorded sound] is an easy way out, but sometimes I'm out there killing myself doing all of these steps and the audience can't hear, so at least they're getting all of the sound without having to strain."

Watching a live performance of Riverdance is proof that the show's success stems not from any artificial stimulus but from the talent and energy of the dancers. They wow audiences with their sharp, scissorlike steps, moving their legs at remarkable speeds while their upper bodies remain still. But the inherent nature of a large venue, unless it is silent and dark, means incorporating technology into the performance. Riverdance producers decided to accept the compromise. They were aware that there was the potential for an extremely profitable business. They also knew that audiences, many of whom have seen televised performances of Riverdance on shows such as the Academy Awards, would have high expectations when they entered the theater. Today, with three traveling troupes touring around the world, the show carries with it efficient, reliable technology that makes the show audible, and thus more enjoyable, for large audiences.

The issue essentially comes down to the question of art--more specifically, performance art--and its purpose. If live performance is essentially about risk-taking, then perhaps Riverdance--The Show should gamble every night, not only on whether or not all of the dancers will be in sync, but on whether or not they will even be heard. If, on the other hand, performing is about entertaining the audience, then Riverdance is undoubtedly effective performance art.

So far, ticket sales for Riverdance's performances at New York City's Radio City Music Hall (September 24 to October 11) have not been affected by the scandal. Still, for some, the mystique is gone. "I don't like too much smoke and mirrors," says Hitchner. "If I'm hearing taps, I want to hear somebody onstage performing them. I don't want to hear a sound track. But the producers would probably say that if this didn't work, the show would fail, and the bottom line is, they're right. It's hard to argue with success."
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Title Annotation:"Riverdance - The Show" very commercialized and some of the synchronized tapping is pre-recorded
Author:Samuels, Shayna
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Sep 1, 1998
Previous Article:Ideals.
Next Article:All that Fosse.

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