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Riverdance: treasure or trivialization? A Commentary.

IT HAS BEEN 10 years since Riverdance leapt onto the world stage and began its journey across four continents, playing to a live audience of more than 18 million and a television audience of more than 1.5 billion. The show celebrates this milestone with a return engagement at New York City's Radio City Music Hall March 10-17 and a tour throughout the Midwest and along the Eastern Seaboard.

Another Riverdance company tours Russia and the United Kingdom this spring, while a third plays Dublin throughout the summer. Audiences will be treated to fast-paced, hard-hitting Irish step dance in a style so emblematic that it is commonly termed "Riverdancing." The show infuses Irish music and song with Eastern European influences and includes a hybrid spectacle of flamenco, tap, and Russian folk dance.

As a choreographer of both Irish and modern dance, I believe Riverdance serves as a powerful ambassador of Irish culture. Many new students of Irish dance and audience members are not of Irish descent, and classes have sprung up throughout Europe, Africa, and Japan. Numerous spin-off shows demonstrate the influence of Riverdance. Lord of the Dance, Spirit of the Dance, and Magic of the Dance are just three of more than 15 troupes devoted to Irish dance. There is justified concern that proliferation leads to a decrease in standards, especially when teachers for these companies have not passed certification exams. Nevertheless, I appreciate that Riverdance cuts across cultural boundaries and provides step dancers with a career.

A drop in standards can be rectified by the intense competition circuit that has characterized Irish dance since An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha (the Irish Dancing Commission) was founded in 1929. Competition culture provided the highly trained dancers for Riverdance. The show's success, in turn, brought global attention to the intricate technique that developed within competition ranks, but was otherwise largely unknown. For Chicago's Trinity Irish Dance Company, who have performed since 1991, the popularity of Riverdance has broadened their appeal. Modern dance choreographer Sean Curran finds a welcome reception for the works that draw upon his Irish background not only for Trinity, but also for his own company. My own troupe, Darrah Carr Dance, experiments with blending Irish and modern dance in a post-Riverdance climate.

Riverdance was not born in a vacuum. It is part of an Irish reiraissance that began with the export of traditional music in the '70s and the joining with the European Economic Community in 1973. That alliance, coupled with low corporate tax rates, nurtured a decade of unparalleled economic growth during the '90s, dubbed "The Celtic Tiger." The subsequent commercial success of Riverdance became a fitting symbol of Ireland reaching the world stage both culturally and economically.

Purists argue that Riverdance as commercial spectacle is far removed from the traditional context of Irish dance. Yet the two needn't detract from each other. There is space within the form for tradition and spectacle, as well as experimentation. At this juncture, I celebrate all Irish dances; I applaud Riverdance for knocking loudly on the stage door and exclaiming, "Look at this, world!"
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Author:Carr, Darrah
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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