Stage Review: 'Riverdance' compels admiration with its flashing feet and percussive music
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The compelling ensemble in 'Riverdance.'
To tell the truth, I went to "Riverdance" Tuesday at Heinz Hall because I wasn't sure I'd ever seen it, as opposed to one of its many related variants ("Lord of the Dance," etc.). Or maybe I'd just seen so many TV clips as to amount to the same thing -- have you ever thought you've seen a movie and then realized you only saw the trailer?
But a couple of minutes into the show, with its billowing mist, keening pipes and portentous, mellifluous narration pretending to rise from deep in the valleys of mythic time, and I realized that yes, I had indeed seen it before. How could I forget? It turns out I saw the 1999 tour, though "Riverdance" has been here since, in 2003.
And almost as quickly I recalled how it drove me nuts at first, especially that unctuous, caramel-colored voice and its vague allusions to Celtic myth and Irish history, exploiting it for non-specific effect like a latter-day Ossian.
The Irish dancers, of course, are a wonder, with their erect upper bodies, impassive faces, flicking long hair and skirts (but only on the girls) and flashing legs beating out a thunderous and incessant tattoo. It's sexy, I guess, the contrast between cool upper body and exploding limbs. This dancing ensemble is energetic and skilled, and the music and dance just keep coming at you, propulsively rhythmic within a maelstrom of music from, amazingly, just five musicians, the whole mesmerizing you with its wheeling, machine-like force.
That's part of its appeal, of course, but that's also its drawback. Enough is enough, and I began to feel browbeaten. Act 1 lasts an hour and feels pretty much like the same thing the whole way through, except for a spot of flamenco.
But then comes Act 2, with both variety and humor. That narrative voice is still there, but the scene shifts from the romanticized ould sod to the diaspora, and not just the Irish one. The highpoint of the evening is a face-off between two black tappers (doing the explosive tap Savion Glover would call "hitting") and three Irish steppers. The black dancers set up an engaging friction and the resulting competition, in which each ethnic group gets to emulate and also parody the other, keeps generating new energy.
What the black duo adds is personality, expressed in tapping that is idiosyncratic, not rigidly formal like the Irish, which compresses its tumult within rigid boundaries. The black is freer. The contrast increases our pleasure in each.
And then come six gymnastic Russian dancers, flying without wings. Musicians, singers and dancers add up to about 39 people on stage. The audience loved it all. I certainly liked it much more as it went on.
My other reason to go was to refresh my sense of the Irish dance idiom, in anticipation of the new big musical, "The Pirate Queen," in which the original "Riverdance" team joins with the creators of "Les Mis" and "Miss Saigon." There, in the context of a Broadway musical, I expect the Irish dancing will evolve, and I can't wait to see just how.
But my own favorite version of "Riverdance" and the other Irish dance extravaganzas remains "Celtic Bitch," the funny parody embedded in "The Bull," a revisionist, contemporized Cuchulain epic as re-imagined by Ireland's Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre.
Maybe we'll get that some day. In the meanwhile, the original thing is with us this week. It compels admiration: It positively insists on it.
Where: PNC Broadway at Heinz Hall, Downtown.
When: 7:30 p.m. through Thurs.; Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun. 1 and 6:30 p.m.
Tickets: $20.50-$60.50; 412-392-4900 or www.pgharts.org.
First Published March 28, 2007 12:00 am