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Troupe taps out long goodbye

Farewell tour runs three years for famed Irish-dance spectacle
by: ©2008 JAMES MISHLER, When the “Riverdance” line disbands in a few years’ time, the company may well turn its attention to India and its “passionate, attractive rhythms and simple story lines,” which the show’s senior executive producer says make it similar to Irish dance.

The posters for 'Riverdance,' which opens here Jan. 22, are emblazoned with the word 'farewell,' but don't start crying in your Harp lager just yet.

According to senior executive producer Julian Erskine, 'Riverdance' is revisiting every place it's ever played in the Unites States. And that will take three years for the ur-Irish dancing spectacular to complete its goodbye.

Erskine has been with the show since its inception in 1994, when it began as a seven-minute interstitial during the Eurovision song contest, a sort of pro-am 'Euro Idol' watched by 300 million people in those days.

'Riverdance' was expanded and became a traveling hit. However, when the format was tinkered with, audiences complained.

'It's like with a comedian, the audience brings their friends and they want to hear the old jokes, not the new ones,' Erskine says. 'They'd say, 'Where's the bit gone where they twirl around and jump up and down?' '

The show's initial male lead, Michael Flatley, left after eight months and created his own string of successful shows, such as 'Lord of the Dance' and 'Celtic Tiger.'

But 'Riverdance,' according to Erskine, always has been more about promoting Irish culture than making money. Responding to a comparison to Flatley's oeuvre, Erskine says, 'Michael would be very commercial, he's happy to put stuff out there we wouldn't be happy to put out.'

He says there are lots of other Irish dance shows around the world. 'It's a bit depressing, the reason they've been put together is to make money and get on the 'Riverdance' bandwagon,' he says.

So 'Riverdance' has been the same since 2000. It opens with a scene of the dawn of time and the worship of fire. The Riverdance is about the circle of life, from the cloud to the river and the sea and back, a theme emphasized by Celtic spirals in the set design.

The second half is about immigration from Ireland, and meeting new ethnic groups such as Russians and Spaniards, represented by Cossack and flamenco dance.

The dance-off against African-American tap-dancers is supposed to show how such competition is ugly and only when the races cooperate does it become beautiful. The final part is about people retuning to the wealthy Ireland of today.

He points out that in 1994, 'the sense of Ireland abroad was 'pigs in parlors and fellows in Aran sweaters.'

The economic boom has been good for the country, but he fears that 'on another level, we lost a little bit of the sense of who we are - there's more violent crime and drugs than ever.'

As the country moves from a boom to a bust cycle, 'the next five years we'll see how we react - as a people are we mature enough to handle it?' he says.

There also is talk of creating a different show after 'Riverdance' ends, although Erskine is not sure what. The company has worked with Mexican dancers in a show called 'Jarocho,' which emerged from the University of Veracruz.

As for new forms emerging, he speculates that India might have a shout. He says, 'The whole Bollywood thing has the same sort of infectious quality as Irish dance, those passionate, attractive rhythms and simple story lines.'

Simplicity is the key to success.

'I think 'Riverdance' works because it's very easy entertainment, very accessible, there's no pressure,' he says. 'You don't have to understand the plot. And also because the music is percussive: Everyone understands that the first sound you heard was your mother's heartbeat, so it's hard not to tap your feet when you hear that double sound of drums and feet beating away.'

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'Riverdance'

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22-27

Where: Keller Auditorium, 222 S.W. Clay St., 503-241-1802

Cost: $23-$68; also available through Ticketmaster (503-790-2787), subject to service charges