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The Jig Is Up

And so are other traditional Irish steps in 'Riverdance,' the high-energy cavalcade whose true star is its composer, Bill Whelan.

November 03, 1996|Sean Mitchell | Sean Mitchell is an occasional contributor to Calendar

And now for Ireland, the musical. Though the Irish have contributed their fair share to the century's list of distinguished playwrights--from J.M. Synge and Sean O'Casey to Brian Friel and Hugh Leonard--the Irish stage musical has remained a category waiting to be filled. Even "Riverdance," the new step-dancing sensation that comes to the Pantages for 21 performances beginning Nov. 15, is a breed apart, a musical whose story is told chiefly through dance yet whose star is its composer, Bill Whelan.

"Riverdance," a hit in Dublin and London in 1995 and New York's Radio City Music Hall earlier this year, might be said to be a nontraditional musical based on traditional Irish music, the sort once relegated to the quaint venues of folk dancing and pubs where Guinness stout is served. Except that what Whelan has done in the way of rhythm and orchestration has remade the music into something else again. He's taken the jig and the reel, for example, and rewired them with time changes and timbres altogether modern.


Whelan is nothing if not versatile, having worked with Irish pop stars U2 and Van Morrison, done film scores and written music for the musty plays of W.B. Yeats at Dublin's historic Abbey Theatre.

"People say 'Riverdance' is not traditional music," Whelan says. "It isn't. It's new music, apart from one piece. All I've done is used the forms of traditional music. But as long as you respect the fact that it comes out of a place that's very special and old and expressive of a history and a culture, then I think you should feel that behind you like a wind in your sail and feel that you can move forward and not that you have to be so careful that your own expression just dies."

As he spoke on a visit here last summer, Whelan had just taken a look at the Pantages stage for the first time. He pronounced it "just great" to a man from the Nederlander chain that owns the building. He was pleased that there's plenty of room at stage right to build a platform for the show's 15-piece band (including traditional Irish instruments like the uilleann pipes and bodhran, as well as electric keyboards and guitars). He was also pleased when he craned his neck and looked up to take in the theater's two balconies and 2,700 seats, because with a cast of 85, "Riverdance" needs all the seats it can get.

"There is a big, big salary bill," the composer says. "There aren't a lot of theaters where it can work."

He needn't have worried; as of a week ago, about 75% of the seats for the 17-day run were sold out.

The show is still running in London at the Hammersmith, a cavernous rock hall. The company coming to Los Angeles is the first touring company, arriving here after a return engagement in New York and a run in Chicago.

It all began with a six-minute song that producer Moya Doherty commissioned in 1994 from Whelan for the annual European song competition known as Eurovision. The song, which remains in the show as the title piece, segues from a stately chorale into a racing reel for uilleann pipes and percussion that recalls slightly the 28-year-old Mason Williams hit for guitar and orchestra, "Classical Gas." "Riverdance," the single, went to No. 1 in Ireland after its release.

Much of the show's music is purely instrumental, with only a few vocal turns. The numbers are designed primarily as the framework for the various groups of dancers to act out what is loosely the evolution of Irish dance (and by extension, Irish culture itself) and its influence on other countries. The step-dancing, or hard-shoe, hard-kicking style of tap that feverishly expresses the lower body while keeping the torso in a state of improbable calm, is essentially traditional--though pumped up here by eight choreographers to unprecedented volume and exuberance.

"So much Irish dance is not meant for theater," Whelan says, remarking on the novelty of what he and his collaborators have done. "It's meant to be done in a room or a pub. It's not meant to he expository. It's more internal."

Or it was until now.

"It's an impressionistic approach. We're not telling a story in a conventional sense. It's not a love story. It's like a journey, and then the homecoming. That's it."

The journey is simply the story of the Irish diaspora, the massive emigration from the island after the potato famines of the 19th century. In the original Gaelic, or native Irish tongue, the title "Riverdance" means "Water of Life," Whelan says.

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