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Dance Review: Riverdance

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

At Wang Center

Until November 1

Tickets: (617) 931-2787, (617) 482-9393

Prices from $15 to $68.50.

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Riverdance is a cultural icon and, as such, has two qualities: It is, actually, very good; and it takes itself way too seriously.

Do I even need to explain what Riverdance is? If you have recently returned from another planet, or perhaps if you were on this one but never chanced to turn on PBS when they were soliciting funds, Riverdance is something like a staged concert, largely concentrating on all performances Irish, such as dancing (clogging and jigs), as well as solo, choral, and instrumental music, with a healthy dash of other cultures as well (mostly American, Spanish, and Russian). Said dancing mostly consists of a bunch of people on stage, lads with unruly hair and sideburns, lasses in short skirts (I've seen shorter only on Ally McBeal) doing something unusual: Mostly, for long intervals of time, defying the laws on physics - the laws of gravity and conservation of momentum suffer the most.

When a dancer leaps - seemingly without any effort - and hovers above the stage for what is really only a split second but feels much longer, the effect is starting. When a burly guy from the Moscow Folk Ballet executes a cartwheel on one hand only, it's amazing. When a chorus line of twenty people or more taps a highly complex rhythm as synchronous as if it were one person, and you can't see their feet, the effect is simply unbelievable.

Not only the dances are spectacular; the very setting is also. The set design is intentionally minimalist, but it's very much compensated by the four scrims (a piece of fabric which seems opaque when frontlit and translucent when backlit). One of these functions as a curtain, the other three as a segmented backdrop. All throughout the show, the images are projected on these scrims, and as a result, the set is instantly adaptable to whatever it should be - for one image it's a sunlit beach, and you're in Brooklyn for another.

If only the creators of Riverdance were content to have only Irish dances. Maybe they were afraid that the audience will get bored, so they inserted a good deal of other numbers into the show, diluting the impact. (Personally I wouldn't mind two solid hours of jigs) Some of them are very good (the aforementioned Moscow Folk ballet, for example), and some are so-so (the Spanish flamenco is not that interesting, and there's way too much of it). What feels more than a little weird is that all the music for these dances (Russian and Spanish) is arranged in such a manner that is sounds virtually identical to the Irish tunes. Perhaps the show's creators are implying that there's a little Irish in all of us, but it seems to me that if you're using other cultures' music, it should sound at least a little bit different.

That was a minor gripe, though; I have a major one, namely that Riverdance takes itself way too seriously. Now that everyone has spoofed it (seen on an episode of Third Rock From the Sun and a bit in this summer's Mafia!), the show's straight-faced attempts at profundity feel somewhat misplaced. I don't think the show needs ludicrous narration (called "poetry" in the program), or attempts to establish some kind of a plot. Sometimes these attempts are merely unnecessary; sometimes they are actually destructive, like the moment when two lovers turn to each other and sing a cliched pop song, or when a chorus is staged like it belongs to a grand-scale Broadway musical.

In any case, the show is quite long, and these weird numbers don't hurt it much. After every annoying interlude something comes along which is simply and utterly unbelievable. A number where a line of male dancers perform a maddeningly complex jig without even a single note from the orchestra is electrifying (the somewhat disturbing connotations - black shirts and pants, and general air of unstoppable conformity - notwithstanding). An American number, which pits the Irish immigrants against the locals, is both energetic and hilarious - very much because that's the only number where Riverdance winks at the audience and makes fun of itself.

And, of course, there's finale ultimo, which is an extravaganza of roaming lights, wild backgrounds, and highly elaborate - seemingly impossible - dancing. The whole show is highly recommendable, and I might even say it's a must see, if not for the daunting price. In any case, if you don't feel like paying that much, you can watch the video recording of the show (made a couple years ago, and thus a bit different from the current live version). It's really good.