Riverdance prepare for spellbinding shows at Expo 2020 Dubai: ‘The world is coming to us'

The performances will feature music from the Mena region

Riverdance will perform more than 20 shows at Expo 2020 Dubai during November. Photo: Expo 2020 Dubai
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As far as the Riverdance troupe are concerned, they were born to play at Expo 2020 Dubai.

The celebrated Irish dance ensemble will begin their month-long residency at the world's fair on Wednesday with up to 22 performances at Jubilee Park.

Follow the latest updates on Expo 2020 Dubai here

To mark the occasion, the company will infuse their 25th-anniversary production with musicians and instruments from the Mena region.

Members of the group will also break off to perform 20 pop-up shows in various locations across the Expo site.

As far as some of the cast and crew are concerned, the more shows the better.

Executive director Padraic Moyles says they are raring to go after the pandemic halted their world tour for 15 months.

Expo 2020 Dubai, he explains, marks Riverdance’s first performance outside Ireland and the UK since shows resumed there in August.

“We always wanted to take Irish dancing to the world and with the Expo in Dubai, it just feels like the world is coming to us,” he tells The National.

“So we wanted to do something to celebrate that and this region. So we incorporated music elements from the UAE and this wider region to give the show a new twist and we are so looking forward to show that to all of you.”

A new take on a classic

The nod to the Mena region is no token gesture.

Riverdance’s inclusion at Expo, organised by the Irish Pavilion, was mare than a year in the making, with the creative and production crew visiting the UAE many times to scout locations and collaborators.

While Moyles can’t yet reveal the names of the musicians from the UAE taking part in the shows, he says their contributions have elevated the show’s stirring score by Irish composer Bill Whelan.

“Some of the instruments we added are the oud and ney [a Middle Eastern end-blown flute],” he says.

“It really does add something deep and resonant to what is already a powerful piece of music.”

The move also meant the well-drilled performers had to add a few new steps into their routine.

Lead dancers Jason O’Neil and Anna Mai Fitzpatrick welcomed this. “For us it gives us that extra level of heightened attention," says O'Neil. "All of us dancers need to be keenly attuned to the music in order for the people to really experience the magic of the show."

Fitzpatrick says Riverdance is made up of an ocean of influences. “The reason why the show is accepted throughout the world is because we were always open to incorporating new things, whether it’s new dance or music, to the show.

“While the absolute core of the show doesn’t change, Riverdance has gone through plenty of evolutions.”

From side act to main show

Riverdance made its debut as part of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest at Dublin's Point Theatre.

What was supposed to a mini piece performed during the interval, the seven-minute set – featuring the hypnotic and synchronised footwork of former group co-founder Michael Flatley and US step dancer Jean Butler – was broadcast to an estimated worldwide audience of 300 million and earned a standing ovation from the 4,000 people in the theatre.

Buoyed by the reaction, which catapulted Whelan’s score to the top of the Irish chart, the show returned to the same theatre 10 months later, in February 1995, for its full-length debut.

While the group went on to break new ground by performing in the US, Europe, China and South America, O’Neil recalls that vibrant appearance at Eurovision became the stuff of modern Irish folklore.

"It hard to overstate how important that performance remains at home and to generations of Riverdance performers," he says.

"Before that, Irish dancing was something we did as a hobby that was passed down through the family.

“It was viewed essentially as a form of cultural expression and to see it showcased at Eurovision at such a global scale was amazing.

“When you are a young person watching that it's captivating. It stayed with me and I joined the group in 2009 and it has been a dream ever since."

A star is born

Select UAE residents, aged 16 and above, can experience part of that rush, as the Riverdance crew is holding auditions and 46 masterclasses at the Irish Pavilion throughout November.

After being put through their paces over 25 consecutive days, a participant will be selected to make their debut as a Riverdance member for the final Jubilee Park show on Saturday, November 27.

More than neat footwork, a strong work ethic is advised by Fitzpatrick, as prospective applicants will face practice sessions that are often gruelling.

"When it comes to music everything comes from the body’s core," she says.

"So when we are practising, we are working hard to hold our stomachs, chins up, shoulders down, arms by our side, feet and hands crossed and doing all of this in fantastic speed and making it look easy.

“There is a lot of rhythm and sharpness involved and it is pretty tricky. It does take time."

But when the company is in full flow, O’Neil says there is absolutely nothing like it. "There is something to be said about seeing the synchronicity of up to 40 people dancing in unison. There is a lot to take in but it is also serene and quite beautiful.”

Riverdance will perform at Jubilee Park at Expo 2020 Dubai from Wednesday, November 3 to Saturday, November 27. Show times are from 9pm and blackout dates apply; details can be found at expo2020dubai.com

Updated: November 02, 2021, 11:01 AM