From Seville to Dubai, Riverdance comes full circle at Expo

One dancer was recruited for the show after she became a TikTok sensation

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The origins of the Riverdance show, much like its storyline, is made up of different parts, mapped out in a few places.

Currently playing a 22-night run at Expo 2020 Dubai, a part of show can trace its roots back to a previous Expo in Seville in 1992.

Bill Whelan, the show's composer, and John McColgan, co-founder and director, told The National they created a piece called Seville Suite for the Ireland Expo pavilion at Seville 92, based on a voyage undertaken from Ireland to Spain by a 16th century Irish nobleman called Red Hugh O'Donnell.

“We did two concerts in Seville and there we found Maria Pages, who was the original flamenco dancer in the Seville Suite, which we then worked into Riverdance and grew out from there,” said Mr Whelan.

The very first rehearsal Omar Tekbilek did with and our band, he played a beautiful Arab tune, and everybody just burst into applause
Bill Whelan, composer, Riverdance

Separately, they created a dance piece called Spirit of Mayo the following year for a cultural celebration inspired by the discovery of a Neolithic site in the west of Ireland, which involved US step dancer Jean Butler and Michael Flatley – the original Riverdance lead dancers.

“They were not connected yet. We saw them on stage and an idea sparked,” said Mr McColgan.

Riverdance made its debut at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest at Dublin's Point Theatre. The name was inspired by the venue's location, beside the River Liffey in Dublin.

The seven-minute set performed during the Eurovision show's interval – featuring Flatley and Butler – was broadcast to an estimated worldwide audience of 300 million and earned a standing ovation from the 4,000 people in the theatre.

Riverdance returned to the same theatre 10 months later, in February 1995, for its full-length debut and has been to all four corners of world since then.

This month, the show made its Middle East debut in Dubai at Expo 2020– 29 years after the Seville Suite was created.

Multicultural show

As well Spanish and Irish dancers, the show features American tap and Russian Dervish dancers, creating a multicultural cast.

“When we did the original seven-minute piece for the Eurovision, the motif was the river, but then when we took it off into a tour show, we stayed within notion of a river going on a journey and interacting with other cultures. The cross-cultural thing has always been there since the very beginning of Riverdance,” said Mr Whelan.

“I think when people are talking about this new idea of cross-cultural entertainment or cultures exchanging, that was ingrained into our concept from the very beginning."

Mr McColgan said: "The thing that we really talked about in the very beginning was that whatever we did, we wanted to open it up and make it accessible. But we did not want to lose the foundation, the roots of our form and the dance, and that we could elaborate on that and we could make it more entertaining for an audience.”

The cast includes dancers who were trained with Irish dance schools outside of Ireland, including Morgan Bullock, from Rochester, Virginia.

One of many black Irish dancers in Riverdance, she was recruited for the show after she became a TikTok sensation for her dancing.

Unique to Expo 2020

Ms Bullock is one of 15 new dancers in the show at Expo, which is the first outside of UK and Ireland since the pandemic. The current UK tour is one of their most successful in its 25-year history, running at 92 per cent capacity.

Riverdance at Expo is billed as a somewhat unique show, with musical elements that audiences on the other tours will not have seen.

The Middle Eastern flavour is provided by the talented US-based multi-instrumentalist Omer Tekbilek, who plays the ney – a Middle Eastern end-blown flute – during certain parts of the show.

"We have tried, where we have gone around the world, to find those common threads in traditional music, which actually unite people," said Mr Whelan.

"For instance, when we were in Beijing, we brought in some Chinese musicians. When we go to somewhere like here, we like to try to do something like a cultural handshake.

“The very first rehearsal Omer did with our band, he played a beautiful Arab tune, and everybody just burst into applause."

Opening night received the customary standing ovation that comes with a Riverdance show but Mr McColgan said they have never done a show at a venue such as the Expo and are intrigued as to how the UAE audience will receive it.

"We have been in 50 countries around the world but we have never been in the UAE. There are no tickets sold for this event, so we are not sure in advance how many people are going to be attracted and turn up,” he said.

"We have never played to UAE audience before, so this will be a first to see how they respond. I expect them to respond the way every country normally does, but you don't know."

Riverdance at Expo will continue its month-long residency at the world's fair at Jubilee Park over the coming weeks. Full details and dates are on the Ireland pavilion website.

Entry to Riverdance is included in your Expo pass and no booking is required.

Updated: November 17, 2021, 12:00 PM