Expo 2020: Composer Bill Whelan reflects on Riverdance success while in Dubai

Show currently running at Expo 2020 until end of November

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David Light

Published: Mon 8 Nov 2021, 6:57 PM

A de facto Irish cultural ambassador, it’s difficult to remember a time when traditional tap show Riverdance was not touring the world spreading the Emerald Isle’s natural passion and flair for movement and music. Since first appearing as halftime entertainment at the 1994 Eurovision song contest, to setting up a month-long residency at Expo 2020 Dubai this November, the performances have always guaranteed two elements. First, you’ll have an awe-inspiring time at the theatre the benefits of which, after the last couple of years we’ve experienced, cannot be understated. Second, the rhythms the steps and instruments evoke are so joyfully infectious you’ll be scouring the family tree for any vague connection to Ireland as countless audience members have done before you over the last 27 years. Even after almost three decades of productions, Riverdance’s impact has not been lost on its composer Bill Whelan who sat down with us ahead of the spectacle’s Dubai debut last week.

The first ‘pinch me’ moment when Whelan realised the show had gone global

“I remember I saw it on The Simpsons and I thought ‘that’s it, we can’t deny it any more.’ My kids saw that and must have thought ‘dad has created something popular.’ Sometimes it’s in the macro, when you see it on The Simpsons, but then it’s also in the intimate. Usually I can wander around in London and nobody knows who I am, but one night we were playing in Hammersmith and a couple came up to me and said they recognised me as the composer. They told me the songs in Riverdance had helped them to grieve for their son. I can never forget that.”

The meaning behind Riverdance

“When we started as the Eurovision interval show in the mid-‘90s it was a seven-minute piece. Then the challenge for me and for Moya Doherty (producer) and John McColgan (Director) was to extend it in a way that would seem logical from its birth to a full two-hour show. I used as a guideline: a river begins life as a small pool in the mountains, grows into a river through the land and flows into the sea and returns as rain. It begins the whole Zen journey again. If there is a narrative in Riverdance, that’s how I see it. It can represent the life of a people. We started out in a small place in Ireland, we went out into the world and were influenced by and were influences on different cultures, then brought them back.”

Representing Ireland

“You’re sometimes aware there is a certain weight. You feel like you’re carrying a flag. But the music and the dance is what it’s all about. It’s not a political show. We get to express our culture. When we started I never really thought it would have the influence and stretch it has had. I thought maybe we’d go to London and play for the Irish community there, but we have gone to China and Japan and places where it seemed to me the cultures were perhaps too diverse and different. It seemed to resonate with them. It made me believe that - on the level any culture creates its native music - we can actually communicate with each other. In the show there’s a link between Irish tap, Flamenco and American tap and when you look at the rhythms and the music, there is a connection there.”

On what you can expect from the Dubai show at expo 2020

“Expo 2020 looks fantastic and we’ve all looked forward to this for so long. It’s great to see the extent of the amazing pavilions. The audience here will be seeing a slightly shorter version. For Dubai it’s all in one act – a straight 90 minutes. All of the main pieces people are used to in Riverdance are there though and, in terms of numbers of dancers and musicians, it’s all up to scale. Over the years we have always added and taken away. The basic thrust and spirit of the show has remained the same, but if we came across a great performer we have always made a space for them. That has happened in Dubai. I met a great multi instrumentalist called Omer Faruk Tekbilek and I invited him in. We have done that cultural handshake. It’s our first time doing a big show in the Middle East and we thought it was appropriate.”

Once in the park, Riverdance is free to watch most days at Expo 2020 Dubai until November 27. Check expo2020dubai.com for details.

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