Arts

Riverdance's John McColgan: Our motto is 'Every night is an opening night'

Since bursting on to the stage during the interval of Eurovision in 1994 Riverdance has introduced Irish dancing to audiences all over the world. Ahead of its 25th anniversary tour, Jenny Lee speaks to Strabane-born co-creator John McColgan about the show's success, his relationship with Michael Flatley and plans for Riverdance the movie

Riverdance – 25th Anniversary show will visit the SSE Arena in Belfast from February 19 to 23

THE electrifying reaction to the seven-minute Riverdance interval during the European Song Contest in Dublin's Point theatre is something John McColgan will never forget.

"I've never seen anything like it – 4,000 people from different nationalities jumped to their feet cheering and applauding. We knew at that exact moment in time that something magical had happened," recalls the 74-year-old.

"We sat down in the week after and talked about how we could turn those seven minutes into something more as a full-length show."

McColgan and his Donegal-born wife and creative partner Moya Doherty "believed" in the show to the extent that the following year they mortgaged their house to finance it. Their "hunch" proved them right as it would go on to become a phenomenon around the world.

Twenty five years on, the show is back on the road for a new world tour, beginning in Montreal on January 10, before returning home – in every sense – to Dublin's 3Arena, formerly the Point, from February 6-9, 25 years to the day when the full production was first performed. It then moves to Belfast's SSE Arena from February 19-23.

Celebrated for its Grammy Award-winning music and the energy and passion of its Irish and international dance, Riverdance has been performed more than 12,160 times and seen live by over 27.5 million people in 546 venues worldwide.

The 25th Anniversary Show is billed as a powerful and stirring reinvention, which blends new visuals, lighting, costumes and dance routines with it's founding values.

"We've been working on it for a year. The screen is now the size of an IMAX screen, so it's going to be an entirely new visual experience and [Grammy-winning Riverdance composer] Bill Whelan and Universal have re-recorded the whole soundtrack. It's the same music and timing, but with so much more dynamic energy. So all in all it's the same experience as before only bigger and better."

Despite the technological advances over the years, McColgan says the show's enduring success is down to maintaining their consistent high standard of performance

"Our motto is ‘Every night is an opening night', so when an audience comes – whether it's in Belfast, Bangkok or Boston – the performance they get is an opening-night performance with everybody at the top of the game. The cast give it their all every night because they know the response they get from the audience is the same – that of a standing ovation.”

Riverdance currently has two troupes – one in North America and one in Europe. Each production involves a team of 100 with a cast of 40 dancers and musicians.

"We always love coming to Belfast as we get such a welcome there," says McColgan who is delighted to have two young dancers from Northern Ireland among the cast – Jason O'Neill, from Belfast, and Amymae Dolan, from McColgan's home county of Tyrone.

McColgan was born in Strabane but left at the age of five, moving to Wexford and then Dublin. With an early ambition to be an actor, he defied his father by leaving school at the age of 14 whereupon he combined amateur dramatics with numerous jobs, including a lucky break as a vision mixer in Ireland's new television station, Radio Telefis Éireann (RTÉ).

"It felt like the hub of creative Ireland", recalls McColgan, who met his wife and Riverdance co-founder Doherty there. He went on to work at TV-am in Britain, before returning to Ireland to start his own independent television company, Tyrone Productions, whose early programmes included The School Around The Corner.

The seeds of Riverdance were sown when McColgan produced a show in the National Concert Hall earlier in 1994, where he first cast Irish dancers Michael Flatley and Jean Butler.

"We were looking for Irish dancers who had a different flair. I spoke to my good friend Paddy Maloney of The Chieftans, who recommended Michael Flatley and Jean Butler to me as he worked with them in North America, and I cast them. Moya was at it and within a month she was asked by RTÉ to produce the Eurovision Song Contest interval act.

"At the same time we had been talking about making a documentary about Irish dancing and its impact around the world and we thought an Irish dancing troupe led by Flatley and Butler would be perfect for the interval. When [Doherty] went to the controller in RTÉ he thought she was joking; but she assured him it would was designed to excite a modern and young audience, and that was where the Riverdance story started.

Riverdance, of course, made a huge star of choreographer and principal dancer Michael Flatley, who went on to create his own show, Lord of the Dance. McColgan's relationship with Flatley was fraught and they went their separate ways after just 13 weeks, but he bears no animosity towards him.

"I would never take away from Michael's initial talent and charisma, but I think he let it all go a bit to his head. We were re-contracting him for a run in London and he had a list of 40 things he wanted, all of which were not available, and if we had succumbed to those wishes we would have been giving him the show.

"He was with us for 13 weeks and we did not agree on where artistic control lay. He thought we couldn't go on without him, but we did. We had Colin Dunne and there was never a blink in tickets sales. He went on and set up his own show and did incredibly well with that, so it worked out for everybody.”

In 2013 McColgan and Doherty created their Riverdance follow-up show Heartbeat of Home. It has already been performed in North America, China, Germany and London's West End, with further plans to tour worldwide.

"It's a show about people who had to leave their home place to find a better life. My ambition was that it would please the same audience as Riverdance but that it would sound and look different – there's a Latin sound, brass, Afro-Cuban, Spanish influence in the show."

With plans already for Riverdance tours in 2023, McColgan still believes in his original show.

"Fashions and tastes do change but we've never had a conversation about letting it go. If the show is in good condition and people are still enthused and buying tickets, why stop?"

He is also excited to be working with a Montreal company on Riverdance – The Movie.

"It's a full-blown animation, like Frozen. Bill [Whelan] is doing the music – some originals and some new songs. It's been in production for about a year and looks amazing.”

McColgan is an accomplished photographer with a keen interest in human rights issues around the world. He is the first Ambassador for Trócaire, and has exhibited his photography exhibition and documentary This is Palestine across Ireland following a visit to Gaza and the West Bank with the charity.

His other love is spending time with his five-year-old grand-daughter Lola, who is already showing an early interest in dancing.

“She loves Irish dancing but also does gymnastics, tennis, swimming and drama. She's so enthusiastic about everything she does. She's the love of my life," he enthuses.

:: Riverdance – 25th Anniversary Show will be performed at the SSE Arena, Belfast from February 19-23. Tickets from Ticketmaster.ie

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