SCMP Friday, October 6, 2000

Stomp of success


When Breandan de Gallai, the male star of Riverdance, stands waiting in the wings of the Hong Kong Coliseum for his first entrance on October 13, he'll be saying a few wee prayers. What's more, they'll be in Irish. ''Dia cuidghe liom,'' he says. ''That means 'God help me' - but not in a panicky way. And I try to think of positive things, the things I like about dancing, about being a little boy, running through the fields, knocking over haystacks and feeling the wind on my face.''
Even if De Gallai didn't have the sort of legs and feet which propel him across the stage as if he's possessed by a spectacular, incurable itch, he'd be the perfect symbol of what Riverdance and, by extension, Irish culture, has come to mean to international audiences. He's young (31), one of seven children from an Irish-speaking family in wild, beautiful Donegal, and a successful world traveller who can remember what it was like to make shift with whatever work was available when he graduated.
''There were no jobs when my generation came out of college 10 years ago,'' he says. ''But the timing of Riverdance was 1994, and that's when things started going Ireland's way. Now, the next lesson is for Ireland to deal with this prosperity, to learn it's not all about money and to look at the beauty of the culture and the language. You want people to be confident in their Irishness.''
As it happens, the phenomenon which is Riverdance neatly - and with supreme confidence - embraces both money and culture. This synergy could hardly have been more perfectly illustrated than it was during the week last July when the show returned to Dublin for the first time in five years.
Its producer and prime mover, Moya Doherty - the woman who thought it might be a good idea to fill six minutes and 45 seconds of an interval during the televised 1994 Eurovision song contest with a spine-tinglingly sensuous version of traditional Irish dance - was too busy to be interviewed. A few days later, it was announced she and her husband, John McColgan (who directed Riverdance) had won the television production rights to the Irish version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Could there be a better metaphor for the show's own journey?
That original six minutes has since brought wealth, fame, notoriety (Michael Flatley, the show's original star, fell out with Doherty and McColgan and sought modest solace by designating himself the ''Lord of the Dance''), and success to just about everyone concerned. It has also given genuine and unexpected pleasure to many people who would have difficulty locating Ireland on a map of the world.
''The audiences come out as if they've been to a revivalist meeting,'' McColgan says. ''They're gesticulating, talking loudly, practising the steps. It is demanding for us, sometimes you wake up in a strange hotel room and think, 'oh God, I've got to see the show again'. But audiences have understood it, they've engaged with it in ways they don't with Broadway musicals. All the performers have come from a deep-rooted tradition and have a great sense of national pride, and that always connects with an audience.''
Sheer spectacle and scale have contributed to at least half of the Riverdance appeal for 10 million people in 18 countries on four continents. There is an almost military routine to the performances, and that observation should be taken in the best sense - the precision, the drill and the crack discipline can, on a good night, lift the hair on the back of your neck. Everyone keeps smiling, too, so there's no sense, as there can be with certain dance companies, of clenched, internal agony.
It's the music, however, which can really get international toes tapping. That may be, in part, because the Riverdance orchestra is exceptionally international itself: the programme line-up includes such instruments as the kaval, bazouki and darrabukkas, as well as the Irish uilleann pipes, bodhran and tin whistle.
Bill Whelan, the show's composer, who was awarded a Grammy in 1997 for Best Musical Show Album for Riverdance, had been working with such instruments long before Riverdance was even a rivulet in Moya Doherty's imagination.
''I'd like to say it was a carefully thought-out plan,'' Whelan says, with a laugh. ''But I just felt comfortable with them. My mother was a classical pianist, my father played the harmonica, and I grew up listening to Maria Callas, Thelonius Monk and Bill Haley. That's made me catholic, in the broadest sense of the word.''
He mentions two decisions which indirectly swelled the torrent which became Riverdance. One was not his own, but that taken by a rock group with whom he had worked in the past: U2. ''I think U2 were very important to Ireland. They brought their music back home. People who had had success before U2 immediately went off to live in Los Angeles. You've no idea what a difference it made when U2 stayed here. Everybody was lifted by that, it did so much for everybody's morale.''
The second decision was taken in a hotel room in Hungary in the autumn of 1994. The Eurovision song contest had taken place on April 30 of that year, everyone had gasped at the performance's daring, but no one quite knew what to do with this evolved, sexy dance-form. ''Moya and I were in Budapest - I was very interested in the rhythms of Eastern European music from a dance perspective and I saw what was happening in Rwanda on CNN,'' Whelan explains. ''We both said how harrowing it was and out of that came the Riverdance For Rwanda video.''
Within weeks the video had sold 100,000 copies in Ireland, a huge figure in a country of four million people. ''That response copper-fastened it for us,'' Whelan says. ''It suddenly made us realise Riverdance was a very alive phenomenon. We hadn't been able to gauge the response until then. We thought, 'hang on, this is going further than we expected. It's showing that there is an audience'.''
Indeed. On February 9, 1995, Riverdance The Show, the first Irish dance theatrical production, opened in Dublin - and the floodgates were opened. A subsequent video, Riverdance The Show, is the world's best-selling video (6.5 million have been sold at the last count). The show currently rakes in US$1 million (HK$7.79 million) a week on Broadway. It has gone through 30,000 pairs of dancing shoes. It will take a jumbo jet to transport the whole shebang over to Hong Kong from Brussels next week.
Meanwhile, De Gallai is going through his ritual before he goes out on stage in front of another audience. In the twilight world of the dancers' warm-up - shadowy figures flexing and straining, the sweaty smell of some of those 30,000 shoes, the shuffle and creak of young performers as McFame gears itself up to hit the boards again - he's skipping and smiling to himself.
In the days before he took over from Flatley, he was an occasional physics teacher (so when Whelan talks about the show's ''electrical charge'', De Gallai knows exactly what he's on about). But he's not thinking about his teaching days now. He's remembering a childhood in Gweedore, so far north it barely gets dark on summer nights, where a child can run through the fields and learn the magic of movement. What will he pray for tonight? De Gallai laughs and says: ''I want to dance right out of my skin.''
Riverdance. Oct 13-15 and Oct 17-22, 8pm; Oct 14-15 and Oct 21-22, 2.30pm. HK Coliseum, Hunghom. Evenings $250-$1,500; matinees $225-$550; students $250-$295. Tel: 2815 1516.