‘Riverdance’ refresh: An exhilarating ride of pride and precision

This '25th Anniversary Show' company is nothing short of superhuman.

Nobody else could tell, but from the waist down we were dancing in our seats during the Riverdance 25th Anniversary Show at the Kennedy Center’s decorous Opera House.

Getting jiggy is apparently what Irish folk do. Indeed, “jig” derives from the Gaelic word jigeánnai, itself borrowed from the Old English giga, meaning “old dance.”

‘Heartland’ number in ‘Riverdance 25th Anniversary Show.’ Photo by Jack Hartin.

With the franchise nearly three decades old, Riverdance, that exhilarating spectacle of erect dancers popping like pistons whose legs jack-knife with military precision, has remained faithful to its original choreography but with a sparkling update — fresh faces from social media, state-of-the-art technical craft, poetry by Theo Dorgan, and zesty international spice. All magically delicious.

This run marks the first time Riverdance has played the Kennedy Center. What better way to spend St. Patrick’s Day, the green-clad audience agreed, while a refreshingly rainbow-ized ensemble danced up a storm — at one point, a shiver-me-timbers “Thunderstorm” vignette. (Earlier in the day, the cast had enjoyed a special lunchtime audience with President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, so they were “on fire and still buzzing,” the emcee announced. Obviously an understatement.)

Lead dynamos Fergus Fitzpatrick and Amy-Mae Dolan were showcased Thursday, springing from Central Casting to pay homage, both in physique and crisp technique, to originator Michael Flatley and co-choreographer Jean Butler in their prime. (Stars rotating into the spotlight at other performances are Maggie Darlington, Anna Mai Fitzpatrick, and Meadhbh Kennedy in the female roles; Will Bryant and James Greenan in the male roles.)

It was precisely six years ago, on St. Paddy’s Day 2016 in Las Vegas, that Flatley, 63, took his final Riverdance bow, after revealing he’d sustained extensive damage to his spine, knees, calves, and feet. What a feat he lasted so long! Still, his presence lords over this production via artful projections, starting with flashbacks through a golden-ringed peephole to that fateful April 1994 night in Dublin when his troupe performed a gripping seven-minute interlude during a lull in the Eurovision Song Contest and skyrocketed to fame.

As with all artistic and athletic endeavors, the caliber of performance only rises with time. This company is nothing short of superhuman. No matter their body types, their fleet footwork is perfectly synchronized, as if done with mirrors or CGI-generated, especially when viewed at an angle. Dancers move fluidly from ballet to jazz to folk forms, the whirligig women switching from blocked shoes to heels by scene, the men lifting and sizzling with … can we say … “beefcake”?

‘Reel Around the Sun’ number in ‘Riverdance 25th Anniversary Show.’ Photo by Jack Hartin.

Irish dance is that strange mix of courtly repose from the waist up and maniacal fast-linking steps below. Mostly grounded in tap, the pounding percussive prom is guaranteed to shock one’s heart. It’s relentless. It’s joyous. It’s happy feet by yards. And the kicks are insanely higher than anything you think you’ve seen from the Rockettes. (Interestingly, this tour was sidelined by the pandemic on March 13, 2020, during a stint at Radio City Music Hall in New York — which explains why the 25th anniversary is being staged in its 28th year.)

But back to Fergus Fitzpatrick, please. He should be dubbed not the “lord” but the Adonis of Dance. His dazzling smile lit up the place, outshining the starry glitter, pulsating strobes, and spidery rays helping set the mood (brilliant lighting chemistry by Andrew Voller). Fitzgerald’s rugged range carried the show, even as he butted in on a duel among tapping virtuosos on the “mean” streets of Brooklyn in Act Two. That “Trading Taps” scene is hands-down a showstopper; Tyler Knowlin and Dharmesh Patel prove as charismatic as actors as they are world-class talents. Upon crossing paths with Matthew and Michael Gardiner, famed tapping brothers from TikTok, jovial jousting ensues. The projected cityscape feels so real, you can smell it — a marvelous departure from predictable fog-filled, heather-moorland backdrops (masterful production design was led by Peter Canning with set design by Alan Farquharson). It’s all part of what makes this reimagination, produced by Moya Doherty and directed by John McColgan, uber-theatrical — more Broadway than Vegas.

The Gardiner brothers aren’t the only TikTokers plucked from that social platform to raise their profile on tour. Morgan Bullock, who hails from Richmond, Virginia, discovered Irish dance at age 10 and, a decade later, became a social media sensation with her take on Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” remix, catching the eye of Riverdance producers. In media interviews, she has noted that she’s breaking the mold of what people think of as the typical Irish dancer — as a Black American she has a “built-in stand-out factor,” she’s said — and she’s deservedly a standout, emanating perfect joy each moment onstage. The cast is filled with up-and-comers like her who weren’t born when Riverdance began, including Cian Porter and Faith Moore, the offspring of two original dancers.

Amy-Mae Dolan made her Riverdance splash five years ago by becoming its youngest-ever principal female dancer at age 19. Her lyrical phrasing is at once majestic and silken. During one especially memorable pas de deux, in which a shirtless Fitzpatrick was clearly playing Adam from the Old Testament because you could see every rib as he crab-danced around, Dolan achieved poetic dominance — not easy beside one so captivating.

But if you think Riverdance is all about dancing, you’d be “away with the fairies.” Composer Bill Whelan’s Grammy-winning score, heart-ripping one moment and heart-reeling the next, showcases impeccable musicianship, from the angelic choristers’ haunting harmonies to A-team accompanists giving a master class in Irish instrumentation. While Tara Howley milks the Uilleann pipes or tin whistles, it dawns that those familiar laments are an Irish brand of the blues — mournful but so cathartic as to raise your soul to heaven. My favorite moment might have been when frolicsome fiddler Haley Richardson, Irish saxophonist Emma Frampton, and Howley on the concertina took center stage and boogied down to their own jazzy fugue, “Slip Into Spring — The Harvest.” The musical Once, anyone? Their electricity was later matched — perhaps topped — by Swiss-army-knife percussionist Mark Alfred, whose Bodhrán solo brought the house down. He might have broken his drum, in fact, if not his mic. ’Course none of these feels could strike so deeply without the flawless, immersive sound design by Michael O’Gorman. Patrons literally vibrated with pleasure.

‘Trading Taps’ number in ‘Riverdance 25th Anniversary Show.’ Photo by Jack Hartin.

The fusion of sound, styles, and sensation is spotlighted through 3-D projections that tour the seasons and the globe, from the Irish countryside to saucy Spain, then turn trippy like a psychedelic, interstellar journey. Fierce Flamenco star Rocio Dumset puts her backup dancers’ feet to the flame, while Russian dancers Christine Lesnikova, Aleksandr Safonov, Ana Turcan, and Eugeniu Turcan defy the laws of physics split-jumping and spinning like dervishes. (Sporting the colors of the Russian flag, they momentarily spark gloom. Could we get an accessory in blue and yellow, Costume Department? On the other hand, it’s important to highlight Russia’s glorious arts culture and remember that millions of people are caught up in today’s hellish warmongering through no fault of their own.)

And then there’s the river. What would Riverdance, born on the banks of the River Liffey, be without a river running through it? The Act Two scene “Anna Livia” personifies Anna Livia Plurabelle, a character from Irish author James Joyce’s swan song, Finnegans Wake, who symbolizes the female archetype. Proud ladies in blue bobble and chant, echoing the hundreds of river names woven into that lit classic. River tones, in fact, thread their way through the entire production with costumes designed by Joan Bergin, some made of shot silk that change hue under the lights — iridescent green, teal, and lilac shimmering with every undulation. Greens, creams, and oranges complement, tastefully evoking the colors of a proud people’s flag.

It’s not nationalistic pageantry in the vein of, say, Shen Yun from China. But Riverdance will course through your veins, no matter how much Irish blood you possess, transport you to the Emerald Isle, and remind you there are really only two kinds of people in the world: the Irish, and those who wish they were.

Running time: Two hours 25 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

The Riverdance 25th Anniversary Show plays through March 27, 2022, in The Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($39–$155), call (202) 467-4600 or go online.

The Riverdance 25th Anniversary Show program is online here.

COVID Safety: Proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 is required to attend all indoor performances and events at the Kennedy Center. Masks are required regardless of vaccination status. Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan is here.

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