Show will go on as Riverdance taps out 20 years onstage

Earlier this month live show sold 25 millionth ticket to spectator in Germany

20 years ago on April 30th 1994, the interval act of the Eurovision Song Contest led to the creation of one of the most successful stage shows of all time and put Irish dance and music on the world stage. Video: Darragh Doyle


Twenty years ago today, in the course of a seemingly ordinary Eurovision Song Contest, a troupe of Irish dancers flashed across the stage of what was then the Point Depot theatre in Dublin in perfect military unison, set against explosive percussion and traditional Irish music.

Riverdance was born, and the world would never again look the same way at Irish dancing.

Two decades later, and the live show that began with a very young, hotfooted, Michael Flatley and Jean Butler has come a long way. Earlier this month it sold its 25 millionth ticket to an eager spectator in Germany - just one of the 46 countries to which it has toured.

At least in a cultural sense, Riverdance would take its place proudly among milestones of 1994, if not the entire decade.

“I remember it vividly; it was on a day like today actually,” said Moya Doherty, the executive producer on the night in 1994 and one of the masterminds who would go on to develop Riverdance into an international tour de force.

“It was extraordinary. It was very much, you would throw a pebble into the pond and it would ripple for weeks and months after. People were saying: ‘what the hell was that?!’”

On that night in Dublin, Ms Doherty was tucked away in a darkened back room ensuring the voting system for the 29 participant Eurovision countries was up and running, while the army of hardened heels tapped their way across the stage.

Although she missed the six minutes and 40 seconds that would put Irish dancing on the world map, she was aware of its impact and, perhaps more importantly, its potential.

“I knew the piece extremely well at that stage because I was part of the original commissioning,” she told The Irish Times.

“Riverdance was kind of a part of a wider flowering of Irish culture that placed indigenous Irish art forms centre stage.

“There was just a huge response for more and RTÉ asked me if I could do a Christmas show expanding on it, and I said yes, I would love to do more than that.”

To give the debut its historical context, it came at a time when Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was found dead and South Africa held its first multiracial elections. Civil war tore through Bosnia and Rwanda suffered horrific genocide.

A decision to sell VHS copies of the original show raised £250,000 for the Rwandan people and inadvertently fuelled its popularity as cassettes were shipped to family members across the world.

With Bill Whelan and John McColgan, a production company was formed and its two-hour version of the live show was debuted in February, 1995.

Since then there have been no less than 11,000 performances with a gross global box office take of €1.2 billion; the production has clocked up 700,000 miles and has sold 10 million DVDs and three million CDs.

There’s a social side too as with any stage show. In 20 years, the involvement of 2,000 Irish dancers has led to 60 in-house marriages and to date, about 90 “Riverdance babies”.

The show continues to tour.

“These are not the type of things you can plan,” Ms Doherty says of that seminal night 20 years ago.

“You can put everyone together but there is that bit of magic you can’t account for, and there is that moment when it reaches its audience.”