Riverdance Shuffles Into New York City to Empty Seats

A group of Irish dancers who will be needing some Purell. Photo: Jack Hartin

A dancer stage left coughs during the final run through of the show, but nobody around him bats an eyelash. I’m sitting in a completely empty Radio City Music Hall Tuesday afternoon watching rehearsal of Riverdance 25, which was getting ready to open an eight-show run through March 15. The tour was perfectly timed to lead into Saint Patrick’s day. A holiday which will now be celebrated not with a parade of 150,000 revelers in the streets of New York City, but, ideally, with all of those people self-quarantining in their respective apartments. Looking around the vacant seats, I realize this is probably the only, truly safe way to see a show amid the growing coronavirus pandemic. Two days later, Andrew Cuomo will ban all gatherings over 500 people starting Friday evening, including shutting down Broadway effective immediately. Four performances of Riverdance will be postponed in accordance with the ban, but Thursday evening’s show and a Friday matinee will go on as planned, a publicist for the show told Vulture.

On stage, things are business as usual. While associate director Padraic Moyles works out something with the tech crew, a dancer shouts “a five-six-seven-eight” and proceeds to hum the opening lick from A Chorus Line, complete with the appropriate moves. Moyles, roaming the theater in a white turtleneck and shouting step rhythms into a microphone that sound more like the patter of a well-trained auctioneer than anything resembling choreography cues, gives a few, last notes. The dancers link arms and shuffle hand in hand, and for a few moments as they perform their closing number I am transported, quite enjoyably, to the early aughts. I’m 10 again, very casually taking Irish step lessons at a local dance studio. I am not very good but I do like the curly hair we sport for performances, and I’m looking forward to my grandparents taking my sister and me to see a touring production of Riverdance in Albany, which is every bit as mystical and enthralling as the cable ads — oh God, the endless cable ads — promised me it would be. By the program notes, Tuesday night’s cast boasts over 30 dancers and seven onstage musicians, who play everything from fiddle and tin whistle to uilleann pipes. (Think bagpipes but make them Irish.) The cast bows and the spell is broken. I find myself wondering exactly how one effectively sanitizes 6,000 velvet-covered seats.

Riverdance was born out of the 1994 Eurovision competition, hosted in Dublin, Ireland. I have no idea who won the international contest that year, but Riverdance, as legend goes, performed what’s known as an “interval act,” a seven-minute performance that occurred between actual competition programming. Those seven minutes, as original Riverdance principal dancer-turned-choreographer Jean Butler recalled onstage during a speech after the show, changed the entertainment business forever. The mix of traditional Irish music and dance went on to become an international sensation.

“I’ve literally known my dance teacher every day of my life,” principal dancer Maggie Darlington told Vulture before the show. “Both my sisters started before I was born, so I learned to walk and dance at the same time.” Darlington, a California native, has been with Riverdance since 2011. Her male counterpart in the show, Jason O’Neill, counts 11 years with the company. As a child in Belfast, O’Neill says he got into dance with his six sisters. They all quit except for him. I ask him what the hardest part of the show is, thinking about the vast aerobic display I’d seen in just 20 minutes of rehearsal. “We were up at 4:45 a.m. this morning dancing so we’ve been dancing for about 12 hours before we start [the show],” O’Neill said. Darlington said she’d found a few minutes to shower during the day. “It’s all good sweat, to remind you why you’re here,” O’Neill, who had not, said. Later, in the wings just before curtain, I watch cast members doing enough pushups and sit-ups and lunges to constitute a typical person’s entire HIIT workout. Darlington compared the show to doing a series of 200-meter dashes.

“Most people [in the cast] just walk off stage and have [hand sanitizer], Darlington told me when I asked about COVID-19 concerns. “We’ve had a talk from our physios and nurses, and we know what the protocol is,” O’Neill said. “We’re just focusing on the work.” The work, he said, which now includes significantly more hand washing. When we spoke Tuesday, all of the eight shows at Radio City were scheduled to go on as planned. (“Riverdance is being presented at Radio City Music Hall by ‘The Bowery Presents,’ a PR person for the show told Vulture. “’The Bowery Presents’ determines the show programming and the refund policy for the Riverdance engagement. It is not at the discretion of Riverdance.” Ticket holders for Thursday and Friday’s remaining shows can, however, request refunds at their point of sale.)

Later that night, I’m seated across the aisle from a couple in N95 masks. (One of the pair is holding the mask gingerly to her face, which completely defeats the purpose of a mask that requires an airtight seal to function properly.) Before the show, it’s announced that 190 United Nations ambassadors are supposed to be in attendance. (In her post-show speech, Jean Butler makes a plea for voting for Ireland’s election to the U.N. Security Council in June.) When the aforementioned 190 are asked to stand, a cursory scan reveals a significantly smaller number appear to have actually come to the show. Around me, I count several dozen more empty seats, which makes for decent accidental social distancing. (According to press reps, the performance was sold out.) I watch the faces of the dancers closely during the first number. O’Neill told me that dancing at a venue like Radio City can make even the most seasoned of performers forget to keep a serious face. To the cast’s credit, there are no out-of-place grins. Darlington appears for a soft shoe number clad in a sparkly purple dress. She kicks her legs clear above the men on stage around her.

The stage is flanked by sets of columns, which depending on the way they are lit look like Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway or the cityscape of Brooklyn. The 25th anniversary show is about immigration, director John McColgan explained before the performance started, and includes performances not traditionally associated with Riverdance: a Flamenco dance, a Russian troupe performance, and a crowd-pleasing act from a trio of American tap dancers who have a dance rumble with some step dancers that, thanks to the shared language of dance, results in friendship. Riverdance, at least this iteration, relies heavily on video screens to take you through time and space, loosely telling a story of Irish culture and people spreading around the world. (Ivo van Hove would like a word!) If you’re at all familiar with the world of Irish step dance, you know about the iconic, corkscrew curl wigs the dancers often don. The women of Riverdance, however, do not wear wigs. Instead, they all sport their own, extremely long hair, which seems styled to bounce perfectly with each hop and step. “That’s a piece I’d read,” a friend with me at the show whispers. “How to get your hair to look like a Riverdancer.” Earlier, Darlington told me the term “Riverdancers” is a misnomer. “Riverdance is the show, we do Irish dancing.”

At the close of the first act, the entire cast comes together for the last number. It’s an impressive display both in volume and synchronicity — they added eight more dancers for the shows to compensate for the size of the stage at Radio City — and the audiences thrills every time O’Neill clicks his heels together in midair to create a satisfying clack. He and Darlington spin nose to nose; there’s no way to abide by the three-to-six feet of suggested distance necessary for avoiding “viral droplets.” After the entire cast lands their feet firmly on the stage together on the final beat, the crowd loses it. I look over at the couple in the masks. The woman has taken hers off entirely to give a standing ovation.

Riverdance Shuffles Into New York City to Empty Seats