Dublin’s Point Theatre along the banks of the river Liffey, played host to the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest and became the birthplace of an international phenomenon; Riverdance.
Following rehearsals, word swept through the city that a 'not to be missed' performance would take place during the interval in the contest.
The Eurovision Song Contest, an annual and often ridiculed event, is traditionally hosted by the previous year’s winners. Television coverage attracted an audience in hundreds of millions and became a major opportunity for each host nation’s tourist board to blatantly promote their country to a captive audience.
Having won the contest in 1993, this opportunity fell to the Irish Tourist Board (Bord Failte) and fear was that they would promote the age old image of Ireland. Out would come the Irish dancers, Arran sweaters, shots of the Guinness factory, peat bogs while traditional music played in the background. Rumour gave hope that this might not happen.
The anticipation of watching something innovative and fresh being attempted, kept the lucky few thousand in the Point Depot and those of us watching at home, in our chairs. No trips to the kitchen for tea or coffee, even the rush to the toilets would have to wait.
The magic which followed proved the rumours to be correct. At first, however, the home audience could have been forgiven for thinking ‘oh no here we go again’ as a single female singer from Anua began singing, but within seconds she was joined by a choir and the hall was filled with a new and hauntingly beautiful melody.
Jean Butler entered. All eyes focused on the gorgeous, caped winged angel. Her dance dress, a classic but understated dark navy, had no trace of the usual intricate Celtic needlework. Dispensing with the cape she moved lightly across the stage, ringlets bouncing in time to softly played traditional music. She stepped and high kicked in a manner to be expected of any local Feis or dance contestant but with a grace of movement few would ever attain. She exited the stage as quietly as she had entered but the purity of her dance left us wanting more.
The lights focused on a group of drummers beating out a rhythm on drums that had more in common with their Asian counterparts than any native hand held Bodhran. Michael Flatley took to the stage with an animalistic energy that rattled the stage in staccato bursts beneath his speeding metal pitted shoes.
Irish Dancing had a strict protocol; jigs, reels, horn pipe and set dances all followed a strict pattern developed over hundreds of years and formalised in the early twentieth century. As Jean Butler joined Michael Flatley, few could have guessed that Old Ireland represented by its traditional and heavily structured Irish Dance, would be blown out of all recognition. A new, youthful, brash and supremely confident Ireland had taken to the international stage.
The music of Bill Whelan had begun with the soft lilting song then built in successive waves, like a storm reaching shore, until it rose to a pulsing crescendo. It was complemented then finally outgunned by the driving, flashing feet of a multitude of dancers, lined up in ranks behind the handsome hero and his beautiful heroine. Dancers leapt and tapped across the floor at a speed which must have had the puritans tut tutting. They ranged across the stage with the synchronicity of an elite military unit, shoes drummed their mesmeric unrelenting rhythm, sweeping all before them.
In the final moments the hero and his heroine stepped out in front of the line, arms entwined swirling in the ecstasy of their love. The Point Depot audience and those in front of their television sets were also ecstatic.
When the final drum beat slammed down in unity with the slap of the dancer’s final step, applause erupted mixed roars of appreciation from the audience. We had been privileged to witness a brilliant piece of stage and television magic and the birth of a phenomenon.
The following morning’s papers throughout Europe were filled with the first rave reviews of Riverdance. The winning Eurovision song was the Irish entry and it received the necessary congratulatory columns. The song had won the song contest but Riverdance had taken the world by storm.
A modern Irish dance routine, of less than eight magic minutes, had taken a country still recovering from recession and drummed a new belief into its population.
We could be innovators, capable of success, capable of being world beaters.
The positive energy set loose by Riverdance spread with the power of a gale force to encompass all walks of Irish life. A brilliant dance performance had had the power to lift a nation up off its knees and allow it stand proudly on the international stage once again.
We were all winners, especially the Irish Tourist Board.