FORT LAUDERDALE — In the 1800s, millions of Irish immigrants came to the United States seeking a new home. Instead, they faced a grim scenario: urban poverty, religious discrimination and racism.
Today, to be Irish is to be part of a national success story. With their ethnic identity and Catholic roots preserved, the Irish have become solid, prosperous Americans, on their own terms.
In 1994, a young Irish-American from Chicago named Michael Flatley, a former winner of the World Irish Dancing Championship, created a tape of seven minutes of dancing. The segment, performed at the Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin, was adapted a year later into a mega production. It became a theater staple around the world that, in the best Irish tradition, established itself and remained almost intact.
After 15 years of performances in 40 countries, in theaters and in unusual spaces such as Red Square in Moscow and atop the Great Wall in China, Riverdance – The Show is making its farewell North American tour. This weekend, the production will run for three days at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale.
Through dance, music and song, Riverdance travels its way through Irish history, from ancient Celtic mythology to the emigration to America, where cultural adaptation and assimilation take place.
The narration by John Kavanagh throughout the 140-minute show involves storytelling that complements the nature-inspired simple sets. The artistic lighting and flying feet create enough allure to indulge children, with just enough intensity to keep adults entertained.
The evolution of art through the coming together of cultures is highlighted as cast members from Ireland, Spain, Russia and North America perform to intense Flamenco, Irish folk dance, and violin arrangements composed by Grammy-winner Bill Whelan.
The influence of African-American dance is one of the most pleasant surprises in the show: In “Trading Taps,” Irish dancers – arms stiff to their sides – try to one-up black characters on a street setting. Twenty percent of the dancing, including a combination of past and present movements, is improvised.
“It is a good street battle, where two immigrant groups speak in a language both understand – the language through the feet,” said Jason Bernad, an African-American tap dancer from the Bronx and full-time Riverdance performer since 2007.
Bernad noted that one of the most important aspects of the performance is that it provides its audiences with a uniquely multicultural tour.
“All the dances in the show are soulful,” he said. “Like a business is the reflection of its owner, dance is a reflection of a culture, how people celebrate and express themselves. It can be transformed into many things.”
In his solo performance, “Heal Their Hearts,” African-American baritone Ralph Cato addresses the hope and despair of the Irish in the New World, the gap between migration’s dream and its reality.
“One strong message in the show is that, in the hunger for freedom, if there is hope, people can fit in wherever we go,” he said.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Riverdance – The Show.
WHEN: Friday, April 30 at 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 1 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 2 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
WHERE: Au-Rene Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Riverwalk Arts & Entertainment District, 201 SW 5th Ave. in Fort Lauderdale.
TICKETS: $55 to $75 per person. Available at the Broward Center box office, 954-462-0222, www.browardcenter.org.
For more information, please visit www.riverdance.com.