NEW YORK — When Julian Erskine last saw the American touring company of Riverdance, he had to smile.
He was in the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on an October night in Costa Mesa, Calif., watching the high-stepping cast electrify the crowd once again despite more than a dozen years crisscrossing the nation.
"To be at the back of a hall with the audience jumping to their feet at the end of the show after all these years, it's just so gratifying and just so pleasing," says Erskine, the show's senior executive producer, by phone from Dublin.
Even so, the end of the road is nearing. Riverdance is currently on an 82-city farewell North American tour that's winding across the United States and Canada and ends in June. This weekend the tour comes to Philadelphia for five performances at the Merriam Theater.
"It's certainly emotional to be saying goodbye," says Erskine.
The show has been touring continuously in North America since 1996, sometimes with two companies on the road simultaneously. While organizers insist there's still interest in the United States, new markets beckon in South America, India, and China.
The touring company includes six principal dancers, 18 troupe dancers, a live five-piece band, a flamenco dancer, and two American tap dancers, one of whom is also a baritone soloist.
Padraic Moyles, one of the principals, is dancing with a heavy heart. He joined Riverdance in 1997 and fell in love with his costar and now wife Niamh O'Connor while in the show. While he has performed elsewhere, he says American audiences are special.
"Anybody who joins the show from here on out and doesn't get the opportunity to perform it in America will be missing something," he says. "I hope that someday, whether it's 10 years from now, it does come back so that people get to experience that reaction again."
Riverdance opened at Dublin's Point Theatre on Feb. 9, 1995, at a time of renewed Irish optimism and pride surrounding the onset of the booming "Celtic Tiger" economy. Years of relative poverty were disappearing and being Irish had a new cool, thanks to a new generation of athletes and musicians like U2 and the Cranberries.
"The timing couldn't have been better. We just picked up on a vibe that was happening in this country and we suddenly felt, 'Maybe it's not so bad being Irish. Maybe we don't have to be the butt of every joke,'?" says Erskine. "It couldn't have happened five years earlier. It just wouldn't have happened. I don't think we would have had the courage to have done it."
It has since been seen by an estimated 22 million people in 40 countries, from Red Square to the Great Wall of China. It made its American debut in 1996 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, and packed the Gershwin Theatre on Broadway for 18 months in 2000-2001. Not bad for a show that first premiered on the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest as a seven-minute segment.
The two-hour Riverdance show is loosely based on the story of Irish culture and mass immigration to America, the story woven through music and dance styles including flamenco and tap. Most of the dancing is drawn from traditional Irish step dancing, in which the arms and body move little while the feet create the sound and action.
Erskine attributes the show's success to the fact that it isn't a cookie-cutter experience. It wasn't pulled together to make money, but to blow the dust off Irish folk music and dance, he says, and that purity of creation shines through. Plus, the sound seems to touch a very human part of us.
"That pounding out of rhythms I suppose is quite primal. That goes back into all our cores, no matter where we've come from. The beating of drums is how we first communicated," he says.
The show has lasted despite losing original stars Jean Butler and Michael Flatley, who also was co-choreographer. Flatley went on to create his own shows, Lord of the Dance and Feet of Flames.
Moyles suspects that although Riverdance is pure Irish, Americans have embraced it so strongly in large part due to their own immigrant heritage. "Many of them have their own folk dances. They probably see their own heritage within Riverdance," he says.
While the show is leaving America, it has tours planned for Belgium, New Zealand, and Australia. It is also going to India in October and plans a 10-week tour of China. And there are dates set in Argentina and Brazil, which excites Erskine because Riverdance hasn't been farther south in the Americas than Mexico before.
"As we are saying goodbye," he says, "we are also saying hello."