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Irish, naturally Riverdance arrives, with an accent on its cultural roots

The words "Irish dancing" prompt a clear mental picture: a young girl with a head of springy curls wearing a stiff, triangular dress as bright as a stained-glass window. Her back is ruler-straight, her face is serious, her arms are welded to her sides, and her feet are tapping, sliding and entwining in a quick, intricate tempo.

You won't see any curls or bright costumes, and you may even see a few dancers smile when Riverdance hits Shea's Performing Arts Center for five performances starting tonight, said longtime executive producer Julian Erskine, interviewed this week by phone from Dublin.

"The whole point of Riverdance was to take Irish culture and shake the dust off of it -- make it interesting and accessible for a modern audience," Erskine said. "So producer Moya Doherty decided to take it right back to the basics, to get rid of all the embellishment. It's stripped back, so you can see how beautiful, how intricate and how incredibly difficult Irish dance actually is."

Riverdance, now in its 12th year, has three international touring companies, not bad for a show that started as a seven-minute dance interlude in the televised Eurovision song competition in 1994. The dance caused a sensation in Ireland, which surprised almost everyone.

Although in the 1800s Irish folk dances would have been common in any social gathering, in modern times, Irish dancing was done almost exclusively by children in competitions. Erskine said: "Growing up in Ireland, if you weren't a traditional Irish dancer, you would have almost looked down on this thing that some people do, put on the curly wigs and the big dresses and compete. I can't tell you how much of an eye-opener it was for people in this country to see how wonderful Irish dancing is."

After the Eurovision triumph, a show was written that would be performed for four weeks in Dublin. But there was worldwide demand to see more of this electrifying style of dance.

There were plenty of amateur dancers, but they had to lose some ingrained competition mannerisms, Erskine said.

"In the early days, one of the first things we had to get the dancers to do was smile," he said. "You don't smile in competition, you absolutely do not. We had to get them to soften themselves, enjoy it, get a bit of a glow of pride on their faces."

The show, Erskine said, "is anchored on Irish dancing, but includes elements of dance from other parts of the world, from Spain, from America, from Russia, and everything is linked together by the music, which is played onstage by a live band and is especially written for the show by a contemporary Irish composer." The music includes the traditional fiddles, Irish uilleann pipes and drums, but is also modernized, with electronic elements.

The first act of Riverdance tells the story of the development of early civilization, "and even that sounds more grandiose than it is," Erskine said. The sun, clouds, fire, the moon and eventually rivers are each considered in song and dance. In the second half, emigration takes the people of Ireland to other nations, where they learn new things and mingle with other cultures, "and eventually coming home and bringing back what you have learned," Erskine said.

Due to the universality of these themes, "you can play this in Tokyo, or you can play it in Buffalo," Erskine said, "and people understand it."

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com

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PREVIEW

WHAT: Riverdance

WHEN: 8 p.m. today; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.

TICKETS: $29.50 to $59.50

INFO: 852-5000 or www.ticketmaster.com

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