SEVEN minutes of absolute terror – that’s how he describes it. Others view it as a magical moment, a reawakening of a love for Irish culture on a massive worldwide stage.
But for Riverdance composer Bill Whelan, it was “the most nerve-wracking seven minutes I have ever spent in my life”.
“It was completely live, and if anyone tripped or fell, the whole thing would look like....” his voice trails off, struggling for the words.
“There were seven minutes of absolute terror and then there was this tsunami of response and it went on for weeks and weeks and beyond.”
Seated at a table in Culture House, the headquarters for City of Culture in 2014, the Limerick native – born around the corner on Barrington Street – is rolling back the years, thinking about the euphoric days surrounding Riverdance’s inaugural performance.
He is doing so at the Limerick Leader’s instigation, and shortly ahead of a press launch to unveil details of a six-show run of Riverdance in the UL Arena in January, that is expected to be watched by more than 14,000 people. The UCH box office, managing sales, has already reported “huge interest” in the run, which will be a flagship event for the year of culture.
“I must say that there was always a big welcome to the notion of coming to Limerick,” he says, referring to Moya Doherty, the Riverdance producer, who joined him at the launch.
“We had never done it and it had a special resonance because of me and my connection, and here was a chance to do it. We thought, if we are going to do it, we will give it the full shot, so it is getting the big treatment.
“There are two things - one is the fact that, as a native Limerick person, to be bringing this show to Limerick, even without City of Culture, is a big deal. But then, because it is the first of the large scale events after New Year’s Eve, that to me is important because we always wanted City of Culture to be really special.”
After the 1994 performance, Riverdance spent 18 weeks at number one, and evolved into the show we know today, which has been performed to 23 million people over 12,000 performances across 45 countries.
Asked if the team anticipated its success, Bill says: “None of us ever suspected the scale of the response.
“There came a day, and I still remember it, when we had assembled all the parts. We had the choral element, the dance with Jean and Michael, and the big ensemble dance at the end, but we had never seen it all together.
“Something magical happened in the room and that was the first time that I felt something electric.”
Still, not a single record company wanted to touch the record, which Bill, who has worked with U2, Van Morrison, Planxty, knew had to be recorded.
“Luckily I had a recording made of it and we were able to release a single. I always felt we should have a record and we should be ready, but I couldn’t get the record industry to invest in it.”
Church and General put up £10,000 and the rest is history. But does its success weigh on him?
“Well, I think it is inevitable, but I accept it as not exactly the most painful problem to have,” he smiles. “It was a special moment for everybody and therefore I have always resisted and said no to doing anything that was like Riverdance again.
“To me, the reason for making music is not that you are trying to get a hit, it is, does the idea of doing it excite you? That is what it is.
“If you haven’t got that then there is no point in doing it, you may as well be manufacturing something, and that is always going to disappoint you and the audience.”