Riverdance for Rwanda

August 19, 1994. RTE GUIDE

At the Eurovision Song Contest Riverdance thrilled a television audience of over 300 million. Now the video is being released, with all profits going to ease the crisis in Rwanda. Donal O'Donoghue spoke to the Riverdancers, Jean Butler and Michael Flatley.

"Whatever way you tell it, the story of Riverdance is about an almost fairy-tale evolution: two Irish-American dancers making their debut performance together, Ireland's premier composer delivering a cracking composition, and a 300 million world-wide television audience applauding the product.

Riverdance seemed to develop a life of its own as its disparate elements combined to produce the twin highlight, along with Ireland's unprecedented third consecutive win of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Since that euphoric night on April 30, the dancers, Jean Butler and Michael Flatley, have been floating on the crest of the Riverdance wave. Riverdance mania has swept through the international dance world, with Irish Dance schools in Dublin recording an avalanche of new entrants and the bootlegged videos becoming very hot property in the US. 'I don't think there's a dancing school anywhere in the United States that hasn't got one,' Says Michael Flatley.

About two weeks ago, the Riverdance story took another unexpected twist. On their recent tour through Europe, Butler and Flatley were blitzed by TV images on CNN: images of destruction, disease and death. Images of Rwanda. In Ireland, Moya Doherty, the Eurovision Song Contest producer who masterminded Riverdance, was experiencing similar feelings.

Aware of the phenomenal response to the performance (after the Song Contest RTE was deluged with letters raving about 'the River Walk' and 'the Water Dance,' and the CD set record sales) and knowing that the video would be a sure-fire seller, Doherty approached RTE to enlist it in the cause of the refugees. Riverdance for Rwanda (the no-nonsense title summed up the utilitarian attitude) snowballed into reality.

Meetings were called, all artists involved (including Bill Whelan, Anuna, and the RTE Concert Orchestra) waived their fees, and Macnas allowed their opening sequence to be used gratis. The eventual package brought the video duration to sixteen minutes when it was released last weekend.

At the center of the project are Michael Flatley and Jean Butler -- the earth and water elements of the sequence. When I met them, Jean had just settled in Dublin, poised to embark on an acting career, and Michael was heading home to Los Angeles for only the second time since he machine-gunned his heels into Eurovision history.

Superficially they seem an odd couple. Flatley is quiet-spoken, at times bordering on the inaudible, whereas Butler is vivacious and chatty. But they are eminently comfortable in each other's company. Despite his soft-spoken demeanour, Flaltey possesses a steely presence; in conversation, Butler usually deferred to him.

Though her American roots are deeper, it is Butler who bears the classic Irish looks: long auburn hair, greeny-blue eyes, and a sprinkling of freckles. In contrast, Michael Flaltey (born in Chicago, father from Sligo, mother from Carlow) is cast in the Bucks Fizz mold: lightly tanned and wearing a turquoise blue suit (that matches his eyes) and a golden-flecked tie (that reflects his striking blond hair).

Like many Irish-Americans, both have a highly developed sense of their Irishness. Packing irish passports is the most obvious stamp, dance is the most expressive. As Butler explains, their family's connection with the home turf was cultivated through Irish dance, so their performance copper-fastens the ethnic roots. Michael Flatley became the first American to win the All-World Championships in Irish dancing and Jean Butler has figured prominently as an integral part of the Chieftains international shows. For Moya Doherty, they epitomized the progressive national identity she was trying to bottle in her Euro-vision of Ireland.

Michael Flaltey was the first link in the Riverdance chain. His dance performance of Bill Whelan's composition, The Spirit of Mayo, at the ----- Concert Hall was watched by an ecstatic Doherty ('His feet moved as I'd never seen feet move before'). Afterwards she approached him with the Eurovision question. Once Flatley acquiesced, Butler ('I don't know what I was more excited about: the prospect of dancing with Michael or dancing in the Eurovision') followed. Naturally Bill Whelan was to write the composition.

After its premiere performance Riverdance was met with universal praise, except for the rare criticism that the dancers' outfits were too dark, a comment Flatley says he can live with. 'I was prepared for a certain amount of criticism, but I can honestly say to this point I haven't heard a bad word from anybody and I'm delighted about that.' An equally apprehensive Jean Butler rang her peers in England at 6AM to get their expert opinion. Their unanimous thumbs up was reflected by all other teachers in the Irish Dance world.

The legacy of Riverdance, which celebrates the cross-fertilisation of various dance styles such as flamenco and tap with Irish, is something the dancers firmly believe in. 'I think it will have a certain effect on the dance floor,' Flatley says. 'There are people doing imitation Riverdances all over Ireland. I'm sure it will have a long-term effect and I'm glad. That's how we intended it.'

As a dance couple, Flatley and Butler didn't exist pre-Riverdance. Now they have become an inseparable partnership, earning such monickers as the Irish Torvill and Dean and 'Fred and Ginger'. For both, with their contrasting dance styles, it has proved a fruitful and successful combination. 'It's been a brilliant opportunity to work off each other,' says Butler. 'It's getting to the point where it's a great laugh and we learn a lot from each other.' Flatley concurs: 'We seem to be on the same wavelength.'

Dancing apart, acting is now beginning to feature prominently in their plans. 'People say: you're an actor or a dancer,' says Butler. 'But Michael and I have a lot of interest in acting. Dancing is something that we've both been doing for ... well, it's kinda hard to explain, it's a bit like breathing. However, the life of a dancer is much shorter and you have to keep looking ahead.' This summer she graduated with a Bachelors degree in theatre from Birmingham and now plans to move into film or theatre work with 'nothing in between.' 'I believe in focusing on one thing at a time.'

For her 35-year-old partner, such a tunnel vision approach may be difficult to sustain. Flatley's CV is of the genius jack-of-all-trades variety. He has notched up 168 consecutive dance championships, is a World Champion Irish flute player, holds the world record for most taps per second (28) and is a Golden Gloves champion. In 1991 the National Geographic Society described him as a 'living treasure' but he seems chary to talk about such achievements. 'I'll try my hand at a number of things, I'm not bashful that way,' he modestly explains. Acting is likely to become another addition to his string of credits. 'I could see myself dancing on film. I wouldn't see myself in a Shakespeare role.'

He was introduced to the art of Irish dancing in his mother's home county of Carlow. 'My grandmother was a Leinster champion dancer and my mother was a champion dancer. I owe an awful lot to my grandmother because she taught me a lot about discipline and a lot about hard work.' Kevin Massey, the legendary traditional irish dancer, subsequently played a pivotal role in his evolution. Flatley is enthusiastic in his praise. 'I would say he was the single greatest influence that I had in my dance career. I don't know that there ever was a greater Irish dancer than Kevin Massey.'

After Riverdance Butler and Flatley were deluged with offers from all over Europe. Next November they are pencilled in to play the Albert Hall while the entire Riverdance sequence will will be repeated for their Royal Command performance on November 28. There's also whisperings of Broadway and plans to stage a major dance extravaganza at the Point in January. The Riverdance show goes on and on.

Jean Butler has just returned from a trip into the west to visit her relations. 'My first priority after Riverdance, as soon as I came back to Ireland, was to go down and see my grandmother in Ballyhaunis. She wasn't able to be at the Point but she brought all the neighbors in to watch it together on television.' Her granddaughter's fame has reflected on May Byrne. 'After the Eurovision I called the house to say goodbye before I went back to Birmingham. My aunt Marguerite answered the phone and I asked if grandma was there. She said "No, I'm sorry, Jean, grandma is washing her hair, she has an interview in twenty minutes."'

At time of going to press, the Riverdance compact disc was fourteen weeks at number one, just stretching beyond the thirteen-week national record held by footy anthem Put 'Em Under Pressure. Now the video is set to emulate the success of its predecessor. With all video profits going to Rwanda, Riverdance remains true to its mythic life-giving symbolism, the cathartic fusion of earth and water. It is again giving life. Literally."