Riverdance immediately conjures a spectacular image of Celtic tradition, even to those who have never seen a live performance. This weekend in Memorial Auditorium, Riverdance makes its final visit to Raleigh as a part of the US farewell tour. After 18 years of fast-paced, traditional Celtic dance, the show will finally be put to bed. (Although the 2008 show in Raleigh was also called a “Farewell Tour,” which was a little misleading, the 2012 tour will be the final tour through the US.)

Riverdance started in 1994 as a seven-minute performance, originally part of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin. This first song-and-dance number featured a solo soprano, choir, male and female solo dancers, drummers, and a small Irish dancing troupe. After being seen by 300 million viewers worldwide, Riverdance was an instant success; six months later, the group was invited to perform in London at the Royal Variety Performance for Prince Charles. That month, tickets went on sale for Riverdance – the Show, exceeding $1 million in three weeks, and the rest is history!

Riverdance has performed in the US, UK, across Europe, and in Australia, Russia, Mexico, China and many countries in between. Along the way, in 2006, they took part in a Guinness World Record-breaking Irish line dance in London’s Trafalgar Square. In addition to the dancers’ enthusiasm and immense talent, with featured soloists from Ireland, Spain, Australia, Great Britain, and the United States, the husband-and-wife producer team also has a good spirit: Riverdance raised over $70,000 just weeks after September 11, 2001, for the Twin Towers Fund, over the course of eight performances in Fort Worth, Texas. Moya Doherty and John McColgan, producer and director, respectively, have put years of work into Riverdance and hope to continue producing new shows for Irish and international audiences.

This final performance, the first of three shows in Raleigh before the troupe moves to Newport News, VA, was nothing short of spectacular. Traditional Irish line dancing and more lyrical solo dances were loosely tied together with poetry that detailed the history of Ireland, including the legendary Celts, the Spanish invasion – illustrated by the captivating flamenco dancer Marita Martinez-Rey – and the journey to the New World.

One of the most entertaining moments of the show is “Trading Taps,” which features tappers Jason E. Bernard and Benjamin Mapp portraying the evolution of the Irish dance into American tap. They are accompanied by saxophonist Dave McGauran on a delightful, smooth, jazzy melody. However, halfway through the dance, three dancers portraying the Irish immigrants to the New World – as well as resident fiddle player Niamh Ni Charra – emerge and are shocked at the tappers’ desecration of their dance form. What ensues is a dance-off, showcasing these five fabulously talented dancers. They even mock each others’ dancing, but one can tell they are all really enjoying themselves.

The show might have been more effective if the songs and dances had been able to stand for themselves. Some of the vague storyline came off as forced, including the “Heal Their Hearts – Freedom” sequence. This song was a great chance to feature baritone soloist Benjamin Mapp, who gave a heartfelt performance, but it took away from the cohesion of the show.

The Riverdance Singers and Riverdance Band threatened to steal the show at some points, but because the music has so improved over the years, they were welcomed heartily. There were many opportunities for music features which allowed the dancers to have breaks and change costumes and also provided some nice emotional bridges between styles of dance.

Of course the traditional Irish dancing was brilliant, made stronger when it needed to be with a company front of twenty dancers, all in perfect unison, and made more lyrical or virtuosic at times by talented soloists James Greenan and Caterina Coyne. All in all, Riverdance has been well-loved in the United States, and those who have seen it, live or on video, will be forever in awe.

Riverdance presents its final two shows in Raleigh on May 27 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., after which the company will continue its farewell tour of the US in Newport News, VA, on May 29. See the sidebar for detail of the remaining NC shows.