For the past 26 years, Julian Erskine has been the senior executive producer with Riverdance, helping to turn a Eurovision interval act into a global touring phenomenon.

One day after his retirement at the end of May, he sat down with Sam Smyth to discuss his Riverdance journey – from managing world tours before mobile phones and the internet to driving Michael Flatley and Jean Butler to the airport in the back of his Fiat Punto.

In an in-depth interview, the acclaimed theatre producer also talks about the decision to remove Flatley from Riverdance, the finances and logistics of stage shows and why the Covid-19 lockdown offered him the opportunity to retire without feeling any guilt.


Sam Smyth (SS): I’m Sam Smith and welcome to my podcast with Currency.  Riverdance is a most recognisable and distinctly Irish product.  It is more of an instantly identifiable Irish brand than any other most of us can think of.  Since it was first staged 25 years ago, the show has taken in more than €1 billion in 47 countries from 27.5 million who bought tickets at the box office and later gave the cast a standing ovation.  Riverdance also sold more than 13 million videos, DVDs and CDs.  Others created it but Julian Erskine nurtured Riverdance.  As senior executive producer, he nursed a seven-minute television slot in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest to one of the world’s most successful musical and dance productions.  How successful is and was Riverdance and how can you explain that, Julian?

Julian Erskine (JE): Well, I’m glad you started with the simple question.  It’s extraordinarily successful.  It is probably one of the three best known Irish brands around the world.  Between U2, Guinness and Riverdance, they were the three names that when we arrived in some countries, they were the only things they knew about Ireland.  And it … and given that it started from such a small beginning, from a six-minute dance piece in the interval of Eurovision that it would 25 years later we’re sitting here talking about this phenomenal success, nobody could have written that story and I’ve always thought the … for me one of the reasons that it has been so successful is that it came from such humble beginnings, that it was never someone’s plan to sit down and say let’s write something that will take over the world and make us a fortune.  It was … it came from a place of purity that Bill Whelan wrote this extraordinary music.  Michael Flatley, Jean Butler came up with this unseen choreography that just blew people away and the net result of that six minutes or six minutes forty seconds was that we were able to go on sale in the Point Theatre, or Point Depot as it was then for a show the following February and sell out in advance four weeks in a 4,000 seater for something that no one knew what it was.  All they knew was the original six-minute piece.

SS: And we’ll come back to that because there’s a lot of detail in that.  I’m trying to go back to the time when it was created, 1994, 1995.  I’m thinking back.  Back at that time, U2 was on the cover of Time Magazine as the hottest ticket in rock.  Two Irish films had won Oscars.  Was it very cool to be Irish in the mid-90s?

JE: It was becoming cool to be Irish. I mean I’ve always said that Riverdance couldn’t have happened ten years earlier. It happened just at the right time, just as we were, I believe, as a nation, beginning to feel a sense of self-belief, a little bit of confidence in ourselves.  I think when you’ve been colonised for 800 years, it takes a long time to get a sense of self-worth back.  And I think that was happening in the 90s.  And along came Riverdance which just put the icing on the cake of here’s our music, here’s our dancing and we’re proud of it and we’re putting this up on a stage for people to see.  We wouldn’t have done that ten years earlier.

SS: That’s for sure.  There was also a ceasefire, I think, at that time.

JE: Yeah, a ceasefire that unfortunately when we were playing in Hammersmith, I remember Canary Wharf happened while we were in Hammersmith, and I remember the British Special Services breaking into a guesthouse where some of our cast were staying because they heard there were Irish people of dubious origins and the Special Forces came through at six in the morning and dug people out of their beds.  I mean it wasn’t over, it wasn’t over.

SS: I’m just thinking about will the children of those people who bought the tickets for Riverdance 25 years ago, will they pay to see the generation or will they pay to see the show now?

JE: That’s happening.  Because we’re around long enough for there to be. I fact, I know you saw the show in Dublin and most of that troupe of Irish dancers on stage were not born when the show had begun there 25 years earlier.

SS: That was on February 9th 2020.  This year.

JE: Wee have gone through a whole generation. One of our Russian dancers that you would have seen in the Three Arena, her mother was in the show, so we actually have children of original performers now coming into the show as well as troupe who weren’t born.

SS: When you started with the show back in 1994, I’m thinking about how different things were then.  For instance, I’m thinking about getting in touch with people at that time. 

JE: I still have my original call sheet from the Three … from the Point, and there’s probably …

SS: Is that of all the cast?

JE: It would have been out contact sheet so we could get hold of anyone we needed to at a moment’s notice.  And if there’s … there’s probably nearly a hundred names on it and if there are eight mobile phones, that’s it, and they’re all 088 numbers.  Everybody else was their home phone and so, and no email because we were pre-email.  We were pre-internet.  I mean I can remember in the Riverdance office, a discussion about will we get the internet or not and if we get it, who’ll have it.  And it was eventually decided we would have one computer with the internet on it that you could go to, ask the internet a question, and then go back to your desk to your own computer and work away with what you had learned.  We were pre all of that.  So, at the very start, you were ringing people’s homes.  You were leaving messages with their mammies and their daddies and you … if you couldn’t get someone, you couldn’t get them because that’s just how it was then.

SS: Or send a taxi out to their house.

JE: There was a lot of that.  There was a lot of couriers and a lot of taxis going backwards and forwards.

SS: I remember it now after the TV show which was such a sensation.  The idea came for a stage show.  John McColgan budgeted that he needed 1.3 million for that first stage show on February 9th 1995.  Now, I looked this up myself: RTÉ put up 200,000; U2’s manager, Paul McGuinness, put up 50,000.  He was matched, I think, by Maurice Cassidy and Tommy Higgins, two showbusiness guys.  Who were the other investors involved at that time?  Can you remember?

JE: There weren’t.  That was the problem, that it was shy… it was shy a couple of hundred grand just to get it to break even and the AIB came through the door as a sponsor, not an investor.  So, they put in the missing money that bridged the gap and funded a lot of publicity.

SS: Well, there was one thing which I always admired Moya Doherty for and she told me herself and she said that when they were short of money, she and John had to take a decision – and don’t forget they had kids, they had a family – did they take a second mortgage. 

JE: My understanding is if they had to, they were going to.  But they didn’t have to fortunately because we went on sale, dear old Gaybo launched us on The Late Late.  The ticket sales just took off like a rocket and before it came to a point where John and Moya would have had to, and they were absolutely ready to do it, the box office was there and I remember making two calls to Moya Doherty from the street coming out of what used to be The Ticket Shop just off Grafton Street.  I rang her one day just before, early December I rang Moya to say, ‘Moya, we’re past the break-even.  We have enough money now in sales to cover everything.’ And then ringing her just before Christmas saying, ‘We’re sold out; it’s gone.  There are no tickets left.’ And I remember those two phone calls, both made from Grafton Street from my mobile to one of the other people who had a mobile.  So, John and Moya were ready to bridge the gap if they needed to but fortunately, the good people of Ireland were so keen to see more of what they had seen the previous May.

SS: Well, it was sold as the perfect Christmas present.  You know, tickets for Riverdance were the ideal Christmas present.

JE: I think our line was ‘Just the ticket for that perfect present.’

Race and Riverdance

SS: I’m just looking at it now.  Ireland is a very different country now.  So, is America.  The world’s a different place too.  And now we were just talking, I’m just thinking about what’s going on in America at the moment, the worries about race and so on.  You were saying that some people when they saw Riverdance in America people were disappointed when they saw some black faces in the chorus.

JE: Yeah, it happened, and it happens, and every so often we will get an email of complaint saying, ‘If I’d known that there were black people in the show, I wouldn’t have gone.  I was buying tickets for an Irish dance show.’

SS: Wow.

JE: Still.  I mean like, you know, that would have happened in our most recent American tour last year.  But in the early days I mean there was… I remember on Broadway, we put together a special Broadway production and we actually assembled a special choir of South African singers, all black, with our tappers, our three African-American tappers.  And again there were people upset that there were so many African-Americans and Africans in the show.  I’m glad to say that’s a minority.  I mean Riverdance is huge in America.  There’s a massive audience for it.  People absolutely love it.  People go again and again and again and that racist minority is, fortunately, a minority.

“When you have something the world wants, it does have a life of its own and you find yourself running trying to keep up with it”

Julian Erskine with sam Smyth

SS: Tell, tell me how can you compare the show to other successes?  Now, the most successful stage shows, I’m thinking what are they, West Side Story …

JE: Not even … no, no, you’d be talking about Les Mis, Les Mis, Phantom.  Now of course Hamilton.  And … but Riverdance is up there probably in the top seven musicals in terms of just longevity.  Certainly longevity.  Cats is another one that’s there.  Shows that have gone well over 20 years and Riverdance is one.  There’s less than you can count on two hands.  And we’re one of those.

SS: Now, I’m thinking of you back at the beginning then, John and Moya were running a business.  They were people involved in TV, business wouldn’t have been their natural forte, I wouldn’t have thought.  Were you running the business at that stage or were you running the idea of organising the show?

JE: I certainly wasn’t running the business.  The show was put together and first produced by Tyrone Productions which was John’s TV company.  So, they were running the business.  Tyrone, John McColgan, Joan Egan, the late Joan Egan was absolutely at the helm there with … and brought in another fabulous lady, Patricia Carroll to work with Joan on the budgets and on the business side of it.  And Patricia to this day she still runs Tyrone Productions, now that Joan has passed.  But, no, I came in because I was a freelance theatre producer.  And these, everyone in Tyrone and everyone involved in Eurovision were television people and they’d never put a stage show together.  So, I came in as the stage person because if they were going to mount a major theatrical production, they needed somebody who had mounted theatre shows. 

So, in fact I wasn’t on the business side of it.  I was more on the technical and the artistic side of it.  And in terms of crewing and staffing and who’s going to build the set and how do we do this and how do we do that.  And so I went down to meet Moya Doherty in their offices down in City Quay in the summer, if I remember rightly, it was August ‘94 when they were talking about doing a stage show. 

SS: This is a few months after the television.

JE: After the Eurovision and when there was a bit of a groundswell of interest.  So, I went in and I met with Moya and it sort of just started – like everything in Riverdance – it just started rolling from there and next minute I’m on a plane with twelve dancers going … in fact next minute I’m in my Fiat Punto picking up Michael Flatley and Jean Butler to bring them to the airport so we can all go and do the Royal Command Performance in the Palladium in 1994.  Yeah.  So, it just … it just barrelled along.  I mean I must say right up until, you know, that show you went to last February, Riverdance just had barrelled along.  It has a life of its own, it’s quite an organic piece.  It is, it … you know, it took us quite a while to sort of get a hold of it and lasso it and try and control it because the demand was such.  When you have something the world wants, it does have a life of its own and you find yourself running trying to keep up with it and that’s how Riverdance was for the first five years, I’d say, we were haring along behind it. 

SS: Well now that initial production which I saw, it was Michael Flatley, Jean Butler, the principal dancers who were very strong and so forth.  Now, I can remember you opened in Dublin in the Point Theatre then.  And it did very well, you were transferring to London but I can remember going to Hammersmith in London to the show and it was very obvious that Michael Flatley who was a remarkable dancer, but he seemed to want to take control, choose the cast, call the shots and there was a, there was a crisis.

JE: Yeah, it was actually the second London run.  We did our initial five weeks in … we had booked four weeks in the Point Depot, we had to extend another week, we did five weeks initially.  Then we went and this is where, you know, when I say about it having a life of its own, a fabulous London promoter called Barry Clayman, old school, Jewish London promoter.

SS: Managed Tom Jones I think it was.

JE: Managed Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey and he’s the man who brought Michael … he looked after Michael Jackson when Michael Jackson ever came over this side of the world.

SS: And Frank Sinatra.

JE: Frank Sinatra.  I mean he’s … Barry’s a legend in the business.  Barry came to Dublin, saw Riverdance and said, ‘This has to go to London,’ and I have to say and I hope I’m not speaking out of turn, but I think we were all looking at each other and saying, ‘London?’ I mean it’s an Irish dance show, and, you know, as we said earlier, we were still in the Troubles.  There was still – even though there was a ceasefire – there was a lot of tension out there.

SS: Well you think America maybe but London …

MD: Well, yeah, but I mean okay, just spooling back a bit, the original concept was to put on a show in the Point Depot and remembering that the driving forces behind this were, was television, the idea was to put on a show that would be filmed and would become a TV special and a sell-through video.  I’m not convinced there was a bigger plan than that until it opened and took off.  So, the initial plan was Dublin.  And that … everybody’s contracts, everybody’s deals, everything related to just that initial five weeks.  So, going to London wasn’t just, you know, the notion of going to London, it was also the idea of going anywhere with this show.  So, we sort of gingerly putting out toes in the water, we went to Hammersmith for ten shows, just to see how it went.  Hammersmith is a 3,500-seater.  It’s now the Apollo where all those big comedy shows come from.  We went, we were sold out before we arrived.  It was unbelievable.  I mean it was here we go again.  And everybody who was everybody was, was queuing up to come and see this Irish dance show in Hammersmith.  So, we were there and it was fantastic.  We were the toast of the town.  We decided to do another Dublin run, so we did actual six weeks in, back in the Point in the summer.  And then we were all facing the long-term plans.  Right, this thing obviously has legs, so let’s go back to Hammersmith and sit and run.  So, we were booked to open on 3rd October 1995 and that was to be our open-ended London run and see how it went and I was, part of my role was trying to work out things with Michael.  I remember going to him in Dublin in his dressing room and saying, ‘Michael, can we talk about …?’

“I think Moya Doherty made two brilliant decisions in her Riverdance time.  First one was to employ Michael Flatley and the second was to let him go.”

“They just stayed.  They just stayed and clapped.”

SS: Was Flatley being difficult, like?  What had to be worked out?

JE: Well he was, he was … he wouldn’t … yeah, he … well, difficult as in he wouldn’t sign his contract and he was harrumphing about things.

SS: Unhappy?

JE: Unhappy.  And so, I remember sitting in his dressing room saying, ‘Just give me a list, tell me the things, you know, that, that you feel could be better.’ He had also engaged an agent to look after him who wasn’t, wasn’t the nicest people I’d have to say. In fact, then Michael sort of handed things over to the agent or manager and then thus started the contracts.  They went backwards and forwards and so we would agree a contract.  I’d try and work out everything he had asked for and make sure … and if John and Moya were happy, that that was okay.  And then we’d go back to Michael and even though the contract was then sent back to Michael was the one that contained everything he’d asked for, he would then say, ‘Oh, but by the way, I also need …’ so there were things like we’d a deal with Rover who were supplying us with sort of beautiful top of the range Rover cars for as our chauffeur cars for Michael and Jean and it had … that had to be changed to a Mercedes.  Couldn’t be a Rover.  So, even though we had a sponsor who had given us the most beautiful … anyway, that was the sort of level of stuff.  It went backwards and forwards.

SS: That’s petty stuff but there were serious things.

JE: Yes, of course.

SS: Like he would like to choose the cast.  For instance, it was being said at the time that he was perhaps unhappy with Jean Butler, maybe a bit jealous of how she was being so warmly received by the public.

JE: Yeah, I mean obviously there are some things that, you know, I can’t, can’t discuss.  I mean and that’s why, obviously the trivial things like the brand of motorcar are … because I think …

SS: I will feel free to come in at those points and say I remember I was writing a book at that time about Riverdance and these things were being said that Mike was very unhappy, he wanted to choose the dancers which would give him all those choices and it got to the point where if I can remember, I spoke to Moya Doherty at that time and Moya said to me along the lines of, ‘If Michael wins the argument, we’ll all end up working for him and the show is bigger than any component part,’ and all of the male investors were prepared to give Michael anything he wanted.  Including his pick of anything.  Everywhere.  And Moya was the one who held out.  Would that be close to the truth?

JE: Yeah, there was certainly, there was, there were external pressures because he was, without a doubt, the star, and, you know, and, you know, all the press, all the focus was on Michael.  And I do remember, I mean there were things like when we went to London the first time the poster was Michael and Jean, when we went the second time it was Michael.  And there were those sort of indications of change.  And so, you know, essentially what happened was we had … we were to-ing and fro-ing on the contract.  There were of course things like you mentioned there.  He wanted more and more artistic control.  He wanted to have a very strong say in the casting of the show.  In how the show would be run, what would happen to the show. 

And I think Moya really wisely realised that if she capitulated, she was giving away everything.  And so we, we had this extraordinary … I mean talk … I mean if ever there’s a movie, it has to be in the movie where the night before we opened in Hammersmith … Now, what was happening here is we had gone backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards.  I remember my hotel room in Chelsea and I had, I had my laptop, I had a printer and I had a fax machine and they were just going all the time with stuff going backwards and forwards because you had to print it in order to fax it, send it to his lawyer, because we had no email.  So, you were sending it to his lawyer, his lawyer’s coming back and then faxing it on to Moya, she’s coming back to me, and we … the day before we opened, I sent back what had to be the final version of the contract saying, ‘This is as far as we can go.  Everything that we can give you that you’ve asked for is here.’ It came back with more changes. 

So, I rang Moya, I said, ‘We’re never going to win this.  This is not going to go anywhere,’ and so Moya made the decision to have a run through of the show without Michael.  So, we went across the road to the Palais, the Hammersmith Palais ballroom, because the guys were busy putting the show up in the Apollo.  So, we took the cast over the night before and at this point no one male dancer knew all of the male lead parts.  So, we had the run through, with three if not four of the boys, each one taking one of the roles and dancing it.  And we ran the show, got to the end, Moya thanked everybody and in the lobby of the Palais, the Hammersmith Palais, there’s an old glass box office, like the old ticket box, and into that went John, Moya, myself, Joan Egan, Barry Clayman, our publicist, whose name I’ll think of in a second, and I’m wondering if Maurice was there, Maurice Cassidy may have been there as well, but all I remember was thinking from the outside this must look extraordinary because we were crushed into this tiny little glass caboose where no one could hear us and …

SS: But everybody could see you.

JE: Everyone could see.  Moya made the call, ‘Right, we’ll go without him, we’ll do this without him,’ and the publicist, Jenny Halsall, our publicist then she put the call in.  At that hour of night she – it was interesting that it was the publicist who made the call, but Jenny made the call.

SS: What time was that?  Was this a few hours before you went on?

JE: No, this was like probably eleven o’clock at night the night before the opening.  So, that would have been on 2nd October, we’re in the glass caboose and Moya made the call.  And so Michael was told.  Michael then appeared on breakfast television the next morning and the interviewer said, ‘I hear they’re going to open tonight without you.  Do you think that they could find someone to replace you?’ and I remember Michael looking at the camera and saying, ‘I don’t think so.’ And it was one of those moments when you’re going, ‘Wow!  This man doesn’t understand what’s happening.  He doesn’t understand what’s happening.’

SS: And wasn’t it Colin Dunn who …?

JE: No, there’s, there’s a, there’s … there’s … that is not what happened.  Colin Dunn had been brought into the show to do one number called Trading Taps with Tariq Winston.  And that was all he was in the show to do.  So, I actually, I have a copy of the programme from Hammersmith, the one we never used with Michael Flatley and Colin Dunn in the same programme which of course never happened on stage.  Colin didn’t know the role.  So, the … we opened with those Irish dancers, Pat Roddy, Breandán de Gallaí, Colm O’Shea, each of those taking one of the numbers and doing it.  And the … Moya always tells this story about after that opening coming out into the lobby of the Apollo and there was a queue at the box office and she thought, ‘Oh, Jesus, these are people looking for their money back,’ they were people looking to book again.  These were people who just came out and straightaway went to book more tickets.  So, …

SS: And it got standing ovations and all the rest, didn’t it?

JE: Oh, and I would, I would always say that I think Moya Doherty made two brilliant decisions in her Riverdance time.  She had many, but two brilliant.  First one was to employ Michael Flatley and the second was to let him go.  Because without … and, you know, for … it was the best thing that could have happened for Michael and for Riverdance because Michael was free to do all the stuff that he was dying to do that John McColgan was stopping him doing.  Michael had this great image of himself running across the stage and skidding on some sort of steel plates and sparks would come out of his heels.

SS: Oh, yes, yes.  This is Star Wars of the hoofers, Lord of the Dance, wasn’t it?

JE: Yeah.  So, … and Michael was suddenly free to do all that.  He had the stardom, he had the, he had the notoriety from Riverdance to actually launch himself, which he couldn’t have done.

SS: He was also not young.

JE: Michael was 36.  Heading on 37. He was at the end of his career.  This was the last, last throw of the dice. Michael was 36 in Eurovision, so he was probably 37 or heading for 37 by the time the show opened.  So, … but he’d got amazingly for somebody who at that age, you know, in … and Irish dancing is a punishing career, it’s not even like it’s easy on the body, it’s hard on the body … Michael got two final throws of the dice because he got Riverdance and then he got Lord of the Dance and away he went.  And it’s an absolute credit to him, absolute credit to him that he was up and running again, but it was his type of show, it was what he wanted and if he’d stayed in Riverdance, I think we wouldn’t have been able to have, first of all we probably only would have had one show.  He wouldn’t have liked a second show out there with another lead dancer, you know, it was all those things.

“That reintroduction of Irish culture back to the Irish people worked.”

SS: And you went to three different productions.

JE: We went to three different shows.  We did all sorts of things that … and it was the realisation that the show was bigger than any one person in the show.

SS: Well, that was a great moment, but then after London, there was New York, Radio City Music Hall, which was rave reviews, I think, sell-out shows.

JE: Oh, I mean, I mean they’re … but even the open night reviews from London are reviews you couldn’t write.  I mean you would be embarrassed to write them.  I mean we got unbelievable … I mean from the Guardian saying dance does not often get so good.  I mean it’s … they were stunning, stunning shows.  Then we went to Radio City, we were on the Letterman Show, we were on the Today Show, we were on everything and we were toast of the town, it was that thing of walking into any Irish pub and immediately they were just pouring drinks immediately over the counter for the cast.  I mean the cast, the company were the stars of New York for a week.  It was … it was the same thing, there was … the suggestion was to go to New York, and again the decision was take it gently, let’s not, you know, let’s see how it goes, so we did one week in Radio City, just to test the water and again 6,000 seats, eight shows, just gone.  Gone like wildfire.  So, the … but I suppose, sorry, again spooling back, the thing that made Riverdance famous quickly was PBS.  That original, the original video that was shot in, in the Point during the last week of the run was sold to PBS.  PBS broadcast it all over America.  Endlessly.  So, by the time we arrived in America, America knew what Riverdance was and they were dying for it.  They were dying for it.  You couldn’t have … I mean … because to try and launch yourself in America in those days, no social media, you know, no … I mean … and these were, these were VHS videos, these weren’t, you know, these weren’t DVDs or downloads, these were lumps of plastic.

SS: It wasn’t high definition.

JE: No.  And it was an hour-long, it was an hour-long edit, so people saw that and they wanted to see the whole show, so it was, I mean if you – again if anyone had sat down and thought about it, it was a masterstroke of publicity and marketing, but again it happened and it happened brilliantly and, you know …

SS: Well, if you were in charge of what would you say the physical practical bit of putting on the show across three companies, three productions going, tell me, you guys went to the US, you went to China, you went to Australia, you went to New Zealand, Japan, it was an enormous sell-out success everywhere, I think.

JE: Everywhere.  I don’t think there’s anywhere that the … I remember our opening night in Tokyo with the crown prince and his wife and very high-profile Japanese audience and we did the show and for the first time ever there was stunning silence at the end, like silence.  And everyone’s going, ‘What just happened?’ And then they burst into applause.  They just burst into applause that went on and on.

SS: How long was that silence?

JE: Oh, it was probably, it was probably, you know, 15, 20 seconds.  It felt like, it felt like two days.  Because we’d never had silence before.  We were just used to …

SS: Is that the way they do things?

JE: Respect.  Respect and grace and elegance.  They are a very graceful, elegant people, and to be even to be the sense that they might intrude on your performance by clapping too soon, so there was this … But I do remember, Sam, I remember maybe three or four years later in, in Osaka, the again unbelievable applause at the end and I was outside the building and the cast were coming out the stage door and the audience were still inside clapping.  They just stayed.  They just stayed and clapped.  And the cast used to get presents at the stage door, like fans in the audience would buy things.  Like we’re talking about, we’re talking about iPads and iPhones, oh yeah, and they’d be left for their favourite performer with their name in it taken from the programme at the stage door.  Adulation.  I mean it was …

SS: Now, there was never a professional Irish dancer before. 

JE: No.  There was the … I suppose what Riverdance created for the first time, well of course you create everything for the first time, was a professional Irish dancer.  Prior to that, it had been, it had been an amateur, an amateur hobby, competitive, so you had the féises, you had the competitions and again, you know, without getting too deeply into our history but because of the squashing of Irish dance and music by the British authorities over, over generations, the as you know, the plan by the newly formed Irish Government and the Celtic revival at the end of the 19th century was to try and get Irish cultural back and one of the ways to do it was to make it competitive, so kids would want to do it.  So, we … the … the irony, not the irony but I mean that system actually worked and by, by, by 1995 had got us to a point where we could put on an Irish dance show professionally that could go round the world.  So, that reintroduction of Irish culture back to the Irish people worked.

SS: Well now, I think by this stage there was something like 2,000 professional Irish dancers had been dancing for a living like that as their job on Riv… on your production.

JE: And not just us, I mean, you know, I remember at one stage, I remember at one stage looking at the trade magazine and there’s a website called Celtic Café and they look after all things Irish around the world, music, dance, the dance shows, everything.  And there was 14 Irish dance shows on the go.

Now, we had three companies, Lord of the Dance had two companies, so there’s five straightaway, but then, then there was another nine or ten other shows, you know, Rhythm of the Dance, Magic of the Dance, you know, To Dance on the Moon, I mean there was just …

SS: I’m just thinking of something you say, you said Lord of the Dance had two shows.  That would suggest a certain amount of schizophrenia from Michael Flatley there now.  Who would he put on?

JE: That only really happened when Michael retired and the coast was clear.

“If we just resist each other we learn nothing.  And Riverdance is all about integration.”

“Riverdance is all about integration.”

SS: I have seen the show quite a few times, there’s a multicultural cast now very often, isn’t there?

JE: Well, that’s the other thing Riverdance did apart from creating a profession.  It also launched the whole notion of Irish dance around the world, and there are Irish dance teachers, a lot of them ex-Riverdancers who now travel the world teaching, because there are Irish dance classes all across – all across Russia, all across China, all round the world, across Central Europe, there are lots and lots and lots of Irish dance schools who have, who bring in professional Irish dancers to do masterclasses.

SS: Who have nothing to do with Ireland at all.

JE: No, no.  And we’ve had a few people in the show.  We had a guy from Finland, Ilka, he was one of the first.  He … we went … we did, we did the show in Helsinki, and this boy who was probably eleven went to the show, fell in love with it, bought the video, went home, taught himself from the video.  He then got so obsessed with it he convinced his mother that they should move to Dublin …

SS: The entire family?

JE: No.

SS: Himself and the mum.

JE: Yeah, I think it may have caused marital issues, I think.  But Ilka and his mother moved to Dublin.  He went to classes, proper Irish dance classes.  He then entered into the Leinster championships and won them.  So, we picked up Ilka and we put him in, we never had him full-time in the show but we had him in on a few gigs, flying squad gigs, he’d come in.  He was a really … and he’s ended up now as a drummer in a rock group, but he for a couple of years was, whenever Riverdance was around, Ilka would be involved in some shape or form.  But we’ve had, we’ve had … there’s another great story, Ataka, a Japanese guy who saw the show in Tokyo, same story, fell in love, started teaching himself, then came over here for lessons.  Then he, he actually came and did his teacher’s exam, he’s now a qualified Irish dance teacher.  He was in the show, Ataka did a couple of tours with us.  But he has sent up an Irish dance school in Tokyo where he teaches.  He has a whole load of students and every … and until all this happened, every summer, he brings his school to Galway and they perform there for tourists.  So, you’ve got a troupe of Japanese Irish dancers performing for tourists coming to Ireland.  I mean it’s … you couldn’t write it but …

SS: And that pays the expenses, I presume.

JE: Only because of Riverdance, only because of Riverdance.  And we’ve had a Mexican guy in the show, we’ve had … and I know there’s been a lot of publicity around this girl Morgan in, in, in America.

SS: Morgan Bullock from Virginia. 

JE: Yeah, who put a very short dance piece up on TikTok of her dancing to Irish traditional Irish dance music and dancing in a sort of hip-hop Beyoncé sort of style.  She’s a fabulous dancer, beautiful girl, lovely dancer.  And she immediately got a lot of hate mail for, you know, for taking on, you know, for moving into a cultural that is nothing to do with her and how dare she.And I must say in fairness to … Leo jumped in, Leo Varadkar jumped in and invited her to Ireland.  Riverdance, we jumped in and we’ve given her a scholarship to our next summer school and we’ve asked her also when she’s over in cardiology when the show is on, we’d love to get her into the show and she would be the first – would she be the first, I hope I’m not saying the wrong … I’m trying to think, she probably would be the first African-American Irish dancer in the show, and it’s about time.

SS: I mean I’ve seen Asian girls.

JE: Yes.  Of Asian extract.  But the … yes, and there was an Asian, Asian extract guy as well.  But I think it’s … because the whole thing about Riverdance, Riverdance is about integration, Riverdance is and that big number in the show, Trading Taps, is all about if we, you know, if we work together we learn from each other.  If we just resist each other we learn nothing.  And Riverdance is all about integration.

SS: The three companies, how many people in total were you running, say, with cast, crew …

JE: At the most it would have been about 280.  Probably about 100 in each of the two big companies and about 80 in the smaller company.

SS: Tell me, in that, now, most of your people – correct me if I’m wrong – they’re dancers and so on, they’re from 16 to what, mid-20s?

JE: No, we wouldn’t have anyone below 17, 18.

SS: 17, 18.

JE: Yeah, well, I mean, we did initially.  We had a couple of 16-year-olds in America at one stage and we immediately fell foul of the whole American childcare rules and regulations.  We had to employ a tutor, there had to be a tutor travelling with them, it suddenly became very messy and very … so we, we immediately moved on from that to just …

SS: It did but in that, when you have all of these young people, you’re also, you’re almost in a locus parentis responsibility for them, aren’t you?

JE: Yeah, as much as you can be.  I mean there’s a lot of … especially nowadays.  It has changed and you said it yourself, I mean there’s been a marked change in the … and again I’m not, you know, not being pejorative about the very first troupe or the second troupe or the third troupe, but because it wasn’t a profession, it wasn’t thought of, I think, professionally.  So, if the show was at eight o’clock and the half-hour call as we would have it is at twenty-five past seven, we’d, you know, we’d want the dancers in there no later than that, obviously.  So, some of them would arrive from work with a big bag of McDonald’s and they’d sit backstage and have their McDonald’s and then they’d put on their costume and they’d go out dancing.  Nowadays, those same dancers are in the theatre from six at the latest, probably half five, and they’re warming up and they’re stretching and they’re working their bodies and they’re getting ready for that show which is what their whole day has been about and it’s only that it’s a different mindset.  You must remember that when we did that first show, when we went to London the first time, a lot of the cast took holidays from work so they could go.  But when we went back in October in ‘95, a lot of them had to make the decision do I run away with the circus or do I stay at my job, and a lot of people decided to stay with their jobs and didn’t go with Riverdance.  So, it was a, it was a, it was, you know, it was a complete change of lifestyle for people then.  Nowadays they come in as professional Irish dancers.  They come in ready to go and they know that they’re not going to get through the audition unless they’re in great shape and great mental shape and great physical shape.  So, it’s a different world now.  And those …

SS: It is, but it’s still a company and I’m thinking about all these handsome young men, those pulchritudinous girls.  It ended up – correct me if I’m wrong – you’ve been 60 in-house marriages, 88 Riverdance children, I mean that’s quite a lot.

JE: Well, I think it says a lot about Riverdance that the, that people who worked together wanted to stay together, you know, and there’s so many, so many, and a lot of those marriages are, you know, say we had an English stage manager who married one of the Russian ballerinas, and you’re going they would never have met, they would never have met if it hadn’t been in an Irish dance show, and we, we had … one, you know, one of our flamenco dancers married one of our African American tappers and again they would never have met.  But bizarrely met in an Irish dance show.  And so … and there is a camaraderie, there is a sort of family thing goes on in Riverdance where people look out for each other, people mind each other and people fall in love and stay together and it is, it’s, I think it’s, you know, for a lot of people it’s a very healthy atmosphere.  And, you know, the cast travel nowadays in two buses and there’s a noisy bus and a quiet bus, so they separate out into the ones that want to …

SS: Is it the same people go in the loud bus every day?

JE: Yeah, and they’re the ones that want to chat and want to … and the quiet bus want to read and sleep and be … And it just, and … but they do, you know, they do, they do look after one another.

SS: The other thing about that was of course that I noticed when I was going round the thing, is that Riverdance casts stayed in good hotels, you know, like they might have shared rooms but they’re always in good hotels, you travelled in scheduled airlines, and they were comfortable.  Was that policy or …?

JE: Oh, absolutely.  I mean John and Moya would always have wanted the cast to be looked after and if there ever was a call on something, and the choice affected the wellbeing of the company, the decision would have been look after the company.  I mean there’s apart from just the pure humanity of that, there’s also … it’s very practical.  These people are working really hard and they’re dancing usually eight shows a week, why would you do anything that would make that uncomfortable for them and not make it easier for them to do?  So, they can continue touring, everybody continues working and the last thing you want is people staying in a miserable hotel where they’re …

SS: And you employed physiotherapists …

JE: And massage.  We always … we still do, we carry physio and massage.  And look after people as, as, you know, as best we can.  I mean I think people management has always been part of the scheme.

“We had just spent a fortune putting two shows together, spending a fortune on publicity to get the shows out there for the 25th anniversary, and then bang.” 

SS: I’ve got you down here as you were the wise man in charge, the go-to guy for the dancers, musicians and so on.  Would you have seen that as your role or would they have given that role to you, the people in the cast?

JE: I would have seen it as my, my duty.  I think if you’re employing people and asking them to work very hard and putting them out around the world, I think you have a duty to look after them and to be available to them and if you know people are having personal issues or someone’s parent is very ill or one of those things, I think you’ve a duty to be aware of that and to factor that into what has to happen that day.  Yeah, I think it … again, why would you employ people and not look after them? 

SS: Sure.  And after cutting back the European and US tours last year, do you know, your revenues halved from 28.3 million to 13 million.  Was that a concern at all?

JE: Are you just talking about my revenue personally?

SS: Oh, indeed!  Yes, yeah.  The show.  That was the receipts.

JE: The shocking stuff, Sam, is that we spent the last couple of years working on this Riverdance 25 production.  So, the decision was taken to have a brand new set, brand new lighting, to really … because the two things that work in the show and have worked in the show since day one are Bill Whelan’s extraordinary music, just brilliant, brilliant music, and that original choreography, most of which is a very … almost the same as it was from 25 years ago.  So, if you’re going to put out – and we felt that we had to do something to mark the 25th, rather than just putting the show out yet again and putting a label across it saying 25th anniversary production, that we had to do something that actually rang the changes and brought the show a little bit more up to date, made it a bit more freshened, basically fresh, and the only way to do that was visually. 

So, we decided on a brand new set with major video footage on a bit LED screen.  All new lighting, some new costumes from Joan Bergen, so a lot of … and of course with Riverdance you’ve got two shows.  You’ve got, you’ve got over 40 performers in each show.  Each performer is going to be in four or five numbers in the show, and then you’re going to have spare costumes, so immediately your costume is, you know, you’ve gone, you’re up to a thousand costumes before you know where you are.  And if … you know, and the … and you’ve got two companies so you’re, you’ve got to build two sets, you’ve got to design two sets of lighting rigs, all of that.  So, a fortune was spent to get the two shows ready for this year.  We opened the first show in Montreal in January.  And it took off really well and it was running up to March when we opened in Radio City Music Hall to mark the 25th anniversary and the other company opened in Dublin and then went to Belfast and had just started the UK tour when that week in March when all the shutters came down. 

So, Abhann, which is John and Moya’s company, had just spent a fortune, a fortune putting two shows together, spending a fortune on publicity to get the shows out there, and then bang.  So, not only is there no income, but there’s a huge amount of money spent, that would have been recouped over the course of the tour.  That’s not going to happen now.

SS: But it’s not lost presumably when you get up and go again. 

JE: Some of it’s not lost.  The biggest loss probably is publicity.  So, like for instance for that week in Radio City Music Hall, $700,000 was spent on publicity.  That’s down the toilet.  To get three shows.  We only got three shows out of the eight.  For the UK tour, nearly half a million was spend on the publicity for the tour.  That’s down the toilet.  So, you are talking about … there’s 1.2 million.  There’s the cost of the original show.  Down the toilet in publicity.  That has to be all done again.

SS: Oh, wow!  That’s something now.  Next month you were meant to begin a ten-week 24-city tour of China.  I presume that’s been put on hold.

JE: As of this morning.  The word has just come through that the Chinese government are not allowing foreign shows in.

SS: Wow!  As of 1st June.

JE: I just got, while I was talking to John McColgan this morning and John told me that has now … so we were due to start in November.  And that is gone.  And that is gone and …

SS: So, are there any shows booked for the future?

JE: The next show that’s booked is the North American tour.  Which actually started at the end of December, there’s a big question mark looming.

SS: And then the worry is of course now the second wave and all the rest.

JE: The second wave.  All of that.

SS: And what’s going to happen there.

JE: So, the feeling is that that could also get pushed and it’s just – and it’s also, there’s an interesting factor here, just from the business point of view is we don’t sell tickets.  Our tickets are sold by Ticketmaster or whatever the ticketing agency is for that particular venue.  So, the, the UK tour that was cancelled, we were at 87% business.  We were virtually sold out for the tour.  That money, a lot of that money still sits with the ticket agencies.  A great thing about Riverdance is that the audience base is so loyal that the vast majority have not asked for their money back, they just want to know when are you coming, we want to see the show.  But as time goes on and if, tours keep on getting postponed, people are going to … and that has a huge knock-on to promoters, to ticketing agencies, I mean, you know, we work with William Morris agency in, in North America.  I mean they’ve laid off. 

SS: Clint, I think was the name of the town.

JE: Still there but they’ve laid off 350 of their staff and the senior executives are all on half money.  And entertainment has taken a very serious kicking and there’s a lot of promoters gone to the wall already and there are venues with big question marks over them.  I mean the Nuffield Centre in Southampton is gone.

“I suppose the way I dealt with it, which is really not dealing with it was I threw myself back into Riverdance.”

“I actually thought, you know, this is a good time for me to go.  Because we’re working short weeks anyway.  It’s not as if there’s any pressure.  There’s no panic.”

SS: Well, and you could turn round and say what a funny time to decide to walk away from one of the most successful showbusiness ventures in a generation.  Dare I ask that question?  You know?  And just going back to something personal now, and that was, you had a very successful happy marriage to Anita, Anita Reeves, she was an internationally acclaimed actress, you were keeping your own career going, Anita was keeping her career going, very sadly six years ago you lost Anita, that must have been a crushing blow, I imagine.

JE: Ah, I mean, four years ago, 2016. One of the ironies about that whole thing was that Anita and I had talked about me pulling back from Riverdance because to was just so busy and it was and there were so many things we wanted to do and we both agreed that if we were ever going to do them, I needed to work less.  So, I had actually spoken to John and Moya and we’d decided that we were on this course for me pulling back a bit and spending more time with Anita and we were … and then she got sick.  And within nine months she was gone.  And it took us, well of course it took us by surprise because we also didn’t know she was going to die, we thought she might come back or she might make it some way.  So, I suppose the way I dealt with it, which is really not dealing with it was I threw myself back into Riverdance.  You know?  In a sort of frenzy almost.  And I … and … and so …

SS: It’s therapeutic to some.

JE: I think it’s called hiding, I think, I think it’s called hiding.  So, recently I’ve been … before any of this coronavirus or any of this, I had been thinking about my own situation and thinking that I, you know, I need to probably to go back to that plan and take time out and, you know, spend some time.  Also, you know, I need to deal with the thing of losing Anita which I haven’t dealt with, and I think I’m not going to do that so long as I’m busy and I need … So, I decided, I spoke to John in Belfast and I had already indicated to Moya earlier that this was probably something that I would be looking at.  So, then when this, when the whole coronavirus pandemic arrived and shut down Riverdance, I actually thought, you know, this is a good time for me to go.  Because we’re working short weeks anyway.  It’s not as if there’s any pressure.  There’s no panic.  It’s going to be a while before there’s another Riverdance show, I can walk away without feeling that I’m walking away and leaving people high and … high, and you know, stuck with problems that I’m suddenly walking away from.  There’s nothing ironic here.  There’s nothing to walk away from at the moment.  So, yeah, I finished, today is my first day of, of official retirement. 

SS: Wow!  And you’re still working.

JE: And I can’t think of nicer company to spend it.

SS: I’m just sitting here … Riverdance has made a lot of Irish people wealthy.  You know, the directors have done well, the creators rightly have been very well rewarded, if it’s not too impertinent to say, are you retiring a wealthy man?

JE: I wouldn’t say I’m retiring a wealthy man because I was always, I was always a hired hand, I mean I’ve always been on salary and it has, it has … and I have done, I have done … I’ve had 26 years of very good employment and I’m certainly retiring in a very, you know, a very good place.  But, the … we used to get this … for a couple of years I was a director of Abhann, and of course the financial reports would come out at the end of each year and say: and the directors shared 8.7 million between them.  And I’m going I didn’t see any of that.  But I mean that’s not, you know, I wasn’t … and … but it did give the impression, like neighbours would think I was rolling in money because I was one of these directors that would share … Listen, I have nothing to complain about.  I had a fantastic, fantastic career, and I, of course I earned good money and yes, I’m retiring and I’m very happy to do so and I would just, I’m just very glad that I’m retiring now as opposed to starting off because to start … like my two children both work in the theatre and it’s not a great place to be at the moment.

SS: It’s not but … Listen, once again we’re beaten by the clock and I’d like to thank our listeners and my guest for today of course, Julian Erskine, a great Irishman and probably the highest-regarded Irish theatrical producer of his generation.  Julian, thank you very much.

JE: Sam, it’s been a pleasure, thank you.

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