The composer of Irish step dancing show Riverdance said at a monthly meeting of the Ireland Chamber of Commerce of the United States Atlanta Chapter that cultural understanding is key to continued peace and growth in Northern Ireland.
Bill Whelan, who composed the music for the show that has become a worldwide sensation, said that political progress in Northern Ireland is encouraging but communities there, and in the rest of Ireland, must come together culturally to form lasting links.
“It’s a very complex question,” Mr. Whelan said. “The idea of Northern Ireland and southern Ireland, that there’s two territories and now they’re together, that’s not much of an analysis. It’s at a cultural level that we’re going to make the marriage work.”
Northern Ireland, a United Kingdom province, attempted to capitalize on U.S.-Irish cultural links by hosting American businesspeople at a conference encouraging investment while celebrating one year of since the formation of its regional parliament May 8.
Mr. Whelan said that Riverdance provides a cultural bridge between Ireland and one of Atlanta’s communities as he incorporated tap-dancing from the African-American tradition into the show after seeing it performed in the Georgia capital.
“Atlanta is a very important place for Riverdance,” he said, adding that similar histories of being forced from their homelands and faced with long periods of conflict have led to cultural similarities between the Irish and African-American communities.
“There’s a connection between being an African-American and an Irishman around the world, there’s very little separating our dances and songs,” Mr. Whelan said.
He added that the show, which began as an eight-minute interlude during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, has grown into three different touring ensembles and has been performed all over the world.
Kevin Conboy, the Irish chamber’s president, said that 21 million people have seen Riverdance performed and the show has grossed more than $1 billion worldwide.
Mr. Whelan first came to Atlanta because of his friendship with James Flannery, Winship professor of arts and humanities and director of the W.B. Yeats Foundation at Emory University.
Dr. Flannery said that “Irish culture opens doors for business” and that Riverdance itself has become a “huge business institution.”
Mr. Whelan said that he and others from Limerick, his home city, hope to use a cultural event to boost the local economy by planning a weeklong arts festival for June 2009.
One of the event’s goals is to create the world’s longest dancing line, including more than 2,000 dancers from all over the world, including Brazil, Ireland and the U.S.
Members of the audience included musicians and dancers that participate in Irish festivals in Atlanta, and Mr. Whelan invited anyone interested to attend next year’s event.