When the amazing Riverdance first opened in New York in March 1996, no one ever predicted its long success.
“But here we are some sixteen years later still going strong,” said Jason O’Neill, lead dancer with the show, which will give its farewell performance at the Merriam Theater in Center City May 11 to 13.
After all these years, Riverdance will close productions in the United States — although it will continue to thrill audiences in other countries around the world.
“I’ll continue dancing with the company in other countries, but I will miss the American audiences,” O’Neill said. “In America everyone is so friendly, so very uplifting, and I think the best audience in the world. They express themselves when we’re dancing and we love all the energy they send to us.”
O’Neill, 26, was born in Belfast and has been dancing for many years. He danced competitively and achieved first place in the Ulster championships five times. He also won the Great Britain and All Scotland titles, among others, and placed second in the world in solo and team dancing.
“I was raised with six sisters and they all danced,” O’Neill explained. “So I guess it was just natural for me to eventually dance too, although originally I was opposed to the idea. But after enough time, I fell totally in love with dance and rhythm, and one thing just led to another.”
Still fighting the idea of making dance his career, O’Neill attended college and majored in graphic arts. But soon the pull and the passion were just too strong, and when he auditioned for and won a role in Riverdance, he knew he had to take the chance.
“When I was offered the lead I knew this could be my career option. So I turned my back on a graphic design studio and never looked back,” he said.
And so it has been, O’Neill joyfully reports. Dancing with the company since 2009, O’Neill has no regrets and just looks forward to continue dancing.
“Life on the road can be hard, but I have a real thirst for travel. I love to dance and I love to travel, so even though I don’t get home to Ireland as much as I’d like, it’s all bittersweet,” he said. “I do have days when I miss my family and friends, but every day I get to see new places and new people, so for me it’s all been a mostly positive experience.”
Of course, performing in Riverdance can be quite strenuous, and dancers like O’Neill are not without their injuries.
“I try to keep in shape by skipping and running every day, as well as dancing. That keeps my body knowing this is what it has to do. But we also travel with massage therapists who keep us on track, and they are lifesavers,” he said.
And they’d better be.
O’Neill said over the years he’s had sprained ankles, knee injuries and a fractured foot.
“But, like anything else, the wounds heal and you just go on from there,” he said. “Riverdance is an original, the first of its kind to feature Irish dancing fused with other types of dancing. It’s a full-scale Broadway production. The music is excellent, and the dancers give it everything they’ve got every single night.”
When the show ends its run in America, O’Neill will keep dancing to its music and magic in other countries — which he will continue as long as he can. Eventually, though, he hopes to do other things as well.
“Eventually I want to do choreography, and also pursue graphic design and photography,” he said. “But I will continue on this road as long as I can. For me, it’s all about the passion and love I feel for the dance, and I just look forward to continuing to do it for many years.”
For times and ticket information, call 215-731-3333.