'Riverdance' to prep new market in two cities

NEW YORK — “Riverdance,” the celebration of Irish culture that has step-danced across world stages for almost a decade now, is heading to the final frontier: China.

The show will play 11 performances in Beijing and Shanghai Oct. 9-19, including a gala perfomance at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People before China’s President Jiang Zemin.

The tour has been in the planning stages for some time. The company was scheduled to perform earlier in the year, and had in fact shipped 14 40-ton trucks over for preparation, when the SARS outbreak scuttled the plan. But the rescheduling has provided for a certain amount of cultural synergy: The new tour coincides with a visit by the Irish prime minister as well as the Shanghai Intl. Arts Festival.

“We’ve wanted to go for some time,” says exec producer Julian Erskine. “It’s the last major untapped market for us. We’re going to Beijing and Shanghai as a way of testing the waters. If it works, we’ll plan a 12-city tour for about 15 weeks next year.”

The company will be losing money on this initial tour. They are given a guarantee of about $60,000 for each perf but will not be sharing in the grosses. The guarantee doesn’t cover the expense of producing the extravaganza — performers and crew number 120 — so Erskine expects to lose at least $500,000 on this venture. That includes the $300,000 expense from the aborted venture earlier in the spring.

But he classifies the expense as a necessary investment in developing audiences in this massive market.

“We see this tour as an investment in the future,” Erskine admits. Future tours will not be based on a guarantee. “We would only want to go back if we can share the box office,” he says.

The company currently is negotioting deals for possible future tours, although Erskine admits bureaucratic complications remains a problem in dealing with the Chinese.

“We’re due to leave in a matter of weeks and we are still working through some red tape,” he admits.

Also helping to defray the costs of the China tour are other stints in Asia. The company will be returning to Japan for the third time as part of this tour, and will be making its first foray into Malaysia with a Kuala Lumpur stand. The show also has been popular in Hong Kong and Singapore.

“We ultimately hope to open up a circuit in the Far East, of which China would be the hub,” Erskine says.

Ticket prices in China will necessarily be lower, ranging from $10 to $45, but the venues are massive: The two arenas the company is playing seat 4,000 and 4,500, approximately.

“Riverdance” isn’t the first western stage venture to play China. A scaled-down “Les Miserables” was seen in Shanghai, and an orchestral tour of “The Magic of Andrew Lloyd Webber” played the country. Erskine also notes magician David Copperfield has become a frequent and popular visitor. But “Riverdance” would become the first full-scale western stage show to undertake a full tour.

Does the company’s new focus on the East suggest the production has been tapped out in the West?

Erskine says no. Although there have been just two companies on tour for the past couple of years, after the closing of the Broadway production (which was not a stellar success), Erskine says next year the company will return to having three productions on the boards. He also says the most recent “Riverdance” run in the U.S., from January through July, was “one of the most successful ever,” playing to an average 92% capacity.

“We’re not running out of audiences,” Erskine says, “but we’re always looking for new places to go to. We need to find new markets.”

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