Fourteen thousand dance shoes, 15,000 hours of rehearsal, and 16 years later, the United States tour of “Riverdance,” the show that seemingly branded Irish step, is finally coming to a close. The production will bid farewell to Boston for good April 13-15 at the Boston Opera House.
“We really wanted to go out on a high note,” said Julian Erskine, senior executive producer of the show, and one of its creators. “We don’t want to be pulling ourselves across the finish line.”
“Riverdance” was a phenomenon when it first came to Boston in 1997, swiftly selling out an engagement that stretched over more than two weeks. This time around, the company will give five performances over three days.
Through the years, Erskine has watched 1,500 dancers step on and off the stage.
“When the show first started, there was no such thing as a professional Irish step dancer,” he said. “This was something people did as a competitive hobby. Nobody did warm-ups or stretching; people would be eating cheeseburgers before rehearsal.”
But Erskine said it didn’t take long before he and his fellow producers realized the need for in-house physical and massage therapists.
“Our dancers are so much stronger and so much more prepared for performances now,” he said. “They’re essentially professional athletes.”
To lead dancer Padraic Moyles, too, the work is a sport as much as an art form. Though he has been dancing since age 3, Moyles said he is constantly looking for ways to better his physical performance through new warm-up routines and muscle conditioning, while still focusing on the mental aspect of dance.
“I’ve studied sports psychology and worked with people in the industry,” he said, “studying motivation and learning how to improve.”
And while Moyles and his fellow performers are no longer competing for a spot in the company, Erskine attributed their commitment and the level of their performances to the element of contest.
“These dancers are up there performing with people they would have once competed against,” he said. “They don’t want to be outshone. I think it’s a spinoff of that, [which] keeps the show feeling fresh.”
But Moyles said his biggest rivalry is with himself.
“I’ll go back and watch videos of myself to make sure I’m doing the best I can, physically,” said Moyles, who joined the tour in 1996, after seeing the show at Radio City Music Hall in New York, where it made its US debut. “You have expectations of what you look like out there, and then you watch the video and you’re like, oh, God, that wasn’t what I thought I looked like.”
In North America, nearly 12 million people have seen the show, but Erskine said he has rarely felt compelled to alter it.
“People like the consistency,” he said. “No one’s looking for radical change, because the audience wants to share moments they remember with new people.”
Globally, “Riverdance” has performed in more than 350 venues, across 40 countries. But it hasn’t exactly been easy.
“Playing in China was probably one of the most difficult things we’ve done,” said Erskine. “We were performing in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square. We had three days to set up. In the midst of setting up the lighting and the sound and getting everything ready to go . . . the Communist Party decided to have a meeting, and we had to get out. They said, ‘Sorry, you have to leave,’ and when we said we didn’t want to move our stuff, they were like, ‘Well, we’ll move it for you.’ So we took everything down, let them have their meeting, and then put it all back up before the production.”
And then there are the cultural differences in audience behavior. The lack of spectator response in some parts of the world is not exactly reassuring, Moyles noted.
“Some Asian countries just don’t applaud or make any kind of noise until the very end,” he said. “And we’ll be onstage during the performance thinking, They must hate this. It isn’t until the very end that we receive any kind of feedback from them, so you can’t help but feel a little worried during the show.”
But in Boston, said Erskine, “Riverdance” translates particularly powerfully. According to the United States Census, 24 percent of Massachusetts residents were of Irish ancestry in 2009 — double the national rate. So it may be no surprise that the audience here is especially welcoming.
“There’s a lot of cities in North America where performing feels sort of like coming home,” said Erskine. “But without a doubt, Boston is probably the most Irish city in North America. There’s generally a warm response for ‘Riverdance,’ but in Boston, it’s hot rather than warm.”
Worldwide, more than 22 million people have seen the show. But the producers envision still more to come.
Moyles, who hopes to renew his contract with “Riverdance” and perform elsewhere after concluding the North American tour, said the show will travel to India and South America for the first time. It will also return to China for its fifth tour throughout 21 cities.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Moyles. “Anyone who joins the show from here on out will never get to see what the American audience is like, and that’s something everyone should get to experience.”
Moyles, Erskine, and the rest of the company will conclude their North American tour at the end of June, in Virginia.
“I’ve been told there are three things people know about Ireland: Guinness, U2, and ‘Riverdance,’ ” Erskine said. “We’re just happy to be held to that iconic status.”Erica Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.