‘Lord of the Dance’ an Irish tradition: International phenomenon to step back into Happy Valley

It’s a cultural phenomenon that has stepped its way around the world for close to 17 years and has wowed more than 60 million people since its inception. “Lord of the Dance,” created by Riverdancer Michael Flatley, will return to University Park this weekend with a performance at Eisenhower Auditorium.

An institution at this point and the world’s highest-grossing dance show, Flatley and “Lord of the Dance” have become synonymous with traditional and modern Irish dance since exploding onto the forefront in the mid-1990s. Now touring the country as part of its American Troupe, the production brings a new costume and lighting design set to State College while still relishing and embracing its storied past.

“Last year they really kind of revamped the whole set and costumes with killer lighting design. The show is high powered and very energetic,” said lead dancer Zachary Klingenberg, who takes over for Flatley on this tour. “Everybody wants to keep things fresh and keep the standards of the show high and exciting, and these updates were just the natural thing to do.”

Although the production saw no noticeable lull, the popularity of dance competition TV programs such as “Dancing with the Stars,” which featured Flatley as a special guest in the seventh season and saw him perform on the show in 2007 and 2008, sparked renewed interest in the genre and further pushed “Lord of the Dance” into pop culture’s lexicon.

With the updates to the costumes and the sets adapted to reflect more contemporary times, the story of “Lord of the Dance” has essentially remained intact. Inspired by Irish folklore and a classic tale of good versus evil, the 21-scene show sees a backdrop of battle lines being drawn and love blossoming while stunningly choreographed dancing pushes a lavish level of unrivaled pizzazz to the frontline.

“The concept from the start was to have something that everybody could relate to; it’s a very universal story,” Klingenberg said. “Along with the choreography and keeping the set up to date, when you put it all together, you have a phenomenal combination.”

A native of Columbus, Ohio, and a dancer since age 5, Klingenberg seems to have been destined to be cast in this role. He started his dancing career at the prestigious Richens/Timm Academy of Irish Dance and was named an Irish dance regional champion and North American runner-up. He placed in the top 10 at the World Championship of Irish Dance four times before being invited to join “Lord of the Dance” first as a cast member and now in his current role as the lead.

“The best part is really just being able to share your craft with the audience, and when the audience reacts to what you’re doing on stage it’s really the biggest thrill and the most gratifying,” Klingenberg said.

Despite Klingenberg’s renowned dancing expertise, his role in “Lord of the Dance” isn’t without its challenges, which force the dancer to exert and push himself on a daily basis.

“In developing and doing lead it was probably the acting,” Klingenberg said of his role’s hurdles. “In Irish dance training and competition there are no theatrical parts. So making the jump from competing to doing a full production like this, the acting was the most challenging part and is one of those things that I’m always working on to develop.”

That work has paid off for Klingenberg and the production. The precision, story-telling and energy of “Lord of the Dance” are a mesmerizing treat to the eyes and ears, and it’s no wonder audiences are still craving this stomping showmanship after all these years.