Tapping out the rhythms of life has brought Michael Flatley huge wealth and adoring fans. But are his stage shows now more gimmick than gimcrack?
21st May 2006
It seems, in many ways, like a lifetime ago. In 1994, when Michael Flatley and Jean Butler danced their way to stardom in the space of seven minutes as part of Riverdance, the interval act at the Eurovision song contest being held that year in Dublin, Irish dancing and Ireland itself belonged to another age.
In the 12 years since Ireland has ascended to giddy heights of economic achievement and artistic fashionability, and Riverdance has become a handy metaphor for that success. Flatley, for his part, has become a fitfully mesmerising one-man soap opera, famously falling out with the producers of Riverdance, launching hugely successful rival shows and filling countless tabloid spreads with his personal and professional rollercoaster rides.
For many the larger-than-life figure became almost grotesque, a bouffant hairdo sitting on a vast ego with all the grace, as Bob Dylan might put it, of a mattress sitting on a bottle of wine. The relentless self-mythologising seemingly necessary to feed a rapacious egotism — ratcheted up another notch by his recently published (ghostwritten) autobiography, My Story: Lord of the Dance — has tended to obscure what is most important about Flatley: the dancing.
Flatley returns to Dublin next month with Celtic Tiger — his one night at the RDS Arena has long been sold out — a show he concedes is his blockbuster swansong. Forty eight years old in July, he was fighting the ageing process even before Riverdance.
After-show ice packs and massages may calm a body racked with pain, but they cannot slow the inexorable decline. As he nears the end of his dancing career he can look back on it with some satisfaction, not only for the riches and fame it has brought him but also for the revival of Irish dancing in which he played his part. For all the vulgarity and excess of his shows, there was excellence too.
The brashness of the productions erred always on the generous side. As Flatley puts it, nothing succeeds like excess. The leather hot pants and sequined bikini tops that frequently adorn the lissom young dancers in his shows are not part of the traditional Irish dancing costume. Nor is the staging borrowed from the Nuremberg Rally school of production. It’s hard to separate the spectacle from the dancing excellence, but not impossible.
Strip away everything else and you’re left with Flatley’s fast footwork. In the rare moments he separates his feet from the pyrotechnics, his crisp taps are more impressive than any of the over-the-top stuff he asks his dancers to perform.
When the Lord of the Dance show first hit the international stage 10 years ago, few disputed Flatley’s eminence. He was front and centre during performances, using his energy so powerfully his feet practically smoked from the action. In his rhythmic sequences, Flatley almost levitated and could put exhilarating moves together so unexpectedly that watching him felt like a lengthy adrenaline rush.
He sometimes appeared oblivious to his audiences because of the way he turned his focus inward and encouraged rhythms to come out. Back then it was easier to look past the flash and ignore the scantily clad women for fear of missing him do one of those unexpected perches on the tips of his toes. But as time went on he hid those excellently crafted steps more frequently behind puffs from the dry ice machines. Like any touring show, Lord of the Dance suffered from the strains of being on the road and Flatley had to figure out ways to appeal to new audiences. He added louder music and put the dancers in smaller costumes.
His next show, 1998’s Feet of Flames, amplified his favourite special effects to more questionable effect. He doubled the number in the cast and for the first time giant screens appeared onstage. In his new solo he danced with his shoes apparently on fire, beginning a habit of giving audiences distracting extras instead of pure, uninterrupted dance numbers. His showmanship still outstripped the onstage gimmicks, but not by much.
Unfortunately in Celtic Tiger, Flatley takes himself even further out of the equation with more onstage glitz. He begins the show wearing a gladiator’s outfit and later appears dressed as a priest. He appears more as a personality than a performer, dancing less and less.
In the one sequence where his movement is unencumbered by storytelling and costumes, it is Flatley in the groove, at his best. It turns out that instead of dancing behind a screen his performance is on tape, not live, so if he wants to take steps toward the cinema, he would be best to leave the travelling shows behind. By taking away the thrill of his live performance he robs audiences of what is special about what he does.
Behind it all, though, is a still skilful dancer. Catherine Foley of the University of Limerick credits Flatley with being a gifted rhythmic dancer. She has kept a close eye on his productions and applauds them for putting Irish dance into the limelight.
“It wasn’t until these shows that Irish dance became more respectable, so they have had a positive effect,” she says. “They drew all these global accolades. But it’s difficult to talk of the shows altogether. Some have a high style of dance, others are questionable. Sometimes, if you maintain a certain level of showmanship, it is possible to lose the integrity of the art form.”
Foley marvels at Flatley’s talent as a dancer, but does not always understand the motivation behind his shows. “He tries to rock it up and bring it to world audiences, which is fine. But there are aspects I might not always agree with,” she says. “I don’t know if he’s diluting Irish dance but still, he’s the only one presenting 100% Irish dance in a show.” Riverdance incorporates tap, flamenco and other percussive forms.
Others in Irish dance circles accuse Flatley of taking Irish dancing in an undesirable direction. Mark Howard, director of the Chicago-based Trinity Irish Dance Company, is one of them. “Michael Flatley is off the grid when it comes to charisma or ego,” he says. “He’s one of the very best of his day. He has such a fantastic talent, it’s a shame the way he went when he hit a certain point.”
Howard trained as an Irish dancer with some of the same Chicago teachers as Flatley, but took Irish dance down a different path, beginning in 1979 when he started the Trinity Irish dance school in Chicago. Fascinated with the other dance forms — ballet, flamenco, modern dance and hip-hop — Howard started mixing their styles with traditional steps in the late 1980s and putting on shows with the Trinity Irish Dance Company before Riverdance ever started.
If Celtic Tiger is to be Flatley’s swansong, then it signals the end of the Irish dance spectacular. The Riverdance producers John McColgan and Moya Doherty are looking at a musical, The Pirate Queen, for their next success. Other former Riverdance stars such as Butler and Colin Dunne are now pursuing small-scale tradition and contemporary dance collaborations.
They — as well as Howard in Chicago — are in a better position to fulfil Flatley’s goal of “pushing the boundaries of traditional Irish dance as an art form” than Flatley is if he continues to remove himself from the stage.
He has remained successful by continuing to give people what they want, despite creating numbers often more appropriate for nightclubs than the stadiums he likes to fill. And as long as audiences pay for tickets, Flatley will perform. The trouble is, audiences want to see more, not less, of him.
Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.