Michael Flatley: Still Lord of the Dance

Michael Flatley reinvented Irish dancing with Riverdance, and went on to bring his unique brand of entertainment to massive audiences around the world with a series of shows which have grossed more than $1 billion. As he prepares to bring his Lord of the Dance 25th anniversary tour to Belfast, the 'as Irish as they get' Flatley talks to Jane Hardy about lockdown, St Patrick's Day and real heroes

Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance is marking its 25th anniversary with a tour that includes eight shows in Belfast. Flatley's performing days are, sadly, behind him because of the extreme toll his high-energy dance style has take on his body. Picture by Brian Doherty.
Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance is marking its 25th anniversary with a tour that includes eight shows in Belfast. Flatley's performing days are, sadly, behind him because of the extreme toll his high-energy dance style has take on his body. Picture by Brian Doherty.

MICHAEL Flatley is a consummate entertainer. He remains nimble conversationally as well as one imagines in person, if you look at his moves on the promotional video for the Lord of the Dance 25 years tribute show.

Ask him his age, and you get the trademark smile that works even via Zoom as he says teasingly: "I'm only 21, but I've had a hard life."

The Irish-American dance genius, actually a youthful 63, is doing publicity for his latest show, the Lord of the Dance 25th Anniversary Tour.

It is, as he says, "a homage to the original". He adds: "Twenty-five years is a long time and we've all been through a lot, good times as well as bad."

So expect, as Flatley reveals, film footage of some of the highlights and darker times in our era. This is appropriate as the original show majored in the best narrative of all, good versus evil, with wonderful rhythmic music.

The ethical opposites are personified as the eponymous Lord of the Dance pitted against the prince of darkness, Don Dorcha, concerning the plotted takeover of Planet Ireland.

There were, and are, sequences clearly influenced by Irish dance although it's a more liberal interpretation, with Flatley pointing out his dancers don't just perform with their legs - "they use their arms too".

Flatley went to Irish dance classes in America from an early age, saying it wasn't really his first choice. "I wanted to maybe do other things like the sports that boys do but my parents took me and I got into it."

He says he began to love the rootsy form and the rest is dance history. The Los Angeles Times referred to the new production, which had its UK premiere in London last month, as a "showpiece extravaganza" and the publicity material mentions 150,000 taps per outing.

That's a lot of energetic footwork and Mr Flatley pays tribute to the stamina of his dancers in lockdown: "It was very tough on the artistic community. They lost two years and you can't add that on at the end. But they remained focused, they practised, and we're back."

Discussing the mega international success of Lord of the Dance which came about when Flatley, principal dancer in Riverdance opposite Jean Butler (he left in the mid-90s over creative and, it's said, financial differences), did his own thing with the Celtic dance material plus a favourite hymn tune, the producer says he's not entirely sure. Energy, Irish culture (we agree everyone wants some of that) and a bit of uplift in a challenging world.

Certainly, the new production is causing a stir and will be a hot ticket when it arrives in Belfast in May. Flatley says that he has many happy memories of bringing shows here and counts northern performers as some of the best. Not to mention mates.

He namechecks the "fantastic performer" Michael McHugh and Lauren Charles, one of his "sensational" leading ladies as representative of our talent.

When promoting the show on Good Morning Britain, Flatley was introduced by Ben Shephard as the man who might be able to stand up to Vladimir Putin concerning Ukraine. Not because he's about enter politics but because he has met the Russian leader on a trip to Saint Petersburg.

Without wanting to get political, Flatley says: "Yes, I met Putin but I've met nearly all the world leaders. And I am not a political guy."

Whereas most of us function with BC and AD as time signifiers, does Michael Flatley operate with pre- and post-Lord of the Dance? Was it in other words, a defining moment?

"No," he says, turning suddenly serious. "The defining moment in my life was when Niamh said 'yes' after I asked her to marry me. That was 16 years ago and it was the best thing that ever happened to me."

They met, of course, while dancing and she was a long time dancer on his show.

"We'd known each other a long time," he twinkles while implying it's just too sentimental when I suggest their eyes must have met across a crowded rehearsal room.

The dancer's life is not always an easy one and Flatley's career as one of the safest pair of feet in the business, playing in many variants of Lord of the Dance, came to an end because of injury.

He says now: "I have too many injuries to list them all, including to my spinal column. I swim in the sea every day which is a good thing."

That is simple, as the Flatleys live on the coast on a private estate, Castlehyde House near Fermoy in Cork, and also have a place in Monaco.

He has said he loves Cork so much - he and his wife sold up in England to move over - that he can't bear to leave it.

So how Irish does Michael Flatley feel? "Well, my son was born in Cork and I have an Irish passport. I feel as Irish as they get."

It's no surprise to learn that Michael Flatley is a person of faith, although he doesn't talk openly about that side of things, responding to my query with a simple, "Yes, I am." He admits he is a churchgoer and that this is important to him, but prefers to keep it private.

There has, apparently, been a great and emotional response to the show: "We've had many standing ovations, a great reaction."

It's possibly that emerging from lockdown into the sunlight has something to do with it. Also the fact that the arts can bring light to dark periods of time. "Yes, that's true, the arts can lift us up."

Flatley exhibits missionary zeal about bringing Irish culture to the globe and is hands-on with this production, even saying he's helped design the new costumes.

He agrees that there is something uplifting, a bit of light in the darkness, about culture. Especially when it comes with a big beat.

But batting about the spiritual side of things and its link to the arts and Flatley charmingly sidesteps: "You're going way too deep with that, love. Whatever I say will be..." The missing verb is probably misinterpreted as celebrities need to watch what they say.

But the guy's too busy to read his interviews and says politely: "Don't be offended."

There is also a down to earth side to the man. Flatley knows about life outside the arts, although is rightly proud of employing "hundreds of people".

His father, for whom he is named, worked in construction in New York. "They're the real heroes, those people who put food on the table. My father was in the construction and plumbing business and one of my brothers took over the business."

In 2010 Flatley dedicated the Garden of Memory and Music in Culfadda, Co Sligo, the village his father left to make his fortune in America, as a tribute.

Michael and Niamh's teenage son, Michael St James, is not into dance but music. "No, his interests are elsewhere. He's a flautist, plays the piano and guitar, and he sings."

But he is naturally aware of his father's line of work. The younger Flatley and some mates attended the first night on St Patrick's Day at the Hammersmith Apollo. "They seemed to be having a great time." Asked about St Patrick's Day - Flatley says they didn't down any of the dark stuff. Instead, the after-show party went for bubbly. "We had some champagne at the after-show party and it was great. It's the greatest day in the year."

Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance 25th Anniversary tour comes to the Waterfront Hall in Belfast for eight performances from May 3-8, waterfront.co.uk.