Irish set dancing may seem a slightly unlikely subject for this august publication to be covering, but I’ve been something of a fan since a Dublin trip in ‘96. Suspicions this interest might be put down to excessive Guinness consumption were dispelled on my mother’s 60th birthday, when we went to see ‘Riverdance’. If seeing three dancers operating in perfect synchronicity is impressive, seeing forty is bordering on the amazing. Besides, the appeal of seeing attractive women in short skirts, bouncing up and down, should really require no further explanation here.
That Michael Flatley, the former star of Riverdance, is one hell of a dancer can not be doubted. He has feet to compare with Fred Astaire, Ryan Giggs, and that bloke at the end of Drunken Master 2. Flatley supposedly left the show which either he made a star, or which made him a star (depending to whom you listen) over the old artistic chestnut of creative control, but since then, Riverdance has sailed serenely on without the slightest problem. As the trip to Dublin showed, light-footed Irish people are not exactly thin on the ground — anyone wandering round Temple Bar has to beware gangs of masked set dancers who leap out from around corners and tap-dance relentlessly for you. They just pulled in some bloke who was nine-times All-Ireland light-heavyweight Set Dancing champion, and have continued to play to packed houses across the nation and around the world, as well as shifting shed-loads of video-cassettes and so forth. At Easter, you could hardly avoid seeing it: I think there were four separate programs devoted to Irish set-dancing over the long weekend.
Flatley, however, not a man to take replacement lightly, came up with his own show, and it is quite, quite brilliant — albeit in a strikingly tacky way. Riverdance took traditional Irish dancing and prodded it gently into the 20th century, with obvious affection. Lord of the Dance drags it down the Hippodrome and pours margaritas down its throat. It’s the terpsichorean equivalent of ‘Showgirls’: wildly entertaining, but you can’t help watch, just to see what will happen next. It may or may not be the product of an utterly bloated ego – but if someone with an utterly bloated ego were to produce a show, the result would probably look not unlike Lord of the Dance.
The first half is relatively traditional — on odd occasions, the show clearly desperately wants to be Riverdance, with similar moves and much the same music cropping up. The most significant variation is the addition of heady amounts of sex into the equation, for no readily apparent reason. Thus, you get two blonde violin-toting babes, who play a sprightly duet clad almost entirely in PVC, like a pair of fetishist Vanessa-Maes. This was followed by a flame-haired vixen oozing around the stage looking very nice, to be eventually joined by a bunch of girls who rip their skirts off. Now, this sort of dancing I can cope with, and it began to look like Flatley was making a single-handed attempt to destroy the prevalent belief that all male dancers are cocoa-shunters. Either that, or it was a touching tribute to Riverdance’s roots in the Eurovision song contest. So far, so not entirely unexpected, nor unpleasant, though I could have done without gratuitous close-ups of Flatley’s groin, encased in tight trousers and with what appeared to be an entire sock drawer down there (including the drawer). Much of the show revolves around his (seemingly pre-oiled) flesh, and his absorption and encouragement of applause was scarily vampiric in its intensity. But in the second half, that things really started to warm up — or down.
One advantage of being a star is that you get a big dressing room. If this isn’t enough, why not make up your own show, give yourself the spiffiest costume, and become the hero in s spectacularily shallow depiction of the battle between good and evil? For this is what you get here: a mutated strain of Irish folklore, infected with Judaeo-Christian mythology. A kid, pretending badly to play ‘Lord of the Dance’ on a penny-whistle, has her instrument stolen and broken by some blokes in masks [Behaviour which immediately endeared them to me]. Flatley, the self-styled Lord of the Dance, descends into hell, battles the forces of evil, is apparently killed and – get this – rises from the grave to victory. Resisting temptation by the previously mentioned flame-haired vixen, he prefers instead the inevitable Good Girl in a smock. Flatley sticks the kid’s whistle back together (the sleight of hand involved will not be giving Paul Daniels sleepless nights) and after a few dozen rapturous curtain calls, we live happily ever after, flogging $25 baseball caps.
Now, if my memory of R.E. lessons is right, the song ‘Lord of the Dance’ is about Jesus… And Flately has himself resurrected in a crucifix position… And for most of the show, he has something suspiciously crown-of-thorns like round his head… Yep, all the evidence suggests that for his solo debut, he has opted to start at the top and play Jesus Christ. Ladies and gentlemen, the ego has landed. And this is not any Jesus Christ, this is Christ Van Halen, with flashing lights, pyrotechnics and leather trousers. Think Spinal Tap doing Jesus Christ Superstar down your local faux-Irish pub and you’re getting there. All that’s missing is John Wayne turning up to say “Surely this was the Son of God”. [Incidentally, after the first take of that line, the director said “Very good, John, but could you do it with more awe?”. And, of course, next time, John says “Aw, surely this was the Son of God”. Sorry. I’ve been wanting to use that joke for ages, and since this article is looking likely to come up a few lines short of two pages, here seems like an ideal point]
Just as no-one lets Giggs run Manchester United, Flatley really should have been dissuaded from putting on his own show, or at least from making it so blatantly Michael-centric. The dancing is great, but beneath the surface lurks a monster of self-aggrandisement and artistic pretension, the odd tentacle languidly breaking the surface. His upcoming (TC print deadline withstanding) July show in Hyde Park may be his last, but Flatley has made noises about moving into cinema next. Hey, I can hardly wait…