A pain in the arts /Riverdance

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"Michael Hartley? Hatley? Hardy?" In the slow shuffle towards Block 9 at Hammersmith's Apollo the couple behind me are trying to remember the surname of the man whose image dominates the advertisement's video packaging and brochure cover for Riverdance - The Show.

Michael Flatley is the principal choreographer and self-designated star of this year's most unlikely commercial success - the Irish dancing extravaganza that grew out of a seven-minute interval act, entitled Riverdance, at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. Until Riverdance - The Show, Flatley's main claim to fame rested upon the kind of achievements that suggest a life devoted to collecting titles and prizes. He was (quite some time ago, I'd guess) the first American to win the All-World Championships in Irish Dancing; he holds a Guinness Book world record for tapping speed; and, four years ago, was declared a Living Treasure by the National Geographic Society. Yet, ironically, he is the most fossilised feature of Riverdance, a performer whose high-energy "I'm Alive" facade merely draws attention to the physical strain its designed to conceal.

When Chicago-born, Los Angeles-based Flatley burst through the wings in that high, criss-crossing, front-kick jump that yells "Look at me!", he reveals, most immediately, the limitations of his technical skill. While Irish dancing requires the torso and arms to be held rigid as if in conflict with the frenetic activity of feet and legs - a sight best described as half rigor mortis, half greased lightning - Flatley's short- waisted, boxer's upper body is as lamentably stiff as his sun-streaked hairdo. He isn't a terrible mover, but nor is he the star of the show in which leading lady, Jean Butler, and certain members of the large, supporting ensemble register as far more appealing and naturally gifted exponents of their art.

Flatley comes across as the Wayne Sleep of a project that purports to treat Irish dancing as a feasible spectator sport but confines it to short, glitzy sequences, and devotes the second half of the evening to a goulash of Harlem tap, flamenco, East European folk dances and even the alleluia songs of a gospel choir from Atlanta. All this supposedly ties in with the show's "journey" theme - the homeland / Irish emigration / the New World - and allows the entire hotchpotch of dance and music to be gathered into a final, cloyingly sentimental picture of global unity, of the linked- hands, shared-movement-motif variety.

While Flatley basks in the mere apprehension of an encore, Butler, a Barbie doll of a woman - saved by her heart of stone demeanour and the dazzling mischief of her legs - looks faintly embarrassed by the whole thing. Irish dancing may have been the original starting point for the slick, light-entertainment money-spinner that is now Riverdance - The Show. But the dance has been sacrificed to choreographic routines as bland as the Eurovision Songs with which it first shared the stage.

n Hammersmith Apollo (0171-416 6080) until 30 June

SOPHIE CONSTANTI

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