Dancing in the dark

John Walsh meets ...Michael Flatley
Click to follow
The Independent Online
`So tell me," I asked the world's fastest, richest and most egomaniacal dancer, "Can you waltz?"

"What?" said Michael Flatley .

"Or tango? Or rumba? Or salsa?"

It is rather a cheek to enquire if the most famous son of Terpsichore since Rudolf Nureyev can do things ordinary mortals do, especially those that involve bandleaders, three-four rhythm, taffeta and sequins. But his reply was revealing. "I don't know if I can," he said. "Of course I can go out on the floor and have fun with the girls. But I don't imagine I'd be very good at most of those dances. I wouldn't say I'm very proficient. I rarely get up to dance anywhere but on stage. I'm sort of comfortable in my own little world."

Indeed he is. But then Mr Flatley's "little world" currently embraces Australia, the States, London and Dublin and nets him about $1m a month. The stage world he inhabits is a show called Lord of the Dance, the one he went off and devised after his acrimonious split from Riverdance in October 1995. It's a music-and-dance extravaganza loosely based around Celtic mythology with some curious add-on effects deriving from Druidism, Greek-god attitudinising, biker chic and fascist iconography. It's with this vulgar but dynamic entertainment that Flatley has set about conquering the world. For a man who was unknown - and whose chosen art form had no popular audience - in 1994, he has, you could say, risen to the occasion.

Everyone knows the story of Riverdance - how a seven-minute burst of Irish stepdancing in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, devised by an RTE producer called Moya Doherty and choreographed by Flatley, won instant and total acclaim among an audience of 300 million worldwide, gave Irish dancing an unprecedented global cachet, became the bestselling video of all time (selling two million copies) and made over pounds 30m in two years. Everyone also knows how spectacularly the producer and her star fell out on the eve of Riverdance's return to London. Lord of the Dance is Flatley's revenge.

He and his 100-strong entourage are performing at Wembley this week, having just returned from touring Australia. How'd it go? "Oh, unbelievable," said Flatley. "They were dancin' around and jumpin' around, screamin' and howlin'. We couldn't have anticipated anything like it - I never toured in Australia before. We did a quarter of a million tickets in 10 days. We were sold out more than two months before we arrived. They added two more shows in Newcastle, and they were both sold out in two hours. And they're both 8,000-seaters."

Flatley always has statistics to hand. A terrible man for the attendance figures, though it's a necessary part of his persona as dancing impresario, as arty businessman. And you gradually realise he has a whole wardrobe of personas which he adopts as the whim takes him. At different times in our conversation he tried on the slushy Arch-romantic, the Californian Mystic, the Sex God, the Dead-End Kid, the Blarney purveyor, the Bit of a Lad.

Here's the Arch-romantic: "Beaches, I love beaches. Every spare minute I have I go walking on an empty beach somewhere because I just love to think and dream and create. And the feel of the ocean and the fresh air - there's a great energy there. I feel very moved on a beach..." Skegness, it's so bracing.

Flatley especially liked the mile-wide beaches of the Oz coastline, where he worked on his winter tan. He's a startlingly handsome chap with a peach- skin fuzziness about the face (fluffy sideburns, designer stubble) and waves of streaked hair teased upwards in an aspirant rockabilly quiff. Flatley's black suit is dramatically sculpted to his compact 5ft 9in frame, his tie a tasteful red, his shirt a long-cuffed cotton, his cufflinks expensive little silver artworks - yet you pick up a feeling of unease about him, a rootlessness in his hurt blue eyes, a sense that he's a constructed thing rather than a real person.

It may be something to do with his detachment about his body: "I have to constantly separate myself and look at myself as a product. I can't just buy another violin if it breaks, you know? It doesn't work that way. I treat my legs very carefully." To this end he employs a lady called Derry Ann Morgan who specialises in "special rub-downs" before and after every show. "If I don't have the one after the show, my legs will be so sore getting out of bed in the morning, it'll take me a while even to stand up on them." Ms Morgan's manual therapies also include something called raki - "puttin' her hands over certain parts of me. She just puts good energy in and sucks any bad energy out." So it's a kind of mystical healing... "No, it's very commonplace. She's a gifted woman."

His new passion is the sensory-deprivation tank, the kind that was all the rage in California 15 years ago. Mr Flatley is ecstatic about its benefits. "It's fabulous. Complete darkness and not a sound. One time I went to sleep in there and my body was jumpin' the whole time [he mimes a convulsive twitch], but that was just all the bad energy and electricity being taken out of it... At the end of an hour is when I really start to go inside. It's when I get magnificent ideas. It's about focusing. Focus, focus, focus."

These ideas you get (I said): surely the essence of the tank is stillness, and the essence of what you do is movement. How can you pursue an idea of movement while you're lying, sense-deprived, like a floating corpse? Flatley looked hugely pleased, as if someone had mentioned a secret only he knew about. "Control," he said, "complete control, absolute control. Imagine the beauty of not being able to move, and forcing your mind to do it for you. You can't get up and try it, you have to continue thinking. It's brilliant. I dance like a king after it."

The Lord of the Dance show features, among several displays of superhuman agility, a weird amount of militiaman strutting, of black-shirted uniforms, dictatorial paraphernalia, masks and what might be jackboots. What was it doing in a Celtic dreamworld? Flatley frowned. "You have to realise the show is fiction. It's not any particular myth or legend. It's just the best way I could interpret good versus evil. Our dancing is very precise but I don't think it's military in any way. Just very masculine..."

There's at least one moment of real magic. As Flatley does one of his complex Irish- flamenco-tap routines, he glances over his shoulder and, grimacing down at the ground-level blur of movement, he wags his fingers at his heels. Suddenly you see him, not as a dancer, but as a man dangerously set upon by a pack of snapping terriers. In other words, the man and his feet have become separate entities, a form of dualism Descartes would find intriguing. Was he conscious of his brain telling his feet what to do?

He leant forward. "That is exactly what I'm trying to tell the audience - that my mind is controlling my feet at all times. I'm telling them that I'm thinking while I'm there. I'm focusing while I'm there. I'm not just on cruise control. This is the real thing. And they know that no one else in the world can do that."

As we sit in the Lanesborough Hotel, discussing Mr Flatley's wonderfulness, his uniqueness, his focus and control, his energy and artistry, a saying from his father's native Sligo occurs to me: "If conceit was consumption, ye'd be dead long ago." He upsets lots of people. The Daily Telegraph called Lord of the Dance "a display of conceit so shameless as to be risible". Other commentators go on about the "O'Chippendales" side of his work, his "smash and grab" approach to Irish culture. They have a point. The trouble is, Flatley is unique. He has spent the bulk of his life doing something nobody else can do.

His father Michael was a building contractor who emigrated to Chicago in 1947 with his Carlow-born wife, Eilish. Michael junior was 11 when, on an Irish holiday, his mother took him to a stepdancing class back in Co Carlow. His grandmother had been Leinster dance champion; it was in the genes; it became his life. Back in Chicago, he practised. He remembers creating dance patterns in the dark: "I used to go into the rooms in the basement, turn off all the lights so my ear would be absolute, so I wouldn't be influenced by what I saw. I still do. That's where I get these rhythm patterns you won't hear anywhere else in the world." He became the first American holder of the World Irish Dancing Championships in 1975 when he was 17. It occurred to me that, among the jocks, dudes and greaseballs of the average Chicago school, a dancer with an Irish accent must have stuck out like a dolmen. "No, I fitted in with everybody. I was a dancer but I didn't go around talking about it. I was a boxer but I didn't talk about that. I played ice hockey, I played football with the lads. We did what everyone did."

Why did he take up boxing? "We lived in a rough neighbourhood. It was on the south side of the city, 79th and Ashland Avenue, the Little Flower parish" - after the Catholic icon, St Therese of Lisieux; Flatley smiles at the inaptness of the name - "and I hadda walk a mile to school. I'd cross paths with people comin' from the other side of the avenue, and I'd have fist fights nearly every day. I was a skinny little fellow. One day I came home and my father said, `That's enough bloody noses.' He took my brother and me to the gym - at the time we were probably the only white fellers there - and we learned to handle ourselves. And they started to realise they could pick on other people, but let the two Irish guys go because it's gonna be just too difficult..."

Flatley had a period of labouring jobs ("Whenever I think I'm getting big-headed, I remember where it all came from - the days when they passed me the freezing cold shovel. I get back to it all the time") before becoming a dancer full-time. Those unfamiliar with Celtic dance should know that, in its pure state, it's a formal and inexpressive business: hands straight down by the sides, head stiff, no body movements above the waist - the total effect is of someone in a strait-jacket hopping over burning coals. Then Flatley danced with The Chieftains, Paddy Moloney's purist Irish folk group, and began to change the rules. "As I did more and more venues, I started to use my arms, to use my body and be more expressive. I couldn't use my arms like a tap dancer, flappin' them around, or like a ballet dancer, that would be too soft, nor like a flamenco dancer, although what I'm doin' is closest to flamenco, because they're Celts as well. I had to find a completely new way of doin' it, less formal but strong and powerful and confident. And the farther out I went, the more the crowd came with me. The more things I put in [he snaps his fingers, like a Fifties beatnik] the more they'd be screamin' and yellin'..."

So the only professional Irish dancer in the world, the rule-breaker with the 28-taps-a-second feet, went on the road. Wasn't it, I asked, a little like speaking a language nobody else knows? Flatley mused. "I've had such a strange life. I've never had to audition for anything. People have always called me and asked me to do things. I've been everywhere, the Hollywood Bowl, the Kennedy Centre in DC, Carnegie Hall. I've danced in front of presidents, the National Endowment for the Arts" - and, modesty might forbid him adding, he was pronounced a "Living Treasure" by the National Geographic Society...

Along the way his stage presentation underwent another change. "It just happened one night, completely by coincidence. You know how it is, you're on tour, leading a bachelor existence. One night my clothes were a disaster, my shirt was wrinkled and under the bed somewhere. So I went on stage without a shirt, just a jacket. The audience went nuts. And I thought: why didn't I think of this before?"

Now he's off to wow America, from New York ("Every solo I've ever devised for myself since I was a child was built for Radio City Music Hall") to his native Chicago and the former residents of Little Flower parish. Why was he doing it? "My whole life has been to get this far and to do this. I've made enough money now, more than I can spend. What's important is that I'm putting myself into my art. People pay a lot of money to come and see me. I didn't come here to be second best".

Michael, you point out, you're pushing 39. Shouldn't you be settling into something more slow and expressive?

The Cartesian hoofer, with his violent leanings, his fondness for the dark and his casual assumption of artistic genius, regarded me steadily. "I'm not the type of performer who gets to a scale like this and then fades into the sunset. I don't think any great artist thinks, `I'll just sing at half-power tonight, nobody'll notice.' It's going to be like this and then -click! - one day it'll be over. It can't be any other way. I can't dance at 50 per cent. I have only one speed."