It used to be that the widely held American conception of Irish culture culminated in leprechauns, green beer and a penchant for belting out choruses of “Danny Boy.”
Along came Michael Flatley, and all that changed.
Well, not exactly, but it is true that despite the fact that the number of New York City residents claiming Irish heritage outnumbers the entire population of the Emerald Isle’s largest city, Dublin, few Americans were familiar with Irish history beyond the Blarney Stone, music beyond “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” and culture beyond St. Patrick (who seemingly invented parades and “Kiss me, I’m Irish” T-shirts).
And then, in 1994, the musical production Riverdance burst on the scene with its black-clad battalion of dancers, legs pumping in rhythmic fervor, arms military-straight while music simultaneously ancient and thrillingly modern swelled to a crescendo. At the heart of it all, of course, was Flatley.
The fleet-footed American (that’s right, Flatley isn’t even from that side of the pond) with a Celtic knot body-painted on his bare chest had dance prowess to burn and an ego to match. But, love him or hate him, few could ignore the athletic step dancer’s hold on the American psyche.
“Michael Flatley brought Irish dance and culture to the world stage,” insists Lord of the Dance performer Jason Gorman (who holds the role of the Lord, the same role brought to fame by the production’s creator, Flatley). “Most people were unaware of the untapped treasure of artists Ireland had to offer before it was launched into the spotlight in the late ‘90s.”
Flatley’s stint with Riverdance was relatively short-lived. Parting over “creative differences,” he went on to create his own touring theatrical productions, Lord of the Dance, Feet of Flames and, most recently, Celtic Tiger. Even without Flatley as the star, LOTD seems to be doing well. Stats for the globally touring show boast that the production has been watched by 100 million people worldwide.
These productions aren’t the business-savvy dancer’s only claim to fame: Flatley broke his own Guinness Book record in 1998 by executing 35 foot taps per second; the Sorbonne honored him with the Coq Flambee award in 2000; and the National Geographic Society went so far as to name him a “Living Treasure.”
Now 12 years since its conception, LOTD comes to Asheville next week. And, though Flatley isn’t part of the cast, Gorman tells Xpress that the iconic dancer “remains a constant force in the process of the show. Even though he isn’t dancing, he keeps an ever-watchful eye on the casts and crew to make sure everything is running as smoothly as possible.”
Beyond Flatley’s influence, what is it that keeps LOTD inspiring Celtic-culture fanatics? Gorman explains that the show “has taken traditional Irish step dancing and fused it with a contemporary flair for the big stage.”
Similarly, in the wake of Riverdance ardor, Celt-rock bands found favor with listeners craving the energy of traditional Irish jigs and reels melded with the swagger of electric guitars and drum kits. Meanwhile, sleek television specials like Celtic Woman (a musical ensemble of six Irish women vocalists) drew in easy-listening and New Age music aficionados.
“Choreographers Marie Duffy Messenger [and Flatley] borrowed from multiple forms of dance, including ballet and flamenco, to create more aesthetically pleasing upper-body lines,” says Gorman, whose own background includes jazz, modern and hip-hop experience, along with step-dance training since age 11.
But star power aside, what fuels LOTD is every bit as much ancient mythology as pop-culture savvy. “The basic theme is good versus evil, light and darkness, right and wrong,” offers Gorman. “All things that were prevalent in history as well as today.” Acts bear epically resonant titles such as “Cry of the Celts,” “Erin the Goddess” and “Fiery Nights.”
Fans of Dancing with the Stars may have caught Flatley’s Nov. 20 performance on that show, where he impressed with a taut, military-themed routine. Still lithe despite pushing 50, the renowned dancer proved he has a few more tricks up his sleeve when it comes to continually reinventing traditional Irish dancing.
However, for viewers who can’t get enough of the original Irish-American repertoire, LOTD is still tapping out those exhilarating moves.
who: Lord of the Dance
what: A contemporary take on traditional Irish step dance
where: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium
when: Tuesday, Feb. 19. 7:30 p.m. ($27.50, $37.50 and $42.50. 251-5505)