Just before St. Patrick's Day, Dance Lord Michael Ryan Flatley held court at the Regency Hotel with a small set of select journalists and waxed on about his career of breaking boundaries and a few bones. The boisterous 52-year-old became internationally known for creating and performing in the Irish dance-based shows Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, Feet of Flames, and Celtic Tiger.
Born on July 16th, 1958, in Chicago, this Irish-American took traditional Celtic step dancing steps beyond its traditions and established an international audience for the form. First he created a dance portion for touring with the Chieftains, the legendary Irish folk-rock group; then, as an actor, choreographer, and musician, this lord of dance extended the idea into several long-form shows that has made his one of the richest men in Ireland.
This occasional television presenter has now memorialized his current long-running show in a film, Lord of the Dance 3D; the movie theatrically debuted in New York this week for a limited run. Filmed during Flatley's return tour in the fall of 2010, it features new sets, costumes, performers, state-of-the-art lighting, pyrotechnics and projections.
MF: Good and bad -- that's the most wonderful thing in the world. Do I wish I could have done it 30 years ago? Maybe; it takes me a lot more runway to get up to speed, but I can at least get up to speed. That's an important part and I'm still proud to be able to do that.
But yeah, there's some magic we missed along the way. There's some great nights that I'll never forget that you can't go back and capture, you just can't, and there's too many name, too many to list, but that's how it is.
Our dream was to go back and film this in Dublin at the Point Theatre. That's where I created Riverdance. Going back there all these years later meant something. I didn't have to get the dancers fire up, they were fired up. They knew the history. They grew up with that history.
That, in itself, [offered] a special magic that needed to be captured. Did things go wrong? We did a fantastic tour, all excited about the opening night in Dublin and my leading lady went down, yeah Bernadette Flynn -- greatest dancer in the world -- went down. It broke my heart, just broke my heart.
You know, I can't do this movie without her. There was no way I was going to put this movie out without Bernadette and on top of that I had a ruptured left Achilles tendon, an aggravated calf tear from 1996 when I had ripped it before. I had a bad problem here in my neck, my T3 had to be adjusted, and fractured ribs that had to be done and a large toe joint that for some reason I was having trouble moving. But I can promise you one thing nothing of that was in my mind when I flew across that stage. I felt like a loaded gun out there, I couldn't wait to go.
What we didn't get with Bernadette on those three nights, we got her in London and Berlin so this movie went out with the right person by my side. She's been with me from the beginning and she deserved that respect.
Q: Were there any changes or considerations you made in putting the show on film?
MF: For years people have approached me about doing film work and I've always been apprehensive because mainly I just didn't think it would transfer. The show live is so powerful and so filled with energy that you can't explain that energy to people unless you're in the room.
You were saying before about anticipation, especially for people that have seen it before, there's an energy. When the lights go down and the score starts, it gets you fired up. I was just afraid that wouldn't translate. I think 3-D helped to convince me, the great advances in 3-D technology which I'm sure the director would have already addressed.
The first thing we did is bringing in the light and stage guys we brought in seven different screens and graduated so there was more depth of field for the cameras, and the beautiful steps in the middle of the stage so that at sometimes we had almost a wall of dancers, which is sensational. You have to remember I tour with this and we take this on the road, so I'm limited by that, by the number of trucks. It's not like we did this on a sound stage where I can say, "Let's bring in the dancing girls."
So what we did here is what we do every night. And another I'd like to mention is that I insisted the show be done live, in front of a live audience, because in the beginning every one thought we should do it on a sound stage where we could do multiple takes, each part right, if you miss a step don't worry we'll do it again. Nonsense, who wants to see a show like that.
I want to see the truth, whatever the truth is.
Are there mistakes in this movie? Hell yes, there's a lot of mistakes, but I'm proud of that. Whatever it is it's live and we run a 100 miles an hour. For better or worse when those dancers are smiling, it's honest. The audience is reacting, it's honest.
It's the truth, it's what we get every night. We're not going to be everybody's cup of tea. There's probably going to be people and reviewers that won't like it and that's okay. I don't mind about that. The general public loves it.
We've sold out arenas from Mexico to Moscow, from Texas to Tokyo and we're still pumping 15 years later. We've somehow managed to stay relevant and profitable, and that's an element you can't overlook. So doing it live, if we would have changed it and done it on a sound stage that wouldn't have been truthful. I wanted people to get whatever that truth is.
Q: Aside from the concerts for this movie, what particular concerts have affected you through the years?
MF: If I singled out any performances I might be leaving out ones that were just as important at the moment, but who could forget the performances at the Oscars in '97. We were sandwiched between Madonna and Celine Dion. I think Dion is the greatest singer of all time. The dancers had grown up looking at all these stars on the big film.
When we went back stage we were so focused on representing our country and to put out a great performance and all the people back stage were looking at my dancers and I stood back watching this. What a moment, for me to see all these big names looking at these kids. It was such a rush running across that stage.
Opening night in Dublin, Lord of the Dance, no one gave me any chance. I had just left Riverdance and had to beg, borrow and steal, I was leveraged up to my eyeballs. It was tough. We hadn't sold a bunch of tickets going into it and the press wasn't the nicest because I was an American over there in Ireland, I think.
The first show went out and it was 'papered' we brought people in to fill up the seats. Word of mouth went out and without 24 hours, bang (he snapped his fingers) four weeks were sold out. That was a night worth remembering.
The first time we did Madison Square Garden. Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano, what a place and Radio City Music Hall, you could land a plane on that stage. All those years of digging ditches, that's what I focused on. That Stage and we got there. This could go on for all time.
Q: What about the places you'd like to play -- is there anywhere that you haven't performed yet that you'd love to perform in?
MF: I'd like to do more of China and I haven't performed in India, some place in South America I'd like to try. My troupes have been there. I got three groups that tour all year round, so they get to go sometimes places I haven't been quite yet.
You know I love to try everything. Literally I've danced on the Great Wall of China, and we performed at the Kremlin Palace and coming home late at night I flew off my coat and flew around Red Square. It doesn't get any better. Nobody was watching but a few people.
Q: What was your greatest moment of trepidation?
MF: I think again almost too many to list. Maybe early on when I had created Lord of the Dance and it was an immediate success and people loved it. When we went to the London Coliseum they told me if we did two or three nights it would be a big plus. We did four weeks, but getting there we had to reach our financial goals just to keep it going.
I had to dance in Liverpool a little tiny theater called the Empire and for some reason we got caught in traffic and got to the theater really late and at the Empire the dressing rooms were really low. They had already opened the doors for the crowds, so I had no place to run and get up to speed backstage and break a sweat. There was just no place to do that.
So I got dressed, put on my war paint and before I knew it the music started, the guy never took the cue. Seven seconds in, I ripped my right calf muscle. It was like being shot by a gun. I'll never forget the pain. I hobbled through the performance and came off the stage and had two double Jamesons while I was waiting for the doctors to get there.
I really, really believe that nothing is impossible. Two guys came that day. The first said, "You'll probably walk in a year, but dancing is out." The second said, "No, I think you can dance but it's going to take probably 10 months to get your way back into it."
A third guy came in and said, "Why don't we just see how it goes." I said, "Yeah that sounds like the right guy to me."
This is well documented, I went into my hotel room, closed the drapes, and sat in the dark visualizing light going into that muscle. I couldn't even touch it to a pillow or put it down. I dance four nights later at the Coliseum. Never missed a performance after that. Nothing is impossible. Any fool who tells you the opposite is just wrong.
Q: Were you always like this, having that positiveness when you were eight, 10, or 15 years old?
MF: I can't remember back then, but I was always a dreamer and used to get into trouble for staring out the window. The teacher would scold me, "Flatley, would you stop staring out that window and dreaming."
I always played ice hockey and never believed someone could beat me at the breakaway, even though they often did. Even trying boxing, it was a new experience. I was a little nervous, because we're in the pain business, but I always believed I was going to win. I'd truly psych myself into a position where I was confident I couldn't be defeated.
So to answer that question, I must have had that. My parents were old country Irish people and came to this country in 1957 with nothing and really built their dream here.
My brother and I dug ditches with my father growing up. It was the greatest education I ever got and I'm proud to say that. Any man, who works for a living, regardless of what he does has my respect.
Q: How many years have you been touring now?
MF: I'm 52 and I've earned all these wrinkles, every one of them.
Q: When did you first start touring?
MF: In the early '80s with the Chieftains. I toured for nearly 10 years with those guys. What a fantastic experience that was, all over the world and having fun every night. They are the greatest band in the world, I think that have something like 40 Grammys now. Remarkable. The fireplace is full.
Q: Who was an inspiration to you when you started dancing in the '80s?
MF; I suppose the answer is no one, because no one had ever done what I was doing before. I couldn't get hired as a professional Irish dancer because there was no market for me. So I had to build my own path.
I was very lucky to get a job with the Chieftains so I could test my performances before audiences around the world. I came flying out as a soloist, trying new things and watching the audience's reaction. And it could only be more profound if I had a great team of dancers behind me.
I mean, who wouldn't admire Fred Astaire, Gregory Hines, James Cagney, Gene Kelly, they were sensational dancers so I do admire that. For all my inspiration, however, you have to go inside to create those ideas. There's no other way if you want to be fresh and clean.
Irish dance, the new form we created, is now global, renewed and very different from what is out there. Even the movie we have out, some of the dancers are Polish, Hungarian, New Zealand, Canada, we have a waiting list. It's nice to think I've been instrumental. For example, the Polish lad learned off my DVD. And I have two beautiful Italian fiddlers, they could hardly speak English and they learned off my videotape. It was their dream as little girls to be part of my show, that's one of the most rewarding things.
I don't care what happens with this movie -- live or die, sink or swim, every second after tonight is a bonus. They will be seen. I'm so proud to get them this far.
Q: As an American did you get initial resistance from the Irish?
MF: Yes, maybe I had just a little bit too much Broadway in my veins for the purists over there, but I'm proud of it. Over here if a guy scores a knockout or gets a goal it's okay to jump up and down and be happy. If you do it over there, they give you a hard time. They are basically reserved and think, "Who do you think you are?"
This idea of dance was never the pure form. I wanted to move my arms and express myself, use my body. If you go into any Irish pub people are laughing and telling joke and stories, bullshitting, excuse me, drinking and telling lies. They are passionate.
The second I won the world title I changed everything. I like to think of it as a "freedom" dance, that's a good name for it. That's what it was, it was set free. I got a trouble hard time as basically the act that flew in and ruin everything.
They weren't too receptive, but I was a hired gun and created that little number -- Riverdance and the next morning we were in the headlines all over Europe and they didn't call me those names anymore. So I guess being American isn't too bad.
Q: When did you decide to expand the musical repertoire beyond traditional Irish music like it was done with Riverdance?
MF: It's going to break your heart but I'm not legally allowed to talk about Riverdance.
But, for me I just love the sharing of cultures. Dance is universal, I don't care how you look at it from ages 5-95, all ethnic cultures. There are no barriers and I think that is proven.
For me there's an appetite and after all this is over I want to launch an international global dance channel. I want to bring everybody under one umbrella and let them see every culture from around the world. There are so many dance forms we haven't even experienced yet. It might be something that's the hottest, coolest thing that we haven't even seen yet and let's see it. That's the way to go.
For an extended version of this interview or other stories by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com