Irish America Hall of Fame
By Debbie McGoldrick, Contributor
April / May 2011
The man who brought Irish dance to the global stage.
He’s been the world’s most famous lord for the past 15 years. Now Michael Flatley is poised to become a movie star . . . and a 3D one at that.
The Chicago native always had it in the back of his head that his wildly successful stage show, Lord of the Dance, would translate well to film, given the right circumstances. But re-creating the raw energy and electricity of a live performance proved elusive until the widespread popularization of 3D movies these past couple of years.
Finally, Flatley was ready to make his move, and he did so in more ways than one. Not only did he film Lord for a big screen 3D experience, but he also took himself out of retirement to reclaim his starring role in the show. The decision required months of getting his body back into fighting shape for a sold-out European tour in the autumn/winter of last year, which showed once again why Flatley is one of the world’s most captivating performers.
When Flatley sets his mind towards a goal, it’s an excellent bet that he’ll thrive in spectacular fashion given his track record at the helm of the planet’s two most successful Irish dance shows ever, Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. Lord of the Dance 3D, opening nationwide on St. Patrick’s Day, seems tailor made for a three-dimensional experience, with its breakneck Irish jigging, dazzling stage design and overall non-stop action.
Flatley has legions of fans who will undoubtedly savor the chance to go to their local theater, don a pair of large glasses and feel like they’re right on the cusp of the stage.
Lord of the Dance, since its Dublin debut in 1996 – about 18 months after Flatley and Riverdance parted company – has played to more than 60 million fans in 60 countries . . . grossing more than $1 billion in the process. That’s not to mention sales from DVDs, CDs and other merchandise. Flatley’s vision about how Irish dance could be freshened up and showcased to a global audience in a bold and exciting way has brought him fame and fortune beyond his wildest dreams, and though he likes to think big – really, really big – he’s never, ever forgotten how the seeds of his success were planted.
His parents, Michael Senior (a native of Co. Sligo) and Eilish (from Co. Carlow), made the difficult but necessary move across the Atlantic to the shores of America back in 1940s, and in typical immigrant fashion, Michael and Eilish worked hard to create a prosperous life for their five children. Digging ditches, working construction sites, doing whatever needed to be done . . . all those life lessons clearly rubbed off on their second eldest, Michael Junior, who didn’t start formal Irish dance lessons until he was the ripe old age of 11. Michael was a quick learner, though, and for good measure he also mastered the flute and even became a top-flight amateur boxer. Put it all together and you get someone who was hyper-determined to make his mark on the world, and that’s exactly what this multi-talented entrepreneur has done with his Lord of the Dance franchise.
Though performing has always been such a vital part of his life, it’s certainly not all work and play for Flatley. In 2007 he married his long-time dance partner, Irish native Niamh O’Brien, in a lavish ceremony at his Co. Cork mansion, Castlehyde. Flatley bought the historic property back in the 1990s and spent millions restoring it to its former grandeur. The following year the couple welcomed their son, Michael St. James Flatley.
Michael Junior is the light of his father’s life, it’s safe to say. The world used to center around performing and jetting here and there for business, and many other bachelor pursuits as Flatley himself freely admits, but these days it’s all about Michael Junior and Niamh, who have without a doubt made Flatley’s world truly complete.
Flatley recently spoke with Irish America about his new film, his career triumphs, and his plans for the future, which include induction into the magazine’s Hall of Fame this month.
“Oh, it’s such an honor for me to be recognized,” he said. “My parents are going to be so proud!” Spoken like a son who has always stayed true to what really matters.
Seeing Lord of the Dance live is amazing enough. But seeing it in 3D has to be even more spectacular. Was doing a feature film of the show always in the back of your mind?
I had been approached a few times to put the show on film, but I was never really tempted because you can’t get the energy that you get in the live show, and I didn’t want to dissipate the energy, you know, or the brand in any way. I didn’t want it to look less than. But now with these new achievements in 3D, to me it was a remarkable opportunity to do something great.
I went and took a look at the process and really liked what I saw. So I imagined my show and I decided that I was going to film it. There’s a really great punch off of it. You can feel the energy. To me, I think it’s very special. I saw it for the first time finished in a big theater in London two days ago and I came out of there buzzing. As you know I’m my own worst critic. But I think it’s terrific. The dancers look sensational and the whole show has a great feel.
Do you think the film is almost like being at a live show?
Yes it is. You can feel the energy of the audience. We filmed in London, Dublin and Berlin. It’s a seamless transaction. I’m thrilled with it. I hope it will give a big shot in the arm to all of us Irish. How involved were you in the filmmaking? Film is a new experience for you. That’s true, but you know me – I was telling them where to put the cameras, where to shoot the shots. I’m terrible like that! But I have to be. It’s my little baby and it’s what I worked all my life for. So I know how it should look. I know how to edit it and I know how to shoot it.
You started dancing again last year after a lengthy retirement from the stage so you could star in the movie.I can see you dancing until you’re 80!
(Laughs) Oh, you know, probably! I’ll look like an old guy, but I’ll still do it! I really enjoyed coming back. I had a great time. I really wanted to do something in 3D, and I trained eight months for this. It’s got to be hard to keep yourself at such a peak physical level when you’re performing. Well, you can’t do it forever. I’m just blessed to be able to still do it. Can I jump as high as I used to? I doubt it. Can I tap as fast? You know, that’s probably debatable. But my heart doesn’t get any smaller.
Michael Junior must have seen your live shows and loved them!
Yes, he comes running up to me at halftime and says, “Daddy, go off and beat up the bad guy!”
Lord of the Dance has been so phenomenally successful for you.
It is. We are so lucky, less than 20 percent of our audience has any Irish connection now. But our demo is age 5 to 95. It’s all over the place.
What is it about Lord of the Dance and Riverdance that has made them such cultural touchstones?
We are so blessed. I just think the gods were favoring me somehow. The harder we worked for it, the more luck we got. You know yourself, some of our dance numbers, they’re 30 seconds long, but you work on them for hours. It’s not easy, but if you do it right and build it to last then it will last. I think that both of those shows are built to last.
Where are you living these days? I’ve read that you are based in Beverly Hills.
We were in Beverly Hills for a couple years, but we really didn’t like it. I’m more of a New York guy than an LA guy. Right now we’re living in London – actually we’re splitting our time between London and Castlehyde, a place which is heaven on earth. Little Michael rides his little red tricycle up and down those hallways. He has more energy than me!
Is Michael Junior showing any inclination to dance given those amazing genes he has?
Yeah, he definitely has movement there. He’s spinning around the house all the time. Any time any kind of music comes on he’s up on the floor shaking it. I told him, take up something safer like cage fighting!
Where will he go to school?
It’s hard to say right now. The big problem is that I just cannot be away from him. I have to be close to him all the time and all my offices and businesses are based in London, so he might have to go to school in London, at least for the first two years. We just don’t know.
What do you make of the death of the Celtic Tiger Irish economy?
Well, it’s been heartbreaking. But money has never been the god of the Irish race. I don’t think a few rotten bankers are going to keep us down. It’s looking tough now, but we’ve gotten up from the canvas many times before.
What is next on your agenda? Your wheels are always turning.
That’s true. A new flute CD should be out by St. Patrick’s Day on iTunes called On a Different Note, and that’s kind of nice. And we’ll be doing lots of promotion for the film. I’m counting on all of the Irish to come and see it. They won’t be disappointed!