Q&A: Michael Flatley
Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen caught up with Michael Flatley on tour after triumphant runs of the latest version of his latest Irish step dance extravaganza, Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games, in London and on Broadway. Flatley is making his final tour as a performer, taking his last steps onstage March 17 at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace. It’s been two decades since he split from Riverdance to chart his own course, but while Flatley’s legs will get a long overdue rest, he intends for his lords to continue dancing for years to come.
When and why did you decide to make Las Vegas the location of your final public onstage appearance as a performer?
I’ve always loved Las Vegas. I had originally planned to finish on Broadway, and the promoters came to me and said there were people who couldn’t make it to New York to see the last show. Would I consider doing 10 or 15 shows and take the show to America? Then I said I would, and they gave me a couple of options, a few options where I’d like to have the last night, and when they offered Vegas I said, “That’s the right one. Pick that one.” It’s perfect because we had a residency in Vegas for five years. We always loved it there. We always have a great time.
You had productions here through 2003 so it wasn’t really surprising that you chose it for your final performance, but I was wondering if you had a vision of yourself taking your final steps here or it was the best thing to do in consideration of the tour.
Well, no. It’s where I’m finishing. I could have finished in Chicago, where I’m from. There were many different options, but like I said, I love Las Vegas. My wife loves Vegas. We have many, many dear friends in Vegas. I go to the fights all the time there, probably the best restaurants in the world are in Las Vegas. If you can’t have fun in Vegas, you can’t have fun.
Are the shoes you will wear that night of special significance?
They are, but that’s the case with many of the performances I do. I have the opening night pair from Broadway, signed. I have the ones from Wembley Arena. Recently, we finished the London Palladium, I have those ones as well. There are many that were worn on very special occasions. Then I have a brand new pair in a box marked for Caesars Palace. That’s be the last dance I ever do.
Every time I see a television personality hold your shoes they remark how heavy they are. How much do they weigh?
You know I’m not sure, but my training shoes are exceptionally heavy. Also my coats are exceptionally heavy. The sparkling coats I’m wearing, they’re all handmade. They weigh, I don’t know, maybe 15, 20 pounds. The shoes are very heavy as well. I don’t know, I’ve never had them weighed. They’re very heavy, but I’ve always danced in heavy shoes. For 20 years I’ve been doing it. It just builds the muscle.
Yeah, I read that while you’re ready to retire you’ve built your legs into what I think you described as rubber bands that can do anything.
That’s very true. In fact, I dance the last two numbers in the show, but for those two numbers I’m dancing as well as I’ve ever danced. I feel great. That’s why it’s a perfect time for me to go out on top. I feel terrific, and it doesn’t get much better than Caesars Palace. It’s a perfect way to finish out my career.
Your list of injuries has been reported on, but how much pain do they cause you on a daily basis, and while you are dancing?
I’ve danced in pain for 20 years. It’s not severe; people shouldn’t be worrying about me. I’m sure some of the damage is irreparable at this point, but I love what I do. It’s sort of like a boxer getting in the ring—this is the business I chose, and it’s what I love. It doesn’t hinder my performance. I feel fabulous, and I’ve got brilliant new talent coming up. This is by far and away the best show we’ve even done. The injuries are something you become used to over the years. If you stop because you have a little pain you’ll never get anywhere.
Fred Astaire kept doing specials as he got older, but he continued to make it all look effortless. It hit me while I was watching archived video of you that you’re probably this era’s Fred Astaire to the general public.
Thank you for saying that.
Is the sound of the dancing purely acoustic or is amplification necessary for larger venues?
Yes, we need amplification. There’s microphones under the stage, particularly with big arenas we do. … For instance, we just finished an arena tour of Germany, and some of those venues hold 18,000 people, way in the back. If we didn’t amplify, you wouldn’t hear it past the 10th row. It’s better for the people paying the money in the back to hear what’s going on. Incidentally, the promoters just sent me a wonderful gift because we just did our 1,000th sell-out show in Germany. … I’m not sure there’s any band in the world that can say they did that.
Can you talk a little about the lead dancers that are to appear in Vegas? Are they the same people who appeared in London and on Broadway?
We have the greatest dancers, in my opinion, in the world. The guys that are taking over the Lord of the Dance role, they share it. James Keegan is a sensational young dancer. Could have been a professional soccer player, but he chose to follow the dance road. Then, on top of him, we’ve got Matthew Smith, Morgan Comer, Fergal Keaney, Cathal Keaney. They’re nine-time world champions. These guys are fantastic. Last night, we were in Boston; they got a standing ovation after the first half. They’re really incredibly talented, and they’re cut out of stone. They’re really good-looking kids and everybody loves them.
Your audiences get very enthusiastic. They’re getting harder to please nowadays, but the excitement level at Lord of the Dance is about as high as it gets for live productions.
People appreciate to see things live. I think that’s what it is. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen your favorite band on TV or whatever it is, nothing can ever compete with the feeling of seeing them live.
Something I realized while watching you dance is that contemporary audiences seem to get more excited and involved with a stage show if they can connect with one person. You’ve taken criticism for making yourself the focus, but I think your enthusiasm is in part what generates a lot of that excitement. That’s what you need to have in your lead dancers that are doing the show now, correct?
That’s so true, and we’ve got it in spades. There’s a number in the middle of the first half, a Chieftains’ number, and it’s out of this world. I’d like to say one of them is better than the other but all the women have their favorites, and the guys take their tops off at the end of it. They’ve been sweating profusely because they’ve been dancing as fast as they can. You could not believe a reaction like this. Well, you’ll see when we hit Vegas. They’re remarkable. They’re very charismatic. I’m sure the audiences will love these guys.
You went from London to Broadway, and that run was extended for several weeks, so I imagine it was successful.
Yes, we had a great run on Broadway, but our promoters thought we should take it on the road. We had an awful lot of people who had written in who wouldn’t make it as far as New York. I’ll be retiring on the 17th, but the show will go on as it has done for the last 20 years. We’ve got three companies.
I think the latest dates I saw went well through 2017, with the last shows scheduled at Bristol.
We have a lot more to add to that. It gets updated all the time.
What’s the narrative arc of Dangerous Games? How does it relate to or contrast from previous efforts?
Dangerous Games is the latest iteration of the Lord of the Dance franchise, and it’s a turbo-charged version of the show. It still has a good vs. evil storyline, it’s just much more amplified because of all the new technology we have now and all the different effects we’re able to incorporate into the show. Dangerous Games has a huge 3-D screen going across the whole back of the set. It has everything from pyrotechnics to dancing robots to holograms—basically all the things at our disposal in creating a modern show these days. But I’ve kept them to a minimum. There’s a fine line. It adds to the story without taking away from the storyline. It adds to the effect without taking away, not to go over the top just because we can. I try to keep a certain balance on it, and I think we’ve achieved that.
How did the hologram effect come about?
Like it? Yeah, it’s cool. It was really hard to film that. I had to dream up the steps in my head and then dance them one at a time pretending that the other person is there in my own head, without music but the same rhythm as myself. Very difficult, but it was a really fun thing to do. That may have been the hardest day’s work I’ve done in a long time. We were there for 12 hours doing it again and again and again and again, but it came out really well in the end.
What has Lord of the Dance’s legacy been on Irish step dancing?
It’s hard to say. I would say we’ve taken it to the world stage. We’ve taken this form of dance to the world stage. Over the years, I’ve changed the form of Irish dance by using the upper body, using the arms, facial expressions. I’ve accelerated the footwork, I’ve syncopated all the rhythm patterns, and we began to tell stories. We’ve sold out every big arena in every major city in every country in the world, and that’s a lot to be proud of. My personal point of view is my success has been in the fact that I’ve been able to bring so many young stars into the spotlight. For 20 years, I’ve kept thousands of young dancers working and traveling the world doing what they’ve done. That’s a dream come true for me, giving these young people a chance to earn money doing what they dream of. And I can tell you one thing—they are buzzing to dance in that show in Vegas. Every one of them, no matter where they came from, in England or Ireland, they all know Las Vegas and they’ve all heard of Caesars Palace, and they’re all excited to get there. We can’t wait.
Will we see your son Michael St. James Flatley as Lord of the Dance one day?
(laughs) Hey, you just might, man. I don’t know, we’ll see now. He’s starting to enjoy it more and more, but we’ll see. He likes music, he likes acting, he likes dancing, and only God will tell.