Somewhere between Liberace and James Brown, there exists an entity otherwise known as Michael Flatley. His flamboyance – the blousy, satin shirts, the glittering jackets – knows no bounds, nor does his insistent, swaggering virility. But the 57-year-old champion Irish dancer and impresario is finally hanging up his clogs this year, after taking his latest production, Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games to Broadway.
There are 30 scenes in Dangerous Games, including numbers titled “Morrighan the Seductress,” “Cry of the Celts,” “Strings of Fire,’ and “Robojig.” The latter features cyborg robots with fluorescent green lights and glowing red eyes, step dancing. Yes, robo-Irish dancers. There are Star Wars-like baddies with Darth Vader/Skeletor masks, and a Dark Lord who dons a Terminator-meets-Gwar getup. Both male and female dancers strip off clothes, several times. The backdrop is populated throughout with CGI animation, including unicorns, rainbows, butterflies, stags, waterfalls, gothic ruins and the Cliffs of Mohr when the good guys are onstage, and dark, sinister caves and ice when the bad guys are onstage. Dangerous Games’ cheese factor is more pungent than at a 1970s fondue party.
A wee sprite, known as the Little Spirit and played by Jess Judge, wears a rainbow sparkle unitard, performs acrobatics throughout and plays a glittery flute. Her tune is the primary musical theme for the show – the old Shaker tune “Simple Gifts” – famously appropriated by Aaron Copeland for “Appalachian Spring,” but, more relevant to this, also used by songwriter Sydney Carter for the song “Lord of the Dance” (get it) back in the late 60s.
Judge sets the stage for one of the early numbers, introducing a parade of women in high cut white lace unitards (so top of the hip bone exposed) and white harem pants with the legs slit open. Mustangs charge through a forest on the CGI background, and the blousy lyrical dancers twirl lightly around before James Keegan, the current Lord of the Dance, makes his entrance.
Keegan – a dashingly handsome blonde with chiseled cheekbones – has, among many other awards, claimed two world titles in Irish dance. Although he has toured with “Lord” for a decade, he appears endearingly nervous at his first entrance, but his tapping toes warm quickly. The star female dancer, or Saoirse, performed by Erin Kate Mcilravey, is forced to wear an unfortunate, and very wide, blonde wig, topped with a tiara. The female styling for the production generally reflects that of a 1980s prom queen. Sadly Mcilravey and her female brethren tend to get pitifully light choreography, more sashay steps, hip sways and twirls than jumps, which seems a shame given that many of the female soloists are champion dancers, and capable of more.
Morrighan, the baddie female, is performed by Andrea Kren, whose crisp movements are few and far between in her choreography, which mostly features her, in a scarlet red unitard, crawling on the floor and flicking her hair. Flatley’s female choreography can be quite the afterthought.
If you care to follow it, there is a plot, and lots of filler sequences (including numbers by two fiddlers, Giada Costenaro Cunningham and Valerie Gleeson, and singer Sophie Evans). The Lord of the Dance’s enemy, the Dark Lord, announces his desire to divide and conquer, and temporarily reigns after stealing Keegan’s “Lord of the Dance” wrestling belt. Played by Tom Cunningham, the Dark Lord gets decent choreography, and so do his minions, who perform several metal-infused Celtic stomp-a-thons in their Darth Vader masks. The Dark Lord and his minions break the Little Spirit’s magic flute, but our man Keegan puts it back together like Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker.
The ultimate showdown between the two Lords happens in the Dark Lord’s cave, where Keegan is held captive, and flames burst forth at the Dark Lord’s command. Molten lava bubbles up in the background as our Lord of the Dance is marched up the scaffold before breaking free. Keegan and Cunningham click up a frenzy, both of them able to kick their knee up to their nose. Or course the good guy wins, and the Dark Lord expires with a loud pop and puff of smoke.
Flatley graces the audience with his presence at the end, entering on an upstage platform in a glittering Liberace jacket. There is a brief break, wherein a tripartite Flatley dances with his three selves on screen to non-Irish rhythms. He returns to the stage in white tails with gold glitter, directing the dancers in a string of roll-offs and sauntering across the stage, hugging and kissing the female dancers.
If you look closely, you’ll see Flatley’s two-inch heels are solid chunks of metal. Riverdance debuted with metal taps, and Lord also uses metal taps for the clog dancing, unlike standardized Irish dance shoes which have fiberglass tips and heels. Fiberglass heel clicks are harder to achieve, but also less metallic – the sound doesn’t carry as far. Many rhythms that permeate Dangerous Games (and in Flatley’s video solo) could have come from Savion Glover and the realm of tap dancing. Heels are weighted heavily to create many of the rhythms, using the feet as percussive instruments, which is not as characteristic of traditional Irish dance – which is highly rhythmic, but in a less drill-like fashion. But people don’t come to Lord for regulation Irish dance, they come for showtime.
Flatley was never subtle. Even in the debut of Riverdance – an interval entertainment during Dublin’s hosting of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest – after Jean Butler performed a tasteful if slightly slinky soft shoe solo, Flatley bounds out like Baryshnikov, veritably eating up the stage. Riverdance astonished the millions who watched that night, and grew into a full blown enterprise which toured the globe for years with multiple casts. Flatley split from the venture early and began producing his own shows – Celtic Tiger, Feet of Flames, Lord of the Dance and Warlords – becoming a multimillionaire in the process. All have essentially been Vegas variations on the theme that began with Riverdance. Flatley’s own shows have never been nearly as tasteful as Riverdance – which attempted a balance between global scope (it had flamenco dancing) while emanating Celtic pride. Contrarily, these days Lord of the Dance is two steps short of being an expensive strip show with fancy footwork.
Nevertheless, if anything Flatley and the Riverdance phenomenon proved to the world that Irish dance need not exist in a vacuum. Flatley’s choreography shows inflections from American tap dance (which some scholars believe was influenced by Irish dance), flamenco and elsewhere. Post-Riverdance, there has been an increase in participants in Irish dance, and there are more Irish dance competitors at the top levels from outside Ireland than than ever before. Where Flatley fails is in his arduous desire to entertain: Irish dance is intrinsically graceful and hypnotic. The multiplication of dancers in the large productions is a powerful and effective way to communicate this, but the outrageous plotlines and tacky costumes are superfluous, not to say laughable. Aside from Trinity Dance in Chicago, which predates Riverdance and combines reverence for traditionalism with contemporaneity, there remain few professional (i.e. paid) performance outlets for accomplished Irish dancers, and with standing ovations still coming 20 years on, Lord and its various incarnations may not be done just yet.