In dance, we marvel at technique and gracefulness and admire choreographic style.
The greatest balletic stars, Isadora Duncan, Nijinsky, Martha Graham, Rudolph Nureyev, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Mikhail Barshnikoff, Maya Plisetskaya, Erik Bruhn, Jacques D'Amboise, Edward Vilella, Moira Shearer and Peter Martins, to name a few, also have a charisma that is riveting and memorable, an authoritative pose of immense power, energy and drive, a grand geste if not jeté.
Sometimes a great choreographer such as Georges Balanchine, or Jerome Robbins, or Elliot Feld, or Alwin Nikolais, or Merce Cunningham, or Paul Taylor, or Pilobus can make magical, moving compositions or with their mannerisms evoke new means of expression.
The repertoire demands much as veteran balletomanes will be thrilled if a performance provides even only a few different twists and turns or attitudes.
At this late stage in the evolution of the dance, the vocabulary of the ballet is rich and dense and innovations are rather small and rare.
John Curry's ice ballets vastly enhanced the aura of dance by extending the line and the athletic awesomeness of ballet through the magic of skating, yet his influence has been somewhat limited and special.
Michael Flatley is the newest sensation.
The flamboyant star of the immensely popular "Riverdance" that last year reintroduced the world to Irish step-dancing has a new production, "Lord of the Dance," that is now on national tour and was shown on PBS in early March, 1997.
His latest production greatly extends the liberties he took with traditional Irish step-dancing in "Riverdance," where his Rockette-type corps de ballet thunderously pummeled the stage with their arms kept rigidly, most of the time, at their sides. Now, he and his dancers freely employ all their body parts in a bouncy, sexy and explosive choreography that almost owes more to flamenco than step-dancing.
The precision of his dancers is amazing and so is Flatley's and his choreography, which boldly and effectively ventures into many moods from romantic to martial. The production is marred only by its overproduction: there are enough swirling lights and smoke to embarrass the biggest rock stars. And that's the rub, for Flatley is clearly bigger than mere rock stars: he is dashing, stunning and heroic and when he exuberantly yells "Yes!" to the standing audience at the finale, there is no question he has conquered.
A Chicagoan who did not take up the dance until he was 11, Flatley is a dazzling dancer who puts Michael Jackson to shame as well as José Greco, Antonio Gades, Gregory Hines and Hammer.
The slickness of the new production almost obscures the artistry and the filmed performance shown of Channel 13 is particularly irritating as it constantly changes and cuts away, delighting perhaps film editors and art directors, but infuriating some viewers who wanted to see some of the footwork. Indeed, the film's cutting seemed to be directed by some MTV-crazed mosquito who in fits of frenzy would switch to SloMo to highlight a particularly spectacular flash of calf.
This Celtic craze, nonetheless, is likely to have a lasting impact. Its excitement, its drama, its enervation and its power cannot be forgotten. As both productions have demonstrated, Flatley, while supreme, is not the only star. Jean Butler, the ravishingly and wonderful female lead of "Riverdance" remained a bit longer with that production, which is also touring and will return to New York in the fall. According to Valerie Gladstone's report in The New York Times, March 2, 1997, Flatley left "Riverdance" in a disagreement over how much he was worth.
The new production makes clear that there is much talent out there. Butler may be gone but two new women are spectacular, though not as ravishing, but Flatley has also assembled another large and very talented corps. The Times article notes, correctly, that many hands besides Flatley's are involved in the new production such as choreographer Marie Duffy.
Flatley apparently has quite an ego.
So what? His performances in these two productions are thrilling, although his appearance along with some members of his troupe during the Film Editing Awards at the Oscars in 1997 was a only a short, disappointing rehash of his most recent work rather than something excitingly new for him.
Once a generation or so, an artist truly thrills his culture. Picasso, Stravinsky, Orson Welles and Miles Davis come to mind quickly. Inordinate, inexplicable talents. Possibly Flatley. If he somehow fails to live up to such hype, perhaps he will bless us with duets with Jean Butler for the rest of their lives. She is the most enchanting beauty in dance since Moira Shearer.
The jig is up!
On March 17, 1999, PBS aired "Feet of Flames," a performance in Hyde Park, London July 25, 1998, by Flatley and his troupe. While it had many thrilling moments of precision ensemble step-dancing and a couple of strong solos by Flatley, it was marred by overproduction. Flatley, who at times seems to be aping Christopher Walken in his poses, has loosened up his routines even more, now resorted to occasional facepaint and crawling and creeping when he is not strutting and acting as a understudy for the Who or Kiss. For the finale, he wears a stunning red bolero jacket that Michael Jackson would envy. The emphasis is increasingly on sex and rock extravaganza. Flatley has discovered the joy of "hits," which in music are very loud multi-instrumental one-note accents that are accompanied here by strobe lighting, smoke and razor-sharp pointing by Flatley. He remains the adorable little boy with a big man's talent. His company now numbers 100 and appear to be very talented, especially the two very attractive women violinists and his villanous rival. The choreography in this show did not break much new ground but some of the music, especially the number in which shrouded men chant, was fine. Flatley spends a fair bit of time playing and twirling a flute and the 25 cameras that recorded the event gave the editors far too much to play with as once again the rapid cuts did not focus enough on the remarkable footwork although the overhead shots were good. The female lead dancers were not bad, but one longed again for Jean Butler.