Lord of the Dance
Michael Flatley creator and choreographer and Gerard Fahy composer
Palace Theatre, Manchester
Being of Irish descent and raised in an immigrant community, inevitably I picked up the ‘heel-and-toe-and-back-two-three-four’ basics of Irish dancing. Yet, so far have never seen Riverdance or any of the variations which did not so much popularise the style as make it a phenomenon.
Michael Flatley, who created, choreographed and produced Lord of the Dance, has retired from active performance but his influence looms large over the 25th anniversary of the show. The encore is preceded by a filmed sequence of him tap dancing as a trio and the show opens with recorded recollections of his efforts to get the original production off the ground. It is a curiously sour opening tone; rather than celebrate his achievements, Flatley seems bitter, even angry, about those who doubted his vision.
Matthew Bourne is credited with popularising classical dance and in his shows the choreography is matched by imaginative staging and the sheer ‘stone me didn’t see that coming’ audacity of the concepts. Lord of the Dance on the other hand panders to, rather than challenges, the expectations of the audience and, as a result, has as much in common with pantomime as dance.
Ireland excels at promoting a sanitised nostalgic version of the country’s history and Lord of the Dance takes the same approach. The score by Gerard Fahy mixes actual folk songs—Carrickfergus—with approximations of the genre. The soundtrack is recorded, and it is possible on occasion, so too might be the sound of the dancers’ pounding feet. Lord of the Dance is a show that begs for an encore without amplification to prove the astonishing troupe really can cut the mustard.
The first act is a series of set-pieces with the slender plot only really taking hold in the second half. The plot is an odd mixture of fable, science fiction and, er, The Chippendales. Lord of the Dance is not a show that hesitates to objectify the cast—women wear skin-tight costumes and men go into combat stripped to the waist. As you do. A leprechaun figure in a pastoral setting plays pan pipes until kidnapped by a group of oppressive figures (dressed in the style of The Borg from Star Trek). The Lord of the Dance intervenes but succumbs to the temptations of a seductress leaving him vulnerable and in need of assistance from the leprechaun.
Characterisation is broad; the baddies wear red or black and the goodies white or green. The cast of Lord of the Dance is large and to leave enough room for them to demonstrate the full extent of their dancing skills the stage is left bare of props with projected images on a massive screen to the rear setting the scene for action.
Flatley’s choreography relaxes many of the self-imposed restrictions of the Irish Dancing genre. There is greater freedom in the upper body and high kicks and somersaults occur. Yet the most powerful parts of the show are when the traditional, highly disciplined style of dancing is retained. The military precision (including, on one occasion, full ‘gung-ho’ vocal comments) of the cast is stunning and seeing such a large troupe in regimented action makes a strong impression.
Lord of the Dance is designed to be a spectacular crowd-pleaser and this determination to please brings in a limiting element of ritual whereas taking a few chances might have made for a more emotionally satisfying experience.
Reviewer: David Cunningham