Lord of 'Lord of the Dance' gives his side of the story

May 27, 1997|By Patti Hartigan | Patti Hartigan,BOSTON GLOBE

Michael Flatley wants to set the record straight. He has never been, nor ever claimed to be, a computer-carrying member of Mensa, the club for modest folks with staggering IQs. In fact, he doesn't know how that particular myth got started and seems to think you have to be an idiot to believe such blarney.

"Ninety-nine percent of everything that's been written about me is absolute garbage and out-and-out lies," says Flatley during a trip to promote "Lord of the Dance."

The 38-year-old dancer, of course, is the centerfold attraction of "Lord," and he's also been at the center of all sorts of rumors and innuendo since he was fired from "Riverdance" a year and a half ago.

Flatley will, however, allow that this much is true: He was an amateur boxer, he says proudly, jabbing the air with a one-two punch to prove it. He does play the flute. His legs are insured for 25 million pounds. He does eat steak at least once a day, and he does dress in leather all the time. He is embroiled in two lawsuits that he simply can't discuss. He has bounced back after being fired from "Riverdance," the show that raised Irish step-dancing to an international phenomenon.

And "Lord of the Dance" is attracting mega-attention: The Boston booking sold out 18,000 seats in less than a fortnight, and that was before Flatley kicked his well-insured legs on the internationally televised Academy Awards.

"I proved a lot of people wrong," Flatley says, forcing a top-of-the-mornin' grin. "A lot of people didn't think I'd be able to put another show together after" -- he pauses, lowering his voice to a whisper -- "after 'Riverdance.'"

What happened was this. Flatley, the son of Irish immigrants who grew up in Chicago, was the original male lead dancer in "Riverdance," which began as a seven-minute segment for a televised music contest in Europe. He choreographed many of the numbers in that multicultural spectacle, but after the show took off, he got into a tiff with the producers over salary and royalty fees. Faxes flew; tempers flared. Ultimately, he was fired the night before the show was set to open in London in September 1995. He is suing the producers for what he considers his fair share of the profits.

At that point, he vowed to launch his own show, starring none other than himself. He joined forces with John Reid, manager of pop singer Elton John, and together they came up with the rock-inspired "Lord of the Dance" in just five months. Despite mixed reviews, the show has been doing phenomenal business. Reid, however, was fired in January, and he is now suing Flatley for what he considers his share of the profits.

But Flatley doesn't want to discuss the backstage brouhaha. "I don't pay much attention to it," he says. "I tend to dwell on the positive side because that's how you accomplish things. I visualize it, and then I work like hell to go ahead and do it. There are no excuses: Work hard. Get there."

With his just-do-it mantra, Flat-ley can sound like a dancing endorsement for athletic shoes. But what he's selling is something else entirely. "Riverdance," with its off-the-shoulder costumes and suggestive choreography, was noted for bringing a pulsing sensuality to traditional Irish step-dancing. Well, let's just say "Lord of the Dance" makes "Riverdance" look like virgin territory. Irish dancing meets intergalactic warfare here; with his tattooed torso, Flatley plays a warrior who does battle with a writhing, grinding troupe of evil men. He's tempted by a siren in red and thwarted by bad guys in black. The "plot" unfolds against a backdrop of multicolored striations of lights, plenty of pyrotechnics, and lots of dancing girls. At one point, the women doff their pastel gowns and step-dance in sports bras and short-shorts.

"I love the rock and roll feel," Flatley says of the show. "I love that touch. I didn't want to be pigeonholed and fit into everyone else's category. Let the whole world do it their way, and I'll do it my way.

"Look, people love it. They come to this show with love in their hearts. They stand up three or four times and throw things at the stage -- flowers, roses, cards, maybe a few love letters. And there is always a crowd waiting for me every night. They're all ages -- from 5 to 85 -- all different races, all different nationalities, all different religions. It crosses all different boundaries, and that's a wonderful thing." He pauses and smiles coyly. "So maybe there are a few pretty girls out there, too." He looks to his assistant for confirmation. She smiles back.

Those fans who can't wait outside the stage door have found other ways to throw things (words, at least) at Michael Flat-ley. The official "Lord of the Dance" site on the Internet features page after page of e-mailed sweet nothings.

"Normally extremely sane, rational woman now completely obsessed with Michael," reads one message. "Don't let the occasional press barbs get you down. We all suspect it hurts more than you let on, but remember, it happens to many GREAT entertainers when they first burst on the scene."

In person, Flatley makes an attempt to brush off the sex-symbol image, like so much dust on his well-oiled leather sleeve. "Sudden fame?" he says, almost incredulous. "The sudden fame that popped up 38 years later? That's pretty sudden stuff!"

Flatley first took up Irish dancing as a lad of 11 in Chicago; it wasn't long before he was winning competitions, eventually taking the world championship and setting the record for tapping 28 times per second.

He attended Brother Rice High School, and unlike other male dancers says he was never taunted as a youth, perhaps because he played hockey and excelled as an amateur boxer. "Those other guys shoulda took up boxing," he says.

Pub Date: 5/27/97

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