As one of the most commercially successful dancers in our modern era, Michael Flatley has brought his version of Irish dancing to the masses and in sold-out performances around the world. His “Lord of the Dance” show, which launched in 1996 and continues to tour, has become a phenomenon, and it remains the highest-grossing dance show of all time, with $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales. And for the first time, Flatley brings his stage show to the big screen with “Lord of the Dance 3D,” which has a limited one-week release in U.S. theaters, as of March 17, 2011 (St. Patrick’s Day). The movie was filmed during live performances in Dublin, London and Berlin in November 2010.
At the New York press junket for “Lord of the Dance 3D,” I sat down with Flatley for an in-depth interview in which he talked about things, including what people who’ve already seen his show might be surprised by in seeing the movie; what he thinks are the most memorable performances of his career; and what he learned about filmmaking as an executive producer, choreographer and star of “Lord of the Dance 3D.” Flatley also opened about his 2006 health scare and some lessons he’s learned in his extraordinary life.
You were hospitalized in 2006, and that led to the cancellation of your show “Celtic Tiger.” Can you talk about that experience?
Yes, it was very scary. They never discovered what it [the illness] was. They never diagnosed exactly what it was. I saw maybe 40 or 50 different doctors. They know that it’s no known virus. They eliminated a lot of stuff, but they weren’t able to pinpoint exactly what it was.
So as a result, because they couldn’t diagnosis it, they couldn’t treat it. So I was really down for a long, long time, flat on my back for over a year, not able to do anything. And eventually, sitting in a chair in my home in Cork — I couldn’t really move and I hadn’t been outside in eight months — I invited over a man who does energy healing. He works with the body’s energies.
Now, all my life on tour, I’ve always had a massage person and somebody who does really good energy, that kind of thing. Then I decided to try that again. I brought over a guy from County Clare in Ireland that did energy healing. And he worked on me. He doesn’t touch you. He just does moving of energies and clearing the blockages and stuff.
Next thing, I fell asleep. I woke up about two hours later. And I didn’t even notice I was asleep. And I said to him, “Was I asleep long?” He said, “Yeah, about two hours.” He was having a cup of tea. He said, “You want to go for a walk?” I said, “Yeah,” never even remembering that I hadn’t been out in eight months.
So my driveway into Castle Hyde is about a mile-and-a-half. We walked that and came back. And still, it wasn’t until I got close to the house that I said, “God, this feels great.” It had been months and months since I’d been outside. That was that. I went home, threw away all the pills, and I haven’t even taken a vitamin or aspirin. And every day, I got better and better and better.
A lot of dancers get injuries. Can you talk about the physical risks of being a professional dancer?
It can be quite brutal, as you well can imagine. Our bodies take a beating, but I’m not complaining. It’s what I chose to do, and I love it, so how can I be unhappy about it? If you love what you do, work is not work.
Do you have any bad habits that would get in the way of good health?
The truth of the matter is that I do smoke the pipe, but only on occasions. It’s not something that I do every week or even every month. It’s basically when I get home to Castle Hyde and having a little Irish whiskey or something. That’s all.
We’re so blessed to have this kind of a job and this kind of a life. I’ve been touring for all these years. Have I had injuries? Probably too many to list. Are they worth bragging about? No. Whatever happens happens. I’m still going. I’m still pumping. Life is great.
What can you say about your touring experience?
I’m 52, and I’ve earned all these wrinkles, every one of them. I’ve just been thrilled and delighted with everything we’ve been doing. In the early ’80s with the Chieftains, I toured for nearly 10 years with those guys. What a fantastic experience that was — all over the world and having fun every night. They are the greatest band in the world. I think that they have something like 40 Grammys now. It’s remarkable. The fireplace is full.
In “Lord of the Dance 3D,” you compared your leadership role to being a general of an army. What kind of boss are you?
In many ways, that’s a better question for the dancers than [for] me. Maybe they will tell you the truth when I’m not here. [He laughs.] Listen, the way I look at it is that I am blessed to have the greatest dance team in the world and that works the hardest — and is hungry for that work, is hungry to be challenged and do something new all the time. That’s a dream for a guy like me, because I’m a workaholic. I’m tougher on myself than anybody else.
But there’s a human element, and there’s a human relationship there that can never be overlooked. And I find that’s where failure begins if you start talking down to people or your start ignoring their feelings or start ignoring their dreams. Everybody has dreams. I like to encourage people to follow theirs. And I think that the people in my show work so hard, because they know I’m supportive, so supportive, of everything they want to do.
The best part about this movie is that I’m bringing some incredibly young, talented people to the big screen and letting them have a chance to shine in front of the whole world, globally. That’s a great dream for me, and it’s great for them as well. And they deserve it. Nobody works harder than my dancers, except maybe me. [He laughs.]
When it came to putting “Lord of the Dance” on film, what were any changes or considerations you made to the show?
For years, people have approached me about doing film work, and I’ve always been apprehensive, because mainly I just didn’t think it would transfer. The show live is so powerful, and it’s so filled with energy that you can’t explain that energy to people unless you’re in the room. You know what I mean?
You were saying about anticipation, especially for people that have seen it before, there’s an energy. When the lights go down and that Ronan Hardiman score starts, it gets you fired up. I was always afraid that wouldn’t translate. I think 3-D helped to convince me. It changed that [fear I had], the great advances in 3-D technology …
Bringing in the light and stage guys, the first thing I did was change the big JumboTron. We broke them into seven different screens and graduated them, so there was more depth of field for the cameras. And [there were] these beautiful steps in the middle of the stage, so that sometimes we had almost a wall of dancers, which is sensational.
You have to remember too that I tour with this. We take this on the road, so I’m limited by that, by the number of trucks. It’s not as if we did this on a soundstage, where I can say, “OK, lads, bring in the dancing girls. Lights up to the roof.” You can’t do that here. So what we brought to the screen is what we do live every night.
And another thing I’d like to mention is that I insisted the show be done live, in front of a live audience, because in the beginning, everybody thought [we had] to do it on a soundstage where we could do multiple takes, get each part right, and if you miss a step, don’t worry, we’ll get it again. Nonsense! That’s nonsense! Who wants to see a show like that? I want to see the truth, whatever the truth is.
Are there mistakes in this movie? Hell yes, there’s a lot of mistakes, but I’m proud of that. Whatever it is, it’s live. We run a hundred miles an hour, and it’s live. So for better or worse, when those dancers are smiling, it’s honest. The audience is reacting, it’s honest.
It’s the truth; it’s what we get every night. We’re not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. There’s probably going to be people that won’t like it, reviewers and things, and that’s OK. I don’t mind about that. The general public loves this …
We’ve sold out arenas from Mexico to Moscow, from Tokyo to Texas, and we’re still pumping 15 years later. We’ve somehow managed to stay relevant and profitable — and that’s anything you can’t overlook. So doing it live, if we would have changed it and done it on a soundstage, that wouldn’t have been truthful. That’s not what people get every night. I wanted them to get whatever that truth is.
Having done the “Lord of the Dance” show so many times, what are your thoughts that one version of it is on film forever?
Good and bad. It’s the most wonderful thing in the world. Do I wish I could have done it 30 years ago? Maybe, but I’m thrilled to be doing it now. It takes me a lot more runway to get up to speed, but I can at least get at that speed. That’s an important part of this, and I’m proud to be able to still do that kind of stuff.
But yeah, we missed a lot of magic along the way. There are some great nights that I’ll never, ever forget that you can’t go back and capture. You just can’t, and there are too many name, too many to list, but that’s what it is.
For this particular [movie], our dream was to go back and film this in Dublin at the Point Theatre. That’s where I created “Riverdance.” That’s where I created “Lord of the Dance.” That’s where I created “Feet of Flames.”
Going back there all those years later meant something. I didn’t have to get the dancers fired up. They were fired up. They knew the history. They grew up with that history. That in itself is a special magic that needed to be captured.
Did things go wrong? We did a fantastic tour, all excited about the opening night in Dublin, and my leading lady went down. Bernadette Flynn — greatest female dancer in the world — done, couldn’t dance. It broke my heart, just broke my heart. You know, I can’t do this movie without her. There was no way I was going to put this movie out without Bernadette!
On top of that, I had a ruptured left Achilles tendon, an aggravated calf tear from 1996, when I had ripped it before. I had a bad problem here in my neck, my T3 had to be adjusted, two fractured ribs that had to be done, and I had a really bad problem with my left large-toe joint — for some reason, I was having trouble moving it.
But I can promise you one thing: Nothing of that was in my mind when I flew across that stage. That was the last thing on my mind. I felt like a loaded gun out there. I couldn’t wait to go. What we didn’t get with Bernadette on those three nights, we got in London and we got Berlin, so we have her. So this movie went out with the right person by my side. She’s been there with me from the beginning, and she deserved that respect.
Beside from the concerts for “Lord of the Dance 3D,” what particular performances that you’ve done over the years have really affected emotionally, to point where you still think about them years later?
I feel like if I singled out any particular performances that I’d be leaving out ones that might be just as important at the moment because of the spur of the moment. But who could forget the performances at the Oscars in ’97? We were sandwiched between Madonna and Celine Dion. Celine Dion is, well, Celine Dion: the greatest singer of all time, I think.
The dancers had grown up looking at all these stars on the big film. And when we went backstage, we were so focused on representing our country and to put out a great performance that all the people backstage were looking at my dancers with awe. And I stood back watching that and thought, “Will you look at this?” What a moment, for me to see everybody, these big names staring at these kids like this. It was such a rush, flying across that stage. It was absolutely a rush.
Opening night in Dublin, “Lord of the Dance.” No one in the world gave me any chance. I had just left “Riverdance,” and had to beg, borrow and steal every penny in the world … and then some. I was leveraged up to my two eyeballs, and it was tough. We hadn’t sold a bunch of tickets going into it. The press wasn’t maybe not the nicest, because I was an American over there in Ireland, I think. The first show went out and it was “papered” — we brought people in to fill up the seats, but word of mouth hit, and without 24 hours, four weeks were gone, bang, sold out. And we knew we were off to the races. That was a night worth remembering forever.
The first time we did Madison Square Garden. Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano — what a place, flying across that stage! Radio City Music Hall, you could land a plane on that stage. Every solo I ever created was created for that stage. All those years of digging ditches, in the back of my mind, that was my dream, that’s what I focused on: that stage. And we got there. This could go on for hours.
Where are some places you’d like to perform that you haven’t been able to yet?
I’d like to do more of China. I haven’t performed in India, which I’d really love to do. Some places in South America, I’d love to try. I haven’t personally been there, but my troupes have been there. We’ve got three troupes that tour all year round, so they get to go sometimes to places I haven’t been to quite just yet.
You know, I love to try everything. I love to go everywhere, literally everywhere. I’ve danced on the Great Wall of China. In Moscow, we performed at the Kremlin Palace, and coming home late at night, I threw off my coat and I flew around Red Square. It doesn’t get any better than that. Nobody was watching, just a few people. It was a mile away on the edges, just flying around.
What was your greatest moment of trepidation in your career?
Again, almost too many to list. Really, maybe the most devastating one early on was when I had created “Lord of the Dance,” and it was an immediate success, and people loved it. In the U.K., we went to the London Coliseum. They told me, “OK, if you do two nights or three nights, it’s a big plus.” We did four weeks, and it was fantastic. But [it was nerve-racking] getting there and hoping we would reach our financial goals just to keep it going.
I had to dance in Liverpool, a little tiny theater called the Empire. And for some reason, I left a little late, and we got caught in traffic. So we got to the theater, but we were really late. And at the Empire backstage, ceilings are very low in the dressing rooms. It was too late to warm up on the stage, because they had opened the doors, and the crowd was in. There was no way for me to run and get up to speed backstage to break a sweat. There was just no place to do that.
So I got dressed, got on a little war paint, and started to do my warm-up. But because I couldn’t jump, I couldn’t flex the muscles. And before I knew it, the music started. They never took the cue. The guy was supposed to wait. There was a new guy there, and he started the soundtrack.
Seven seconds in, I ripped my right calf muscle. It was like a shot out of a gun. I’ll never forget the pain in my life. I hobbled through the number, came off the stage, and that was it. The understudy went on. I went back and had two double Jamesons to stop the pain while I was waiting for the doctors to get there. And it was intense …
I really believe that nothing is impossible. I really, really believe in that. Two guys came that day, professionals. One guy said, “You’ll probably walk again in a year if you look after this, but dancing is out.” The second said, “No, I think you can dance probably, but it’s going to take probably about 10 months to get your way back into it.” A third guy came in, and he was Australian, and he said, “Why don’t we just see how it goes then?” I said, “Yeah, that sounds like the right guy to me.”
This is a true story, and it’s well-documented. I went into a dark room in my hotel, closed the drapes, and sat in the dark, and visualized light going into that muscle and healing it. I couldn’t even touch it to a pillow and couldn’t even put it down. Nothing. I danced four nights later at the Coliseum, and I ever missed a performance after that. And we did four weeks sold-out. Princess Diana, Elton John. I had the whole world there. I never missed [a show]. Nothing is impossible. Any fool who tells you it is [impossible] is just wrong.
Is your personality basically still the same as when you were a child or teenager? Did you always have ambition and a positive attitude toward life?
I can’t remember back then. [He laughs.] I don’t remember a lot of that, but I was always a dreamer. And I used to get into trouble at school for staring out the window and dreaming. “Flatley, would you stop dreaming? Pay attention!”
I played ice hockey. I always believed that nobody could beat me on a breakaway, even though they often did. Even trying boxing, it was a new experience, but I over-prepared, because maybe you’re a little bit nervous. In boxing, you’re in the pain business. You’re going to get hurt if you’re not prepared, but you have to believe that you’re going to win. I truly would psych myself into a position where I was confident. I couldn’t be defeated.
So to answer your question, I must have had that [from an early age]. My parents were “old country” Irish people. They came to this country in 1947 with nothing, and really built their dream here [the United States], what we looked up to as the greatest country in the world. My brother and I dug ditches with my dad, growing up — and it was the best education we ever got. It was the greatest thing, and I’m proud to say that. Any person who works for a living, regardless of what they do, has my full respect.
Who inspired you to become a dancer? Was there anyone in particular?
That’s a great question, but I suppose the true answer is no, because nobody had ever done anything like I was doing before. I couldn’t get hired as a professional Irish dancer, because there was no market for it. Nobody wanted that, so I had to build my own path.
I was very lucky to get a job with the Chieftains early on, so I could test my performances against audiences around the world. I’d come flying out as a soloist, try new things and watch the audience. So by the time I hit the stage with “LOD,” I knew what worked. And it could only be more profound if I had a great team of dancers behind me.
I mean, who wouldn’t admire Fred Astaire, Gregory Hines? Wouldn’t admire Jimmy Cagney, Gene Kelly? Of course, they were sensational dancers, so I do admire that. But for all my inspiration, you have to go inside. If you want to do something completely unique and different in the world, you have to go inside to create those ideas. There’s no other way if you want to be fresh and clean.
Irish dance, the new form of dance we’ve created that is now global and is, I think, very new and very different like nothing else that’s out there. Speaking of global, in the movie we have out, some of the dancers are Polish, Hungarians, [and are from] New Zealand, Canada. We have a waiting list of people.
What do you think about your influence on other dancers?
It would be nice to think that people do this because they’ve seen me. I know certainly the young dancers in my show. A young Polish lad learned off of my videotapes. Certainly the Hungarian [dancers in my troupe].
And I have two beautiful Italian fiddlers; they’re stunning. They could hardly speak English when they got to my show, but they learned off my video. It was their dream as little girls to be in one of my shows.
That’s one of the most rewarding things anybody can ask for. I don’t care what happens with this movie — live or die, sink or swim, we made it. Everything after tonight is a bonus. They will be seen. Whether you like it or don’t like it, I’m so proud to get them this far.
How involved are you in casting your shows?
We’re a very, very small team. I probably work differently from most other entertainers in the business. I’m very hands-on. I pay for it, I produce it, I star in it, and I sweep up the joint. I have to watch everything, and we’re a very small nucleus.
Myself, the tour manager and the accountant basically run everything. And underneath that, I have a pyramid: I have a dance master and then dance captains. The audition process goes through those people. And then they put the lead dancers in front of me, but over the years I’ve given them the liberty to choose the line dancers. And then I’ll come and see the show, and if there’s something that I think is not right, we’ll work it out.
But I believe in giving everybody a chance. I really do. I don’t always choose the dancers who are the most gifted technically or the ones who might have the most world titles. I always choose the dancer that has that look in their eye, the one that really wants to be there, the one that just has to be on stage, the one who’s willing to work, to be challenged to do something better. That’s the look that I want.
And to me, that’s immediately apparent in this movie. I think you can look at those dancers, and there’s not one that I can say to myself, “God, I wish I could change that dancer.” I love those dancers! They’re remarkable. They’re just absolutely sensational. I’m so proud and honored to be out front with them.
When did you decide to expand beyond the traditional Irish music that was in “Riverdance”?
It’s going to break your heart, but I’m not legally allowed to talk about “Riverdance.” For me, I just love the sharing of cultures. Dance is universal. I don’t care how you look at it, our demographic is 5 to 95 — all people, all religions, all colors, all races, all languages. There are no barriers, and I think that is proven by us traveling and selling out in countries around the world.
For me, there’s an appetite. After all this is over, I’m working on a dream called the Global Dance Channel. I want to bring everybody under one umbrella and let them see every culture from around the world. There are so many dance forms we haven’t even experienced yet in America. I’d like to bring that to show everybody. Let’s sit down and enjoy it.
It doesn’t have to be all pop culture. It can be something new and different that might be the next hottest, coolest thing that we haven’t even seen yet. And let’s see it! I just think that’s the way to go. I just love that idea. Even when we did “Celtic Tiger,” we had everything from salsa to ballet. Ronan Hardiman did a sensational job on that score as well. My God, beautiful stuff!
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about filmmaking in the process of making “Lord of the Dance 3D”?
I do it differently from everybody else. I’ve learned that. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but the way I run my business, we have an old saying: “Don’t leave it on the road.” It’s not necessary for me to have the presidential suite everywhere. That stuff is not necessary. You’d laugh if you saw my rider. The only [requirements] on my rider are water and towels — you’d be embarrassed to come into my dressing room — but that’s all I need. That’s all I want.
We go on and do what I’d like to think is the greatest show in the world, every night. We like to think we give people more than their money’s worth, every night. We dance our hearts out, and I think people would see that passion. The hardest thing was putting that on film.
And this is a whole other discussion, but I’m not convinced that the Hollywood business model is working. I like to see real, true emotion on screen. And I think it can be done for a reasonable price. I don’t think you need to spend $200 million to make a good movie that will move people.
[Filmmaking] is tedious; it’s time-consuming, but doing it live was a dream. Even though we had to do it over five nights and move cameras every night so we wouldn’t get anyone upset in the audience, it was a dream for me, because they couldn’t say, “Take 49. Bring me another bottle of champagne. I want a fancier chair. Give me a red carpet in the dressing room.”
None of that nonsense was there. I did it my way, my favorite way: Put the money on the screen. Put the money on the stage. It doesn’t belong anywhere else. So I learned a lot and hopefully will learn more.
Did you get initial resistance in Ireland because you’re an American doing Irish dancing?
How do you explain it? Yes, maybe I had just a little bit too much Broadway in my veins for the purists over there, but I’m proud of that. In America, if a guy gets a knockout or scores a goal, it’s OK to jump up and down and be happy. You get a hard time for that if you do it over there. It’s very reserved and basically, “Who do you think you are?”
My dream for this form of dance was never the pure form. I wanted to move my arms, express myself, use my body. If you go into any Irish pub in the world, people are laughing and dancing and crying and telling jokes and telling stories and talking and bullsh*tting and drinking and telling lies. And then they have a dance where nobody’s moving. It freaked me out! I couldn’t dance that way.
So the second I won the world title, I changed it all. I started dancing “free,” what I like to think of as “freedom dance.” That’s a good new name for this, because that’s what it was; it was set free.
I got a terrible, hard time as basically the Yank that blew in and wrecked everything. They weren’t too receptive, but I was a hired gun, and I came in and created that little number — “Riverdance” — and the next morning, we were on the front pages all over Europe, and they didn’t call me those names anymore. So I guess being American is OK.
What do you think about dance in modern pop culture, such as TV shows like “So You Thing You Can Dance” or the “Step Up” movies?
My dream was that a dancer could hold center stage. My dream was that a dancer didn’t have to be in the back line, working endless hours for little pay. So we’ve accomplished that. We’ve changed that.
I’m friends with [“So You Think You Can Dance” executive producer/judge] Nigel Lythgoe. He’s a great guy. And I was a judge on “Dancing With the Stars.” One of my buddies, [“Dancing With the Stars” judge] Len Goodman, wanted to take a night off once. So I do understand that.
I don’t want to insult anyone, but with the exception of sports, I haven’t watched TV in 20 years. So when I went on to do “Dancing With the Stars,” I’d never seen it, except for the tapes they’d sent me so that I could be ready for it. I think that it’s easy to criticize all these things, but isn’t it wonderful that they’re at least bringing new talent? Isn’t it wonderful that young people have a chance to be seen?
Even with “Dancing With the Stars,” that’s such an interesting concept. Isn’t it wonderful that girls can get so beautifully dressed? From what I have seen, it’s fabulous. It’s got a touch of class that I think we could use more of. And I think there’s a reason why it’s become so successful. It’s done really well because it does have a touch of class. It’s exciting, it’s sexy, but it’s also family.
How do you think you did on “Dancing With the Stars”?
I was terrible. I was absolutely terrible. It was a disaster.
What can people expect on the DVD and Blu-ray of “Lord of the Dance 3D” that isn’t in the theatrical release of the movie?
That’s a little far down the line. I want to get them focused on the movie tickets first. Come and see the movie so that when you buy the DVD, you’ll notice the differences. [He laughs.] There are mountains of really cool stuff [that’s not in the movie]. To me, talking with the dancers is so exciting and so different and so entertaining, and listening with all their different accents, where they’re from, what they think, and getting their different views. I just think that’s priceless stuff: seeing the truth of what happens on backstage, you wouldn’t believe it.
What about under the stage? There’s a part in your show when you disappear and reappear from underneath the stage. What exactly goes on down there?
If you think the story about the towels and water is bad, you wouldn’t believe what’s under that stage! I promise you, it’s no in-flight lounge, that’s for sure … It can be very dangerous, particularly the ones with the pyrotechnics. I’ve got a great guy — I don’t know what his real name is, but I call him Banger — that does all the pyro for me, and we amped it up for this movie. And my God, he just burned the eyebrows off me! It is intense!
There’s one little part in the execution scene, when it looks like the guy is going to kill me, he brings the gun out and waiting there. I’m standing up there, and I know bloody f*cking well that thing’s going to explode in my face in about two seconds, but my job is to look like I have no idea it’s coming and not blink. If you don’t think that’s hard, you should try that sometime, because literally, it is so loud, you can’t imagine. And the heat bursts in your face, and then the floor goes out from under your feet … and you’re right there down on the bottom on your knees. So it’s pretty intense, but I absolutely love it.
How did you decide on your main residence in Cork, Ireland?
That’s another long story, but it may be interesting. I had bought a home in London in ’96, because all my business is there and my office and everything. And I wanted to buy a house in Ireland, because that [the native country] of my parents and my family.
So I went looking, looked some more. Twenty houses. Nothing. So I got a chopper. The American way. Boy, did I get in trouble for this. And I said, “Take me down to West Cork. There’s going to be fabulous scenery on the coastline down there.” So I got this home locater, who was an English guy. And the pilot was a guy from Dublin, an Irish guy.
So anyway, long story short, they’re flying me down there, and the next thing is we come across this really beautiful countryside. It’s like velvet. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. Magnificent timber; the trees were sensational! And I said, “Is this Tipperary? And the guy said, “No, this is North Cork, the Golden Vale. It’s the Blackwater River Valley.” And I just thought that sounded so romantic.
And he’s flying along and he comes over this roof of this house, which I thought immediately was a hotel or old people’s home. I had no idea. I said, “What’s that?” And he said, “That’s Castle Hyde.” I said, “Castle Hyde? What is it?” He said, “It’s a private residence … It’s the home of the first president of Ireland.” So the lightbulb went on.
So I said, “Circle around, buddy.” So we circled around. And I’d never seen anything like it in my life. And I can honestly say it was the most beautiful home I’d ever seen. It was enormous, but it was a big dream.
So he’s hovering there, and I said, “Land the chopper.” And this [English] guy next to me hit me on the arm and said [he says in a snobbish English accent], “Mr. Flatley, you can’t possibly go around landing your helicopter in people front gardens!” And the pilot said, “Don’t worry, Mr. F., I’m with you. You’re paying the bills.” So we landed, and I bought the house. That was it. The American way!
Why did you decide to have “Lord of the Dance 3D” in movie theaters for only one week?
I guess in the back of mind, I was hoping to create a little bit of that urgency. It’s not really a live show, but it’s not really a movie. It’s a hybrid. I wanted to create a sense of urgency. This is a David-and-Goliath thing. This is an independent film. I paid for it, and we’re up against Hollywood-studio, giant-blockbuster guys and $30 million, $40 million in P&A [prints and advertising]. Who do you think s going to win?
But I’ve been at this my all life. I’ve been in places with less room to move. We have a good product … with great talent out there. Those dancers are all sensational … And people who have seen the previews have already called to see if they can see it again. That means a lot to me. Most of our customers are repeat customers and word of mouth, so we have something going for us, so we can’t be completely overlooked.
And we’re global. A lot of the stars we have in America may not necessarily be well-known in Germany or Italy or places like that. And guys we have over in England wouldn’t be known in the States at all. We’ve been touring for 15 years, so we have a fan base here …
What do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about your dancing?
I don’t know what the misconception is. I suppose when I first started, people referred to it as “folk dance.” And off the record I said, “Folk that! It’s not folk dance.” I think that’s more of a question for the general public, but I do know a lot of the husbands that go, like football fans in the U.K. They always tell me the same story: “Look, my wife wanted me to go to the show. It’s not for me. I don’t want to see some dance show. It’s just not for me, but I loved it!”
I don’t know what the answer is, but I know if you asked a hundred different people what they liked about [the show], you’d get a hundred different answers. What do I want them to take away? I want them to leave with their hearts uplifted, with their toes tapping, with their hearts singing, feeling like nothing’s impossible. “Boy did I get my money’s worth. What a great show. I feel great.” That’s what I want.
For your fans who’ve already seen “Lord of the Dance” live, in person, what are things in the movie that might surprise them?
I think the 3-D thing will definitely get a lot of people by surprise, because I think it really works well. It’s understated. I think it’s elegant. I think it’s tastefully done. I think it’s still powerful and, to me, it has the ability to stand the test of time, because there are no cheap tricks or gimmicks in it. We specifically steered away from all that.
I was very conscious of [not doing] 3-D for 3-D’s sake. I’m not a fan [of doing] that. This really works. I think people will be pleasantly surprised by that. And, of course, I amped it up. I changed a lot of the costumes. I changed a lot of the numbers.
And for the people who haven’t seen my most recent tour, they will have no idea what’s going to hit them. So it’ll be their favorite numbers, just with a little turbo charge on them. I like that.
Can you talk about having the narrative storyline throughout “Lord of the Dance 3D”?
We wanted to concentrate more on the storyline, so it was a bit more specific with camera angles, with special effects, with costuming, and certainly with flow. I had to move a couple of things, change a couple of things, delete a couple of things to make it move faster, because you don’t have the same luxury on film that you have in a live performance. And your audience is sophisticated. And the person who underestimates his audience won’t be in business long.
My whole goal, especially in the live show, was to deliver fast-moving, hard-hitting lots of emotions. And to do that on film is a whole different animal. Going back and looking back on the stuff, I would say, “That’s a great number in and of itself, but it just slows everything down. It can’t work there.” There was so much of that, and some of it was hard to take or move, but I think the end result is much the better for it.
The close-ups really work, I thought. The slow-motion worked really well. The shots of the audience I loved, because you see what people really think and really feel. You get to see human emotion. I’m a big fan of human emotion. I like that. I’d like to see more of that, but the best part is the honest, true human emotion — not an actor, not an extra. This is the truth. What you see is what you get. I love that!
Besides meeting your fans in person, do you interact with them over the Internet?
I am the world’s worst with that kind of stuff. I don’t do any of this tweeting or whatever they call it. I answer all my own emails, but my email address is just the business one … I send out my cards by hand. I still write letters by hand to my mom and everybody.
In fact, at the end of last year, I got an iPhone, and I ended up throwing it in the river. That was a disaster. At least this [he holds up his cell phone] works. At least I can talk to people, and I can send things, and I can do email on that, which is a great. I can text people. But the rest? No. Disaster
I have a great team of people that try, from time to time, to drag me into the real world, but it’s never going to happen. Thank God I have great secretaries and people who look after me that way. Fans write into our websites and send mail to my office. And I try, after almost every show, to hug them and sign things or whatever I can with a little human contact, but other than that, I’m terrible. You can’t every night. In fairness, you’ve got some crazy [fans]. There’s a lot of that going around.
I can’t imagine being at an event and sending out little things [on Twitter] while it’s happening. I don’t even take photographs [and put them on the Internet]. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of in my life! I’m sorry, but it is. Why would you even want people to know what you’re doing? Why would you want to bring people to invade your life in that way? I can’t understand that.
In fact, for me, I don’t even take that many pictures, because I like the memory. I like to remember what happened. I like to remember the night my wife said, “Yes.” I like to remember when my son was born. I want to remember what it was like to meet [Nelson] Mandela.
I don’t want the picture. I want to remember it. It’s much more special. It’s much more profound to me [than] … if you take the time to do the picture. There’s nothing worse than being at a live concert and there are people doing this [he holds up his cell phone, as if he’s taking a picture]. What’s that all about? Just soak it up! I like it live — just real.
What can you say about any experiences you’ve had in Japan?
Can I tell you my one great story about Japan? In 2002, I was at my home in France. And we, at the last second, decided to go see the World Cup, because Ireland was playing. And bang! On to the G5, gone over to Tokyo. We went to South Korea first, because Ireland was playing against Spain. And we lost in a penalty shoot-out, but we made it that close. I was excited then because I had a little football fever. I said, “Let’s pop over to Tokyo and see England play, because [England is] our next-door neighbor.
So we flew over to Tokyo. I’ll never forget this as long as I live. At the Tokyo Dome … everything was perfectly clean. It was sensationally clean. And nowhere did I see any what I might consider to be [anything] I’d have to worry about there or hint of any violence. There was nothing like that.
And I went up to the front gate, after waiting in a long line, with my tickets. And this little Japanese girl met us, and in perfect English, she says, “Good afternoon. Welcome to the Tokyo Dome. Can I see your tickets, please?” And I gave her the tickets. And I said, “I’m sorry, Miss. I’m from Ireland. Do you have any idea how to get to these seats?” And she says, “Just one second, please.” And she says to the [next] customer, “Can you wait for just a few minutes?’
She walked me to the seats! This is a true story. She walked me all the way to my seats with the kindest smile I’ve ever seen in my life. And I remember thinking, “This is sensational!” When’s the last time that would happen to you? It was such a beautiful experience.
And we went out drinking at the pub there that night, and just had a real ball over there. It was a remarkable experience to be there, and it was great to see and learn about new people. Japanese people are very warm and friendly, but also incredibly determined and sharp and very intelligent and tend to see through the problem.
Imagine a young girl like that [ticket attendant], so busy, with lines of people behind me, taking the time to do that — and making sure that I got there and not just say, “It’s down there. Just turn right!” She didn’t do that. She walked me to my seat. My favorite memory [of Japan].
Do you have any comment on the earthquake/tsunami disaster in Japan?
The only thing I can say is we were stunned. My wife watches the news. We were absolutely stunned. We were in London when we saw the first pictures, and I think all of us need to be aware that we’re only humans.
In the face of what Mother Nature can do, we’re very insignificant. When she decides to unleash her power, all of us have to answer. We have to obey, no matter what she says. I always think that when the gods make their decision, all of us are vulnerable, no matter where we are in the world.
And I’m saddened by the loss. I can’t possibly imagine where you can begin the cleanup process and to put people back into their homes. I was also stunned by the incredible patience of people there on the streets. And their calmness: not jumping to conclusions and running around like crazy. They were all calm and they all worked together, it seemed like to me. I better not say too much more, but that’s kind of how I felt about it.
What advice would you have for people who face physical and emotional challenges?
I highly recommend it. Go through the physical challenges. Go through the emotional challenges. If you’re willing to work, honestly, just follow your dream.
So many people say … “I’d love to do that, but I know I won’t be able to do that, so I’ll just be a car salesman or a carpenter, because I know I can do that,” or whatever job you choose [instead of pursuing a dream]. But that’s the wrong approach. And I think if I’ve learned anything, it’s that. The gods wouldn’t give you the desire to do something so great unless you were going to get an equal amount of opportunity to accomplish it.
So what I recommend is to go home and write down a list of five things that you’d like to do with your life. The most important five things that you can possibly think of, write them down. Throw it in the drawer, and try and forget about it, take your mind off it for as long as you can, maybe up to a week.
Then go back and pull that list out. And no matter how hard it is, scratch off four of them. And you’re left with one. And then open up the barrel, and with everything you’ve got, you’ve got to go after that. Nothing’s impossible.
What’s next for you?
Hopefully, if things go my way, I might take a shot at that dance channel. I think that will be next. If the movie does reasonably well, I’d consider doing a follow-up one, but we have to see how that transpires.
What kind of music do you like to listen to in your free time?
When I dance with my wife on Friday nights for our dinners or in Barbados on the porch: Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, some old vintage Elvis Presley — that’s the kind of stuff I love.
Who are your favorite dancers of all time?
There are too many dancers to possibly name. I respect any person in this business. I’ve been in it a long enough time to appreciate the leaps and bounds of [Mikhail] Baryshnikov, the fast footwork of Gregory Hines and the Nicolas Brothers, the grace and elegance of Fred Astaire, and the power of Gene Kelly, and the cockiness of James Cagney. They’re all heroes to me.
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