The Middlebrow

Michael Flatley

Hoofer with a heart of gold.

The important thing to know about Michael Flatley is that he’s Irish-American. If you’ve seen one of Flatley’s hoofing extravaganzas, like Riverdance (1995) or Lord of the Dance (1996), you will hardly need to be reminded. But for the rest of us—those who have warily noted Flatley’s presence on the fringes of middlebrow culture and might have thought he was, say, Irish—it is worth clarifying. Flatley is a proud hyphenate. His success comes from his ability to join unlikely elements together—Irish and Americans, step dancing and flamenco, pretension and frivolity.

Flatley’s new show, Celtic Tiger, which opened Tuesday nightat Madison Square Garden, is a product of this strange alchemy. In interviews, Flatley set an ambitious goal: to dance the history of Ireland in two hours. Just after 8 p.m., he marched onstage dressed as a Roman general, with a breastplate and exposed legs, and clomped in front of a phalanx of soldiers. It was to be the first of Ireland’s many dancerly invasions. Flatley’s grand entrance was followed by the arrival of the Vikings (dancers wearing menacing helmets), then the British (dancers wearing menacing wigs). Then the show moved to the horrors of British occupation: a dance dedicated to Bloody Sunday, with a tank snarling on the video screen behind the performers. The act produced a single moment of levity: Flatley appearing onstage as a priest, which sent the orchestra section into convulsions.

First onstage following the intermission was a single dancer wearing a flight attendant’s uniform. The crowd seemed mildly confused. Was Flatley saluting Irish aviation? Using the airplane as a metaphor for being stranded between two worlds? As we pondered such thoughts, the flight attendant began to peel off her clothes. Flatley was paying tribute to a more recent achievement, thoroughly American: the striptease. The flight attendant shed her clothes to reveal a bikini colored like the American flag—the shedding of her Irish identity?—and then began a regimen of sensual calisthenics. My notes trail off, but I have a memory of the flight attendant ending her presentation downstage, legs splayed and squatting like an offensive lineman.

Cultural disconnect is Michael Flatley’s specialty. He was born in Chicago in 1958 to immigrant parents; as the New York Times notes, his Irish brogue can be summoned depending on the occasion. At 17, he became the first American winner of the World Irish Dance Championships—something of a scandal in Ireland, at least until Flatley pledged fealty to his ancestral home. He toured in Europe with the Irish folk group the Chieftains and tried to erect a plumbing empire in Illinois. He debuted in the Riverdance show at the ripe age of 36. Flatley was Riverdance’s star and—according to him—its choreographer and chief inspiration, but a row over money and credit led him to quit the show before it began a second run in London. (Flatley’s agent, in a memorable diatribe, had requested that his star “be treated and respected as if Michael was Dame Judi Dench.”) Within months, Flatley had regrouped and raised his own show, which he humbly titled Lord of the Dance.

Irish step dancing was popularized by itinerant “dance masters,” who wandered the countryside in the 18th century and taught children the finer points of hoofing. It is amusing to think of Flatley, who appears at one point in Celtic Tiger in peasant dress, as a 21st-century dance master, plying his trade from Montreal to Sacramento. The queer beauty of step dancing depends on a visual discordance: Arms are held stiffly at the sides, while the legs chop like the hands of a watch. The noise is relentless—clompclompclomp—and one of Celtic Tiger’s finer moments has the dancers standing in for the clap of machine-gun fire. To the old styles of Irish step dancing, Flatley has added small variations: arm movements, most notably, but also elements of tap, ballet, and flamenco. Some of his thematic variations are more ambitious. What to make of a number called “Cowboy Cheerleaders,” in which Flatley’s backup dancers jiggle and shake their pompoms?

Flatley meshes perfectly with American middlebrow culture in that he has no sense of irony whatsoever. This is most notable in Flatley’s patriotism. “It seems to be really cool to run down America right now, to get down on America,” he told me. “I’m so opposite of that.” And yet Flatley is not an American exceptionalist, nor even an Irish one. His is more of a free-range patriotism—a “hooray for everybody!” approach common to Montessori kindergartens. In Celtic Tiger, Viking hordes commingle with Irish peasants. The Brits have their vile moments but are allowed a lusty chorus of “Rule Britannia.” Flatley honors Irish independence then declares his unwavering love for America. Oddly, for a show called Celtic Tiger, the finale has Flatley clad in red, white, and blue and performing “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Last month, during previews in England, Flatley says he was terrified the British audience might react sourly. He wound up doing five encores. It is highly possible that, amid the burst of pan-nationalism, the British did not realize they were the heavies.

The motive of Flatley’s show—as with Cirque du Soleil and other traveling spectacles—is to cram as much action as possible into a single bill. One of the unfortunate hallmarks of middlebrow culture is that its practitioners are often insecure about their place in the new media environment. Thus, they surround themselves with big effects and big ideas. The aim is to make the performers look larger—more boffo, in Variety’swords—though it usually has the opposite effect. In 1997, Flatley described his act as landing somewhere “between theater, dance, and rock concerts.” Now, with Celtic Tiger, he “performs a movie in front of a movie screen.” There are those of us who would have been happy if he’d shown up in jeans and a tank top and danced for a half hour.

It would be improper to leave Flatley without discussing one of the hallmarks of his appeal. Flatley’s arena show, one is told, is akin to an intimate experience. He has compared Irish step dancing to “having four or five orgasms and seeing how many you can go.” (Consider this when choosing between the orchestra and the mezzanine.) With his pants casually unbuttoned, Flatley gives off a kind of tortured, middle-aged sexuality, like Bono only with a more uncertain accent. I doubted Flatley’s allure until I saw a large, graying woman, seated to my left, clomping her foot like a deranged horse until the Lord of the Dance returned for an encore. Back on stage, Flatley winked and dabbed the sweat from his brow. Viewed in this context, the flight attendant’s striptease made perfect sense. It was not a statement about Irish-American culture so much as a necessary effort at equal time.