The Price of Admission
It's worth a moment's pause, sitting here with a copy of Michael Flatley's long-awaited autobiography in hand, to consider what this book is doing here in the first place.
To begin with, Michael has been interviewed dozens if not hundreds of times over the last decade - mostly by different individuals who don't read each other's stories, and generally cover the same ground. Innumerable iterations of the condensed version of Michael's life story have already appeared in every possible medium with the possible exception of Egyptian hieroglyphics.
After a while, the redundancy starts to look like a deliberate strategy. Giving the same answers, even to different questions, is a good way to defend one's privacy; and the privacy of any public figure needs a good defense, especially in the relentless jungle of the tabloid press. Michael is no recluse, but for years he's kept a very sharp line dividing the acceptable public topics from the untouchable details of his private life, not scrupling to yank the odd journalistic leg if it would divert attention. In the insane world of celebrity, privacy is only slightly less vital than air.
All this runs counter to the very intention of autobiography. But Michael has been wanting to tell this story for years, and this time around it can't be told in dance. It couldn't be told alone, either: three years ago, he brought in celebrity biographer Douglas Thompson, to turn months of interviews - with Michael, his parents, family, friends, rivals, past and present associates, past and present girlfriends, past and present troupe members, and a long list of others - into a first-person account of the origins and aftermath of an artistic revolution.
And the biggest hitch in autobiography is likely to be human vanity. Those whose lives fascinate enough to warrant coverage have often made their mistakes so publicly that they're at a disadvantage when they try to sum it up: much of the story has already been told, and not from a sympathetic point of view. If the peering eyes must be invited in, the instinct is to excuse or gloss over the mistakes, rationalise or even deny the bad choices, shift the blame, spin events to the best advantage. If a perfect man could live a perfect life, the task would be simple: with no mistakes to admit, the book would be easy to write but dull to read.
Michael Flatley isn't perfect, and he's willing to admit it.
He admits to a lot of things - bad judgment, poor choices, early failures and more recent excesses. Too much work, too much whiskey, not to mention women. The only thing he doesn't admit to is getting much sleep.
So what's the book like? In some ways, it's like watching Lord of the Dance: it moves quickly and gracefully, passing through conflict but continually returning to an upbeat message. There's a subplot about standing up to bullies of all types, with or without masks. There's a brush with mortality and a victory dance at the end. There's a subplot about the ultimate redemptive power of love, and the struggle between love and lust.
Like the show, there's a great deal of frank and open sexuality, possibly more than the audience expects. This is the life story of the man who, in the heyday of the Lord of the Dance tours, described himself as "having more sex than anyone I know." If movie ratings applied to books, it might be ranked somewhere between PG and R; parents of Michael's younger fans might be well advised to read the book themselves before deciding whether to pass it on to their children. The content may cost the book some readers, and could cost Michael some fans: that is part of the price of admission.
Also like the show, there's plenty of fancy footwork, executed so gracefully that it looks easy. The book pulls off some elegant sleight of hand, readily divulging detail in some areas while being extraordinarily selective about just what will be revealed elsewhere. Want details on Michael's relationship with Jean Butler? Forget it; that's not on the menu. Want to know just who, when, where, and how many? Sorry; Michael doesn't actually name any names in the book that haven't been in the press. Curious about just how much Michael has, makes, and spends? Tough. Interested in how Michael feels about his money? Now we're talking: page 224.
So what is in the book that hasn't already been covered? Information about Michael's life pre-Riverdance, especially details of childhood and an unprecedented account of the years between high school and the Mayo 5000. Details of his marriage, his early business ventures - and failures - leading the reader to a desperately intense recognition of the razor-narrow chance that brought Michael, already too old to dance by conventional standards, onto the world stage to kick off a new era of dance theatre.
Michael's account of his childhood goes far beyond the well-worn story of his first dance lesson, delving into the forging of a dance champion, including the birth of the vital self-confidence that would later be denounced as ego and the drive towards creative innovation that marked his dancing literally from its first steps. Nearly a third of the text concentrates just on the years from 1994 to 1997: the development of Riverdance, the rebirth of Michael's career with Lord of the Dance, the last long hard climb to the top. This is the heart of the story, featuring Michael's own surprisingly generous assessment of the struggles underlying the Riverdance breakup - a side of the story that has never seen publication before.
Recent years receive a far more superficial treatment, maddeningly sketchy at times. Some topics are left entirely untouched: little coverage is given to Michael's offstage business activities and virtually no mention is made of his philanthropic achievements. The book entirely omits the lawsuit against Riverdance but covers the legal battle with John Reid, Michael’s first manager, in a courtroom scene worthy of Gilbert & Sullivan.
Reading the book has the flavour of a long, rambling conversation with Michael - probably over a glass of whiskey in the Castlehyde library (the centrepiece of a verbal tour glowing with pride and tinged with frustration), with frequent pauses to pull a favourite book off the shelf and read a relevant passage. (Many of the chapter headings, quotations ranging from Plato to Marcus Aurelius to James Joyce, give another glimpse of the inner life.)
This style is not always a virtue: the book, especially the later sections, hops around in time and skips past major events, changes topic as easily as Ronan Hardiman changes time signatures, turns evasive and occasionally lapses into cliché. But by this point, details of events have largely been overshadowed by the man's personality: enthusiasm, humour, joy, determination, confidence balanced with self-deprecation, a deep passion for life and appreciation of beauty, an enduring sense of wonder, cultural pride, and the will to survive and thrive against any odds - when the narrative rambles, it merely opens up a different perspective on the scenery of an extraordinary life.
Behind Michael's solo voice stands the chorus of the other interviewees - whose presence is a highly unusual approach for an autobiography, even a collaborative one, particularly as the supplemental voices often range into territory Michael himself leaves alone. Even more striking is a recurring theme of the soloist's isolation; through struggle and success, Michael has always had to make his own way, push through his own pain, fight his own fights. Despite this, the book has no sense of grievance: Michael admits to folly and fatigue but not self-pity or pathos. For good or ill, he faces the consequences of his choices, with frequent pauses to appreciate his good fortune, his dancers, his entire team, his entire world. As the autobiography of an alleged egomaniac, the book falls terribly short.
The tag line of the final section - appropriately titled "Encore" - is the usual inspirational assertion: nothing is impossible, follow your dream. But it's backed up by a lifetime of focused dedication that keeps the inspirational aspect ringing true. Michael's profound drive towards the positive is no facile philosophy, but a bone-deep and proven strategy for life.
Closing the book at the end, I felt much as I did after seeing the show: it was over too quickly. I'd have liked to go out to a pub afterwards, buy Michael a beer, and have another nice long chat.
It was well worth the price of admission.
Author: Louise Owen
Front book cover
Photo: Richard Corman
Back book jacket photo
Photo: Richard Corman
“I love my parents so much – they’re the greatest parents in the world.”
Photo: Brother Rice High School
“My shoes are the tools of my trade.”
Photo: Brian McEvoy
Receiving the Grimaldi Medal at the Red Cross Ball charity gala, Monaco, 2003: “a fanfare of an evening.”
Photo: Brian McEvoy
Meeting Nelson Mandela, 2003: “Millions have been moved by Mr. Mandela’s positive attitude, and I was no exception.”
Photo: Private Collection
“I was proud and honored to receive a doctorate degree from University College Dublin in 2004.”
Photo: Brian McEvoy