Out of Hibernation
Most species of tiger don’t hibernate: living in the tropics, they have no need to retreat from cold weather or hostile conditions. But as the springtime sun returns to Ireland, Michael Flatley has returned Celtic Tiger to the jungle of the live stage. The show had been on hiatus since late November 2005 – Thanksgiving weekend in the US, where the tour wrapped up its first leg after storming North America, playing 30 cities in 9 weeks.
The show originally opened in Europe, where it has now returned for the first performances of 2006 – in fact, the tour set out with a return to the same venue where the revolution began: a single performance on the 20th April at the Point Theatre in Dublin. With only some 5,000 seats, the Point may be the smallest venue on the current European schedule of 26 performances in 10 countries – the Point show sold out eight minutes after tickets went on sale, a record that may prove unbreakable.
The return is apt. Even more than Lord of the Dance, this show was born out of Ireland – sparked by Irish history and Irish traditional art forms, dedicated to and expressing the Irish spirit worldwide. Some critics have been ready to dismiss the Irish dance show as last century’s craze, an aged and stumbling giant on its last legs. The new show has not necessarily convinced them otherwise; but the critics have never been Michael’s target audience. Far more complex in scope and darker in theme than the predecessor shows, with a new depth and sophistication, the dancing and choreography of Celtic Tiger have set new standards, while the production values and artistic ambition have pushed far beyond existing limits, as any vital art form must and should.
The show has changed since its 2005 opening and the recording of the DVD version, and continues to change and develop as the Tiger makes its way around the world: please click here for the Celtic Café’s detailed commentary on the show. As in his previous work, Michael seems unwilling to accept the limitations even of yesterday’s vision when today may bring fresh inspiration.
The holiday season of 2005 brought a special present to the fans of the Irish dance shows: while the live tour of the production paused between continents, the long-awaited DVD version of Michael Flatley’s new show, Celtic Tiger, was released in the US, some five months after its first public performance in July 2005 in Budapest, Hungary. On its UK release in early April 2006, the video burst onto the Top 20 DVD charts in the UK, hitting #14 in its first week and moving up to #12 the week after – a “surprise” to UK trend-watchers, who had known little of the show and expected less. On the Top 10 Music DVD chart, the video opened at #1 and had not relinquished the top place as of the end of May.
Although the DVD incorporates footage from the Budapest premiere, the principal filming occurred some three weeks earlier, when Michael assembled a huge and enthusiastic crowd for a special, invitation-only preview performance of Celtic Tiger on 17th June at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham in the UK. Unlike previous shows, which were recorded for video on or after opening night, this full-dress performance was mounted in advance of the official premiere to tape the show for video release. The performance ended a four-year vigil for Michael’s fans, who had waited in hopes of his return to the stage, and presented at least one answer to the question of whether the Irish dance show has enough vigour to continue as a vital art form.
The NIA Birmingham comprises two venues, an “intimate” theatre that seats about 4,000 and a massive arena that holds 13,000. True to form, Michael used the latter. Although not full to capacity – space had to be set aside for the film crew and their equipment – the audience numbered in the thousands. Invitations were accepted by dozens of dance schools as well as a long list of luminaries of Irish dance. And a very unusual and generous invitation was sent out by Michael, over the internet and through the grapevine, offering 500 free tickets to fans.
The offer was taken up with enthusiasm, with the faithful flying in on short notice not only from Europe but from as far away as the US and even Brazil. Startled box-office staff at the NIA looked out at 4:30 that afternoon on an unexpected sea of cheerful and hopeful faces – due to an oversight, the NIA staff hadn’t learned in advance of the additional guests – and tackled the challenge of printing out the extra tickets needed. The late afternoon sun of a hot June day poured through the glass walls of the lobby, but the greenhouse atmosphere failed to wilt the enthusiasm of the waiting fans, who greeted each other and the arriving VIP guests with all the fervor of a massive family reunion. Fans posed for pictures with favourite dancers as the next generation of Irish dance students swarmed around such role models as Bernadette Flynn, Daire Nolan, John Carey, Stephen Brunning, Stephen Scariff, Sarah Clarke, and many others. Marie Duffy, Ronan Hardiman and Martin Flitton were all present to see the new show launched in style.
Notably absent from the invited audience were the UK press corps, although photos and brief articles appeared in the British tabloid press shortly after the preview. Focus soon shifted to the European mainland, specifically Budapest, where the tour kicked off at the Puskás Stadion on 9th July 2005, four years after Michael’s previous triumph in the same venue in the 2000 Feet of Flames tour and one week before his 47th birthday. Most of the footage of the opening number on the DVD of the show was taken at this performance, enlivened by the large and enthusiastic audience that had turned out to cheer on not only Michael but Zóltan Papp, the first native Hungarian dancer to achieve fame in this dance form.
The energy and brilliance of that evening are also captured on the DVD’s prize bonus feature, an hour-long backstage documentary titled Tiger Feet. This piece is very different from the standard and often generic making-of featurette usually offered; along with extensive remarks by Michael and Marie Duffy and interviews with dancers and musicians, it offers a literal backstage view of opening night, from afternoon rehearsals and warm-ups through to the final bows and after-show jubilation. Possibly best of all, the feature includes extensive additional footage of many of the dance numbers.
David Mallet’s film direction of the DVD, with his characteristic editing style of rapid cuts and changes of angle, may not be to everyone’s taste. If any filmed version of a live stage show can ever truly capture the energy of a live performance, certainly the videos of Michael’s shows have done so; but even the most successful recording cannot substitute for the personal experience of the energy of the live show.
Tiger on Tour
As more tour dates and venues followed the Birmingham and Budapest shows, the show’s unusual technical and staging needs – rising in large part from its extraordinary marriage of traditional culture and modern technology – presented unique challenges to the tour and restricted the show from some venues. As late as the afternoon of the 9th July, technicians in Budapest were still reinforcing the massive stage to support the physical demands of the show; and the next scheduled performance, the official European premiere in Prague, was cancelled due to technical problems and safety concerns with the stage and the venue.
From Europe, the show moved on to Canada and the US, with a sold-out gala performance in September at Madison Square Gardens in New York City, a spectacular night attended by much of the city’s Irish-American community as well as Irish folk legends Tommy Makem and Matt Molloy, concert promoter Peter Aiken and the staging manager of Croke Park in Dublin, Peter McKenna.
The North American tour ended on Thanksgiving weekend in the US, with the dancers, musicians and crew returning home for well-deserved holiday rest before the European tour resumes in the spring of 2006. Immediately after the final US performance, Michael made a side trip to Manchester, New Hampshire to join the Chieftains for the opening of the Shaskeen pub before returning to Ireland to celebrate Christmas at Castlehyde – the first holidays in the newly refurbished mansion, a homecoming longed-for and long deferred.
Author: Louise Owen
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Ready to dance again
Michael at the press conference at the Budapest zoo
The Budapest press conference
Michael in Fairfax, VA, after the final US performance
photo: Louise Owen
Signing autographs in Fairfax
photo: Louise Owen
Michael with Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains at the Shaskeen ribbon-cutting ceremony
photo: Mary Keane
Matt Molloy, Michael, and Paddy Maloney at the Shaskeen
photo: Mary Keane