Celtic Tiger

at the Celtic Cafe

Celtic Tiger Ready to Roar

Years of speculation and months of secrecy finally ended with the announcement in late April of the title, theme, and opening date and location of Michael Flatley’s new Irish dance show, which will formally open on July 12th, 2005, in the Strahov Stadion in Prague in the Czech Republic. The official European opening will be four years after the end of his last and supposedly final tour, and exactly four days before Michael’s 47th birthday. But for the legions of patient and dedicated fans, the long wait ends when the show previews on July 9th at the Puskás Stadion in Budapest, Hungary.

Budapest is, of course, the scene of one of Michael’s greatest stage triumphs to date, the extraordinary performance on Wednesday, 19th July 2000 during the European tour of Feet of Flames. Celtic Tiger will preview at the same venue, a vast sports arena whose 69,000-seat grandstand will again be augmented with additional seats in the field. Then called the Népstadion (People’s Stadium), it was renamed in 2002 for Hungary’s greatest football star, Puskás Ferenc. Located on the Pest side of the Danube (the eastern half of Budapest), the Puskás Stadion is the largest performance venue in Hungary and one of the largest in Eastern Europe.

Michael’s renown in Hungary began when he not only brought his tour to Budapest in 2000, the first staging of any Irish dance show in Eastern Europe, but filled the stadium for a sold-out show with only minimal advance notice. The enthusiastic crowd, given as 100,000 people, was the largest audience ever assembled for a live dance performance. Selected numbers from the performance were included in the Gold video, the only commercial footage released to date from this historic tour.

In the Irish dance universe, Budapest has gone from a frontier outpost to a thriving centre of the Irish cultural renaissance. Stephen Scariff, a veteran dancer of Lord of the Dance, Feet of Flames and Dancing on Dangerous Ground, subsequently settled in Budapest and joined Ronan Morgan, who had opened its first Irish dance school in 2000. His own Irish dance stage show, Irish Dance Invasion, was mounted in 2003 with a cast of mostly Hungarian dancers. "I have never experienced anything like the enthusiasm Hungarians have for Irish dancing," he declared at the time. His students captured 51 first place trophies in the European Irish Dancing Championships in Frankfurt last December.

Since then, the Celtic glamour has continued to spread as vigourously east of the Danube as everywhere else in the world. Budapest boasts numerous Irish pubs, plenty of Irish beer and a thriving Celtic musical scene, while as far afield as Moscow, Igor Denisov founded Russia’s first Irish dance school, Iridan, in 2000. His immediate inspiration, again, was Michael – like his first students, he had initially taught himself to dance by watching videos of Michael’s shows, and the students entranced the master during personal visits in 2002 and 2003. With the new show, the flowers on these distant branches return in triumph to the original roots: the cast of Celtic Tiger reputedly includes dancers from Moscow and Asia, as well as none other than the extraordinary Hungarian dancer Zoltán Papp, well-known to Celtic Café devotees for his magnificent work in Dance of Desire.

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright

“I see the Celtic Tiger . . . the true spirit of the people themselves. And how many times they’ve overcome adversity and came back from defeat.”

Throughout the show’s long and secretive development, Michael remained reticent about the specific theme and storyline of the show, offering only hints. “This new show will be totally different to anything that’s out there now – and that’s not just talk, it has to be different, hugely different, to compete.” (This from the man who has always approached competition with the straightforward strategy of winning by simply being better than anyone else out there.) “This will be something I think will make many older people in Ireland very proud. . . . It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, something I need to do.”

Michael made it clear from the outset that the absolute commitment to perfection remains undiminished. “We set the bar high with Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, but I believe I can push the bar higher, and that’s what this is about.” The show was described from the outset as “controversial in both the subject matter and the dance moves . . . It will take [the audience] on a journey like none other they’ve experienced.”

With a few details finally released in the Hungarian press, it appears the journey is that of the Irish struggle. “The story really chronicles the journey of the Celts . . . it takes you from the arrival of Christianity, through the Norman invasion . . . the Vikings, coming back from the destruction that was caused; the Famine in 1840, and the British occupation; and then the struggle for independence. And finally having to leave and go to the New World, which was America, and starting at the very bottom. All the signs said ‘No Irish Wanted’. Everywhere. And they had to rise to become the John F. Kennedys of America. So again they came from nothing.”

The show’s themes – survival of invasion and triumph in the face of oppression – are likely to resonate strongly, not only for descendents of the Irish Diaspora, but for any number of other nations and peoples around the globe. Michael has frequently asserted the universal and international nature of the language of dance, and in illustration of this belief Lord of the Dance has crossed geographic and cultural borders freely for nine years, reaching easily across boundaries while remaining firmly rooted in its Irish past.

The phrase “Celtic Tiger” is highly evocative. In the early 1990s, the economic vitality of certain Asian countries had earned them the nickname “The Four Tigers”; shortly afterwards, Ireland entered a period of vigourous economic growth and energetic development, and was soon dubbed the “Emerald Tiger” or the “Celtic Tiger”. A new sense of optimism and pride flourished, as Irish business, sports and culture all moved into global prominence. For generations, many of Ireland’s best and brightest had emigrated to other countries in search of opportunity: now emigrés began to return home. And in 1994, Ireland hosted the Eurovision Song Contest (and won for the third time in a row), and an expatriate son brought an overlooked traditional Irish art form into a sudden and unparalleled world spotlight.

“We are Ireland in the eyes of those audiences. From Beijing to Berlin to Moscow to Melbourne, we are the only Ireland that many of them may ever see or experience. I wouldn’t undertake this if I felt I couldn’t uphold that – it’s my job, it’s my duty, but more than that, it’s my honour.”

In the Forest of the Night

The phenomenon of Irish show dancing took Michael some 25 years to develop and seven minutes to sell to the world in 1994. Lord of the Dance, by Michael’s own account, was conceived in detail in one long sleepless night, and become a reality after six hours of visualisation, six months of realisation and ten weeks of rehearsal. Economic constraints forced the show into the cheapest available rehearsal studio and out onto the public stage in the shortest possible time. Not only did the show remain a work in progress for months, but one of its enduring strengths after thousands of performances lies in its constant state of evolution, as sets and costumes change, performers rotate in and out of roles bringing different nuances of interpretation, and numbers are revised or re-thought. Riverdance passed through a similar process of evolution, although it settled into a final form within its first two years.

By contrast, Celtic Tiger has been given a very long time indeed to develop out of the public eye – a process somewhat reminiscent of Michael’s literary idol, James Joyce, whose final novel, Finnegan’s Wake, was simply referred to as “Work In Progress” for over 15 years while Joyce dared his friends and associates to guess what the actual title of the finished work would be. The show has been given a rare opportunity, time to develop and refine the work before it ever appears before a world audience that will inevitably be sharply divided, with a small body of critical and cynical reviewers unmoved by the enthusiasm of the rest of the audience.

Rumours were thicker than usual in the air in early May 2004, hard on the heels of the Riverdance 10th anniversary party Michael hosted at the Hairy Lemon pub in Dublin. The official announcement came in July of the same year, when he gathered a picked group of dancers and returned to the SFX City Theatre in Dublin, the same theatre where Lord of the Dance rehearsals were held when that show was in development. The suits were discarded for sweats, and even the fragile, much-taped ‘lucky shoes’ were removed from their glass museum case amongst Michael’s trophies: “I’m going in there right now. I’m going back to where it all started, with this old pair of shoes that are like Jimi Hendrix’s Stratocaster; they make a sound no other shoes can make.”

Although auditions for the show’s cast were held in London in August, and additional performers were later drawn from as far afield as Moscow and China, the best of Michael’s world champions were assembled in Dublin in the summer of 2004 for the developmental stage – returning to their troupes later, under strict written pledges of secrecy. No announcement has been made of the final cast, and it is not known whether the opening curtain will reveal other familiar faces besides Michael’s.

Some familiar names and faces have been seen, however: brief rehearsal clips shown on Hungarian television reveal Marie Duffy putting members of the new troupe through their paces with the same unrelenting energy and focus, to the sound of new musical numbers that promise to be as memorable as before – Ronan Hardiman’s genius likewise remains undimmed. Most of all, Michael will return to his place in centre stage, both dancing and playing flute (although presumably not at the same time). As the show enters its final phase of rehearsals, glimpses backstage discover Michael performing new moves with all his old mastery.

What Immortal Hand or Eye

“This is not about me missing the limelight – I get enough of that doing everything else; this is not about the money – God knows I have enough; and this is not about the ego – despite what people might say.”

Of course, Michael retired from dancing permanently on 29 July 2001, at the end of a tour that, with only 21 performances, still ranked amongst the top 10 in box-office gross in the USA that year. He was done with performing; he wanted to go out at the top of his game, he said. He had a host of other plans, projects, interests and responsibilities: business deals, creative projects, burgeoning philanthropic interests, the rehabilitation of Castlehyde. The leather costumes and spotlights would be left behind for a leather-upholstered chair and three-piece tailored suits.

Did anyone really believe that he was done? Did he believe it himself? This was the indefatigable showman who had transformed an overlooked traditional art form, launched an entire new branch of the entertainment industry, and founded a vibrant new genre of dance theatre. At the same time, the total body of his life’s work remained relatively small, while his imagination seemed unflagging.

Through the intervening years, amidst an ongoing game of conceptual cat-and-mouse with the tabloids, came tantalising glimpses of a continuing ferment of ideas for new shows. Michael’s physical comeback was covered in detail by the UK press, as he freely shared the particulars of his exercise programme, his diet, his weight, and his workout schedule, dodging details of the reasons for his hard work while freely admitting to the cost. “I have been training full time for the past few months,” he told Ireland on Sunday in May of 2004, “so you make up your own mind as to why I’m working so hard.” He accepted again the brutal bargain of his touring days, trading off physical pain (“a lot of pain”) for the ability to continue with the dancing that has always been his passion. “Man, was it hard to kick above my head again, but . . . muscle memory is a great thing.”

Although he was physically exhausted by the end of that “final” tour in 2001, Michael had not suffered any of the devastating and permanently crippling injuries whose spectres haunt the career of every professional dancer. As for his age – at the time of his global breakthrough, he was already defying time and entropy as well as gravity. The accumulated years of rehearsal and performance have brought a depth and sophistication to his work that younger dancers can aspire to but cannot successfully duplicate.

Michael had described the 2001 tour, particularly the performance at Madison Square Gardens in New York City, as an unsurpassable triumph, a true peak from which it seemed impossible to go anywhere but down. But Michael’s career has been an ongoing exercise in first insisting that nothing is impossible, and then demonstrating it. “I always promised myself I would go out on top,” – but he seems determined to continue to top himself.

“Retirement is a funny word for people like me,” he told the Irish Independent in September of 2004. “I think my feet are faster than they ever were. Once I’m back there on the boards, I can feel that firepower.”

On Hungarian TV, he talks enthusiastically about the show and the dancers, and glows with excitement at the prospect of dancing again. In Budapest and elsewhere in Europe, the excitement is growing; after his 2000 performance, Michael promised to return, and now against the odds the promise will be kept. He loves the city, and the stage; he has a show to present and a story to tell. The audience is gathering: the fans who have waited through the years, hoping for the opportunity to see him dance live again, augmented by a new generation who have seen only videos. Beyond the preview in Budapest and the official European premiere in Prague, no formal dates have been announced yet, although fans on every continent are hoping for a tour that will bring him to where they will be able to see him dance one more time. They have never stopped watching for him, waiting in hopes of his return, patiently willing to be less than entirely convinced that he was really retired for good.

“I came out of a bar in Ireland,” he told an interviewer late in December of 2001. “It was a magnificent night, the sky white with stars . . . I danced, with no music, until I dropped. I felt like a million dollars, but was crying at the end . . . Just missing it. Just missing everything about it. The dancers. The pain.”

“I would like to think I will perform again.”

Author: Louise Owen
Original Web Design: Alexander Servas