Just over 25 years ago, I was first exposed to the wonder of Irish dancing and culture through the sensation that was Riverdance. Since then, even though it did not star the legendary Michael Flatley as he had already left the show, it instantly became one of my all-time favourite theatre shows and one that still remains within my top five today. Not only did it spark a love of watching Irish dancing and listening to Irish music, it sparked a passion and urge within me to take up Irish dancing as well (well, for a bit).
A few years later, Flatley broke out on his own to create the brand new show Lord of the Dance, which broke even more records and ground. While Riverdance of course still continues to be a monumental success, Lord of the Dance sets itself apart as being straight from Michael’s own vision as he still stands at the show’s helm as its producer and choreographer, cementing his unique talents that Riverdance first catapulted into the world.
Now apparently even bigger than its predecessor, Lord of the Dance is back celebrating its silver anniversary. But it’s been reinvented with brand new music composed by Gerard Fahy instead of Ronan Hardiman, with whom Flatley worked for several years on the original show as well as Feet of Flames and Celtic Tiger.
Having grown up listening to the original soundtrack, the new one lacked the same level of ingenuity, almost derivative in a way that it needn’t have been had Hardiman’s music still been kept. Although it still did its job to get toes tapping and hands clapping, allowing the dancers’ fancy footwork to shine through, the nostalgic feeling of the compositions that accompanied Michael Flatley’s creation was missing. For example, the opening routine Cry of the Celts and the female protagonist and her troupe’s number Breakout were not quite as stirring and bombastic as I remember them and the funky pop-like Siamsa – a favourite of mine and others – wasn’t present at all.
The show begins by retelling the journey of Michael from when he started out and since the Lord of the Dance’s inception. The original show is based on a loose story that follows “The Lord of the Dance” as he is fought over by two women and fights off a contender to his title. For its 25th anniversary the story is pretty similar though was a little disjointed as it interspersed parallel dance numbers as well as musical interludes that were a little bit randomly placed within the show’s timeline.
Nevertheless, the skills of the entire troupe are not to be forgotten, as it is their remarkable amount of energy and enthusiasm that carries the show. They have learnt from the king of Irish dancing himself how to move like him – not only in terms of the steps – but how to command a stage and recreate Irish dancing itself as the show requires acting through expressive dancing akin to other styles such as ballet and contemporary. And talking of contemporary, many of the outfits have been modernised from the more traditional-inspired costumes in Riverdance and the original Lord of the Dance, which includes robotic-like warriors in full leather suits complete with helmets, leather-look leggings, and white genie-like getups with split balloon pants and hoods.
The “Lord of the Dance” in the first show at Manchester’s Palace Theatre, Matthew Smith – one of the several protégés probably hand-picked by Flatley to fill his shoes – is no doubt a brilliant dancer that embodies much of Michael’s abilities. However, a certain natural crowd-pleasing presence is not quite on the same level, as evident on the first number where he speeds onto the stage for his debut solo – a time when Michael would’ve had people already whooping away and giving a standing ovation just minutes in. Then again, that is understandable when you’re a relatively unknown dancer who likely wasn’t even born when Flatley first became famous.
And it’s the standing ovations – something the marketing slogans constantly allude to (“25 years of standing ovations”) that feels a bit off. Not that of course they don’t deserve a standing ovation if you truly enjoyed the show, but you’re almost made to feel obliged to anyway because of it being flashed in your face – as evident by half the people who did stand up at the end but not exactly leaping to their feet.
Lord of the Dance’s 25th anniversary show is definitely a must-see if you can, especially if you are a fan of Michael and the dance phenomenon that swept the globe and continues to entertain and wow audiences. It brings this spectacle to brand new audiences as well, plus allows those who remember the originals to be taken on a trip down memory lane to watch new talents extend its legacy and carve out their own careers as internationally renowned dancers. The fresh new music to accompany it may not be as groundbreaking but it doesn’t take away from the mesmerising hard work and lightning fast feet of those on stage, including the endearing Little Spirit, two glamorous fiddlers and a vocalist who share the stage with the dancers.
The magic of the original Lord of the Dance show which I have seen as Feet of Flames on video – where an audience of 25,000 saw it in Hyde Park with a 55 metre wide stage, a live band (which would have been nice to see in this one) and up to 100 dancers (this one barely had twenty) – is certainly impossible to capture and translate on a scale as small as a theatre tour. But if even a smidgeon of that magic can be shown on that kind of scale, that is still a lot of magic.