Somewhere around 1730, an ambitious dancer named Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo leaped from Parisian fame into ballet history by shortening the floor-length skirts of the period to just above her ankles, removing the heels of her shoes--and putting on such a display of brilliant footwork that she changed the whole emphasis of classical dance from poetic grace to virtuoso technique.
At 38, Irish American stepdancing champion Michael Flatley is another such epoch-defining artist with a place awaiting him in the history books. Watching him in the videotape of "Riverdance" (which he helped create but never danced in America) or at the Universal Amphitheatre on Thursday, you saw someone who is both the best in the world at what he does and also utterly different from those who preceded him.
It doesn't much matter whether he did it alone or was the torchbearer for a new generation. What matters is that Irish stepdancing was a prim, moldy antique of interest only to a devoted coterie before Flatley came along with his show-biz savvy, dynamic shadow-boxing style and 28 taps per second.
The rest is headlines congealing into history, with Flatley's reinvented stepdancing suddenly emerging as a full-blooded, contemporary theater form in the mid-'90s--a form so popular that it's filling the biggest theaters on both sides of the Atlantic and is well-nigh inescapable on both network and public television. Just this week, the Academy Awards made the milestones of film history into a mere backdrop for Flatley--and you ain't seen nothing yet.
Being a media phenomenon, however, doesn't necessarily make Flatley sexy, buff, a storyteller or a choreographer--qualities definitely needed (some more than others) in his new two-hour epic, "Lord of the Dance," running through Sunday. However, Flatley the dancer is utterly dazzling and whenever he's in motion, you're swept up and away by something far more significant than the deficiencies that become so obvious when he leaves the stage.
As directed by Arlene Phillips, with original music by Irish film composer Ronan Hardiman, "Lord of the Dance" is set on what the program booklet calls "Planet Ireland," a fusion of mythic and modern landscapes filled with T-shirted thugs in half-masks, T-shirted good guys protecting the weak, colleens who suddenly become babes by stripping to shorts and halter tops--plus Flatley in the title role, showing as much well-oiled chest as possible in a succession of gleaming Sue Blane costumes.
Filling the 86-foot-wide stage with portable quasi-Celtic towers, arches and banners--plus a central portcullis wide enough to hold "Riverdance" hostage--Jonathan Park's sets don't so much dwarf Flatley as release him at full scale. (Viewer advisory: Those who've found him fulsome on television should avoid the huge video side-screens at the Amphitheatre; this is a theater star who can fill stadiums with his intensity but hasn't yet learned how to reshape his attack for the camera.)
Every so often the beauteous Anne Buckley wanders through, singing sweet ballads--and other musical interludes feature the excellent fiddlers Cora Smyth and Mairead Nesbitt, with Flatley himself on flute. Mostly, though, it's Gaelic Jets versus Celtic Sharks, with Flatley facing off against the Dark Lord, Daire Nolan, in the show's hottest duet.
Flatley duets were the highlight of the original "Riverdance," but here he interacts only sporadically with the two capable female leads: Bernadette Flynn, wearing white or gold as Saoirse the pure, and Gillian Norris, in red, of course, as Morrighan the sexpot. Playing the elfin Little Spirit, Helen Eagan spends an inordinate amount of time standing in fourth position throwing glitter dust on everyone, but the corps is predictably spectacular and an overamplified nine-member orchestra plays valiantly.
Unlike "Riverdance" at the Pantages, you can always hear the dancers' taps in "Lord of the Dance," even when the volume is cranked all the way up, and the new show also cultivates a sense of humor about itself that proves a blessing after the pseudo-documentary pretension of its predecessor. Where "Riverdance" faked its way through Irish folklore, "Lord of the Dance" is a showpiece extravaganza, period. Best of all, it's got Michael Flatley, as contradictory and controversial a star as ever existed and a dancer for the ages.
* "Lord of the Dance" continues today at 2:15 and 8:15 p.m., with a final performance Sunday at 7:15 p.m. Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza. Tickets: $35-$75. (213) 252-8497.