What possessed him? Often, after a gruelling performance on stage he had found himself “lying in a bed of ice after a show and dreaming of a way of capturing the event” for posterity. Many of the paintings are intended to record “the overwhelming emotional energy” he experienced while dancing. While the images don’t represent dance steps, he says, “they are a representation of the energy of the dance”.
The titles of some of the paintings offer clues to their meaning: Fred and Ginger is an obvious homage to Hollywood’s golden dance couple; The Walking Dead evokes ghostlike figures stalking the famished Irish countryside during ‘Black ’47’.
Although he’s not the first artist in history to abandon the brush, he believes that his unique technique, and the speed at which he works, means the paints are “mixed in a way that would never be possible in traditional painting”. He explains that he is “in the painting” while making it and can flick extra paint onto the canvas – “the colours are chosen in split seconds” – as the process evolves at break-neck pace.
He continues to manage a lucrative global business, troupes of dancers tour the world performing the shows he created, but his energy is now channelled into painting. “I’m crazy about the work; I love every drop of paint over there,” he says, nodding in the direction of his studio. He modestly admits to being “fascinated by people who are gifted”, citing artists such as the French Impressionists – Renoir and Monet, and Modernists – Jackson Pollock and the “quite extraordinary” Mark Rothko.
Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet in the Museé D’Orsay in Paris is a particular favourite and he “couldn’t stop crying” when he saw Caravaggio’s The Taking Of Christ in the National Gallery of Ireland.
He claims to be “always happy” and says: “I love being busy; I love doing things. My life is blessed. Mam and Dad are still alive, my son is healthy and I have a beautiful wife.”
His parents Michael, from Co Roscommon, and Eilish, from Co Carlow, who had emigrated in 1947 to Chicago, where he was born, have returned to live in Ireland. In 2006, he married Niamh O’Brien – who had danced with him on stage – and they have a son, Michael St James Flatley, who was born in 2007.
They divide their time between various homes – their other houses are in London and Barbados. While the British capital and the Caribbean sun both appeal to him, Flatley, like many Irish-Americans, seems to have a deep attachment to Ireland. The national tricolour flies from a flagpole on his emerald-green, clipped, riverside lawn.