Queen Victoria would most certainly not have been amused by the sight of a muscular Irish dancer warming up in the picture gallery of Buckingham Palace ahead of the evening’s entertainment. But that’s where ‘Lord of the Dance’ Michael Flatley recalls preparing for his swan song – two years ago – when he performed for the last time. Among the audience attending the private function, in London’s most exclusive ballroom, were Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
The Prince of Wales may have had the last dance, but Flatley, whose legs were once insured for $40 million, hasn’t quite hung up those famous brogues. His dancing shoes, custom-made by Freed of London, are instrumental in his new career.
Now 54, the man who transformed traditional Irish dancing and brought it to audiences worldwide, has embarked on a new career as a painter. He is using his feet to make art by tap dancing paint on to a blank canvas. Flatley has been working in a studio housed in converted stables at Castlehyde, Co Cork, his estate on the banks of the Blackwater near Fermoy.
A marble-tiled floor is covered with canvases and large, plastic-bottle-like tubes of paint. It is here he creates his art during intense bursts of feverish activity. He works at a frenetic pace – he is, after all, the fastest tap dancer in history, having achieved, in 1998, a dizzying record 35 taps per second. The result? A series of highly-charged, vibrantly colourful and powerful paintings.
During my visit, he’s taking a break and relaxing inside the palatial 40,000 sq ft mansion on which he’s lavished tens of millions of euro in one of the most elaborate and expensive house restorations ever undertaken in Ireland.
His study is a vast reception room where the masculine decor includes wall-mounted stags’ heads, framed photos of tout le monde (from Mohammed Ali to Bill Clinton) and a large painting of a fox-hunting scene. The Downton Abbey look is softened by a framed parchment from Pope Benedict conferring marriage blessings.
Lunch is retro and macho: steak, chips and onions and a side-salad zinging with enough garlic to slay a vampire. Wine must, ruefully , be declined – a lost opportunity to taste the Flatley cellar’s fabled Château Pétrus.
Flatley’s international success with the spectacular dance shows Lord of the Dance, Feet of Flames and Celtic Tiger means he could now just put his feet up. But he’s not in wind-down mode and is visibly enthused as he explains how art has become his new passion.
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.
This loyalty has influenced his decision to stage his first art exhibition in Ireland rather than in London or New York – the international art market’s twin capitals, where galleries have already begun making overtures about showing his work.
His first exhibition, Michael Flatley: The Art of the Dance is being organised by Sheppard’s fine art auctioneers of Durrow, Co Laois – “as a gesture of support for small-town Ireland” – a choice likely to raise eyebrows and wilt lorgnettes in the rarefied upper echelons of the art establishment. But loyalty has also influenced his decision. It was Sheppard’s which sold his first painting – over a year ago – at a charity auction in aid of Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral.
Flatley donated a painting, initially thought to have been a one-off novelty rather than a harbinger of an artistic career. It was bought by an anonymous telephone bidder in Dublin for €5,600, a very strong auction price for a first painting. Before he brought the hammer down, auctioneer Michael Sheppard addressed the saleroom: “Don’t blame me in a few years’ time when we see these going for millions.”
Flatley is not going down the auction route for his solo debut and has opted instead for a selling exhibition where paintings, selected from a substantial body of completed work, will be hung, priced and offered for sale. The event will be held in Dublin, probably in late May, at a venue to be announced soon.
He may be the most successful popular dancer since Fred Astaire but, in the art world, Flatley will be regarded as a novice. Like all artists, he faces the nerve-wracking ordeal of presenting his work to public scrutiny – followed by that agonising wait to see if those all-important, little red-dot stickers start to appear. While his fame guarantees a certain pulling power, to art critics, collectors and galleries, he is an unknown painter.
However, if Flatley’s paintings attract even a fraction of the interest generated by his dancing, the art world could have a new star in the making.