Flatley and his image seem to dance to a different tune

 

"Bullshit, bullshit! Ninety per cent of everything you read in those papers was absolute bullshit. Go talk to them kids in the troupe, they know me. Anyone who knows me knows I'm built out of one thing, hard work.

"All I wanted was to be in the middle of the air. And let's get this straight. There is a huge difference between being egotistical and being self-confident, or confident about what you do. I believe in myself and I'm confident about what I do, that's the bottom line."

So spoke Michael Flatley over two years ago in Hot Press. Following the public debacle of his departure from Riverdance, he was then a man already besieged by the media perception of him. Clearly, that situation has not changed.

There has been a lot of talk this week after his London court case about the perception the media have (and, it is argued, perpetuate) of Mr Flatley: that he is egocentric and arrogant. Industry friends and colleagues quickly rallied to his defence.

"The way he is depicted generally in the press, the descriptions of his personality - arrogant, egocentric - are at total odds with what I know of him as a person, and as a person I have worked with him under pressurised circumstances," says Ronan Hardiman, composer of the music for Lord Of The Dance.

Mr Hardiman first met the dancer in February 1996. Within a month the composer had been commissioned to write the music for Lord Of The Dance. "There were 10 weeks to compose it, get it approved, and make any amendments. During that period I worked very closely with him.

"He was everything on the show: he produced and directed it, overseeing the set design, the lighting design, the sound equipment, as well as choreographing it and working with me as to what he wanted. You can imagine what pressures were on him at the time, yet I always found him to be incredibly approachable and incredibly relaxed."

Show business is tricky; publicists and stars must create an identifiable, promotional charismatic alter ego. Only Michael Flatley's inner self knows what is true and what is not.

Yet there is a whiff of the nosmoke-without-fire syndrome about him that refuses to go away. If the media's generally negative perception of the man is askew, does that really mean he is niceness personified? "We all want to be liked," says a noted music industry insider who has worked with the dancer (and who asked not to be named). "Michael Flatley likes to be loved."

Twelve months ago this writer was completing a book which emphasised the importance of Riverdance to Irish culture. With the exception of a few key people (each of whom drew a veil over the subject), everyone I talked to about Michael Flatley had less than positive things to say.

The artist, I was informed by people who had worked with him throughout Riverdance, was overbearing, egotistical and self-important. He was, they said, obsessive about controlling his dominant role in Riverdance to the point where he refused to listen to advice on matters of performance. Yet he was also a man of charisma and charm, and a dancer the Riverdance troupe respected.

Respect is a key word here. Peter Aiken of Aiken Promotions first met Michael Flatley while the dancer was performing in Riverdance. When the promoters and the dancer later joined forces to discuss the viability of staging Lord Of The Dance, Mr Aiken says, his company could not see how a second Irish dance production would work.

"We just couldn't see how he was going to come up with a show. To us, it was like a rock band trying to be another U2. Eventually, though, we could see that the guy was going to pull it off. He's very driven, he works so hard at it, from 8 a.m. to midnight. Ego? I've never seen it off stage. On stage, he has to have it."

Dancers and musicians stick with Michael Flatley, according to Mr Aiken. "He looks after his dancers. Of all the rock bands I've worked with, he has the best catering. Most of the groups I work with demand more than Flatley. And he's the only artist I know who willingly meets fans after the show. He's nice to people."

"Flatley is very driven, very focused," says Mr Hardiman. "He drives the people around him very hard. Some people don't react well to that, and they tend to be negative, a bit bitter, and the relationship doesn't continue. But the people who are committed to being perfectionists in their work can see where he is coming from."

Perhaps there is a hint of cultural imperialism in the way the Irish media treat Michael Flatley. Do they view him as an American who has taken a single element of Irish culture and commercialised it, glamorised it, bastardised it, without having any appreciation of the culture from which he draws his inspiration? Has the man brought a Big Mac bun attitude and wrapped it around one of Ireland's sacred cultural cows? Absolutely not, says Mr Hardiman.

"If Michael Flatley was an American multinational setting up business in Ireland, he would have every Government agency falling over themselves trying to offer him incentives and inducements. He came here, invested a large degree of his own money, and created an entity that now employs 300 Irish people worldwide. Not only employed them, but gave them the opportunity of a lifetime to perform in one of the hottest entertainment entities to hit America in the last decade."

"Flatley might walk with a bit of a swagger, but that's just the way he is," says Mr Aiken. "He's Rocky in dancing shoes"