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Michael Flatley's very last dance

Ian O'Doherty bids farewell to a larger-than-life showbiz character who, after his three sell-out shows at Dublin's RDS, hangs up his dancing shoes for good next month

`He burst on to the stage and into the world's eye as if from a catapult, stepping with the sensuality of a ballet dancer and the swagger of a matador.'

It's this type of hyperbole that could only be written about Michael Flatley. In fact, it could be a direct quote from the man himself. But while his publicity agents have often struggled to hype the man as much as he hypes himself, tonight's show in the RDS, the first of a farewell trio, sees the swan song of one of the richest and, lest people forget, successful performers in showbiz history.

From the moment Flatley first took to the stage in that now legendary Riverdance premiere during the Eurovision interlude in 1994, the world has been privy to one of the few genuinely larger-than-life characters in entertainment today.

A man who has now surely broken the record for the most records broken, Flatley's achievements, both financial and logistical, are truly staggering.

In less then two years, Lord of the Dance has grossed more than $100m, becoming the top-earning show in American history in the process. More than 2m people have enjoyed the Michael Flatley experience. More than 2m copies of the video for Lord of the Dance have been sold, becoming the fastest and highest-selling video in Australia's history.

But while the statistics for the success of Lord of the Dance are pretty staggering, it is hard not to assume that all of Flatley's fortune, estimated to be more than $50m, can't salve the sting he still feels from the treatment he received at the the hands of the Riverdance producers.

Sacked from the show he claims to have choreographed on the eve of their second London run in 1995, claim and counter-claim, slur and counter-slur couldn't hide what the dispute was about respect. And for the Chicago-born son of a plumber, the most tangible way to assess how highly respected he was comes in financial terms.

Having famously insured his legs for $25m, that gross figure seems reasonable when one considers the fact that those pins now earn him an estimated $1m a month.

It's a long way from the days of Riverdance. Flatley's replacement, Colin Dunne, earns a healthy lump of the troupe's £70,000 weekly wage bill. But while Dunne doesn't need to employ any of the bookkeeping skills he used in his former life as a Birmingham accountant to work out that he earns more than most, it is believed the role of principal male dancer is less rewarding now than when Flatley's twinkle-toes filled the shoes.

Flatley's first act after being sacked by producer Moya Doherty was to sue his former employers, demanding a once-off £5m lump sum or staggered 2pc in accrued `intellectual copyright' resulting from his original dance moves being replicated by his replacements.

Unlike the man behind it, the legal battle seems to have effectively disappeared, although, as Riverdance producer Julian Erskine said at the time: ``Michael instituted proceedings at a time when it suited him for publicity purposes ... we heard about it through the newspapers at the time. Our publicist in London got a copy of the litigation before we did. We haven't heard a word since.''

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But while both sides may make the odd conciliatory gesture, such as Flatley's suggestion of a coffee and the Riverdance producers sending him a bunch of flowers on the opening night of Lord of the Dance, such polite rumblings fail to hide a growing antipathy between the parties.

Privately, many observers feel it was only a question of time before the partnership broke up. Prima donnas are all very well in the Bolshoi, but the rather more egalitarian approach of Riverdance saw co-dancer Jean Butler become increasingly frustrated at Flatley's showboating.

The subsequent success of Lord of the Dance has taken most people by surprise. A high-concept production that revolves around Flatley dancing for `good' against the dancing forces of `evil' has been critically reviled. The black clothes and militaristic style of the show have led to some critics comparing Lord of the Dance to a fascist rally. The London Independent dismissed the show, citing ``it's a testament to an ego run riot,'' while Elton John famously broke from the luvvy ranks to quip ``Hitler is Irish.''

But the more the critics get the boot into Flatley, and it's something they do gleefully and regularly, more than two million people have chosen to ignore the cynics and enjoy the ride.

Yet unlike so many other stars, such as Cliff Richard (who, ironically, saw his Wembley Arena record of 18 consecutive appearances broken by Flatley in February), who have seen critical maulings only increase their fans' devotion, Flatley remains a curiously unloved, if not unlovable, character.

Admired but never adored, he has had to contend with accusations of egomania for most of his career. Even by American standards he is remarkably quick to blow his own trumpet, and then wonder why the public remain reluctant to take him to their bosom in the way they did Jean Butler.

He occasionally tries to present a humbler face, saying on one occasion: ``There is a huge difference between being egotistical and being self-confident, or confident about what you do. To me, ego running riot would be me sitting in front of a mirror all day saying, `Jesus Christ, you're a good-looking guy'. I believe in myself and in what I do.''

Part of Flatley's ongoing public relations problem centres around the fact that for all his technical brilliance, high IQ (although he is not, as was once believed, a member of MENSA) and business acumen, Flatley remains a strangely naive character, forever doing his party piece and then wondering why nobody likes him.

His strident assertions, post-Riverdance that, ``I did it, I built it, every tap, every sound all the stages of the music, it was all mine.'' had an almost manic character to them, but despite his protestations of excellence, Flatley still comes across as insecure and unhappy.

His ten-year marriage to Polish wife Biata floundered last year. After his rather too public indiscretions in certain Dublin nightclubs, this came as no great shock.

Flatley likes to tell people a story from his childhood. When he approached a music shop to enquire about flute lessons, ``the guy behind the counter asked me if I had a flute and I held up my wooden flute and he laughed at me and everybody in the shop laughed at me. I started crying and ran home. I ran home and f****d the flute under the bed and didn't touch it for three months.''

It's precisely that kind of childhood humiliation that helped to turn Flatley into an accomplished flautist.

His decision to retire from public performance after his final show, the typically modestly titled Feet of Flames in Hyde Park next month is a necessary one for his health. The three performances in Dublin this weekend are already sold out and the show should be an amazing spectacle if nothing else.

But nothing can change the fact that for all his huge success too much of his mind is concerned with fixing the slights he endured in a music shop in Chicago 30 years ago.

The phrase `be careful what you wish for, it just might come true' has seldom been so apt.

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