Thursday, December 3, 2015

Dear Michael Flatley,

On the evening of my 11th birthday, my parents surprised me with tickets to see your show. I was so happy I cried – both before and during the show. My pre-teen self was enchanted by everything I saw on that stage – the beautiful choreography, the gentle nod to Irish culture, and the strong dancers, both male and female. So when I recently found a $25 ticket to your current iteration of Lord of the Dance, I was elated. Here was my chance to relive that wonderful memory! I was also intrigued. I’d read that this was an updated version of your old show, and I was so interested to see what changes you made to what was originally a pretty solid dance piece. What story were you going to tell to set this beloved but cheesy show from the 90’s in our current 2015?

I knew the production wouldn’t be perfect. I was prepared for the gaudy costumes, the canned music, and the supreme self-confidence. I was even prepared for that weird nymph narrator thing. I knew that in the true spirit of Lord of the Dance, you probably had to stay pretty true to your original creation.

It appears that I was wrong.

I’m not talking about your absurd use of projections, your egregious use of pin spots, or even the color scheme of every other scene that looked as though a Lisa Frank poster threw up all over the stage. (Even though I should be talking about those pin spots. Really, you know things are bad when you notice the lighting). I’m not even talking about the minute-long commercial for the show we had already paid to see that began the entire performance.

I’m talking about your portrayal of the female dancers. Back in my day, your dancers wore exquisite, traditional, Irish step dancing outfits that perfectly showed off their carved and athletic bodies. I’m sure the actual history of the Celtic symbols wasn’t quite accurate, but I remember thinking that the women on your stage were the very ideal of Ireland brought to life. It made me proud to be ¼ Irish.

So imagine my surprise when the show I saw last night had not one gentle nod towards anything. In case you haven’t seen the first hour and 53 minutes of your show in a while (since you only graced us with your presence during the finale number and two encores), allow me to refresh your memory of the female dancers’ trajectory. They begin as Virginal Concubine (clad in all-white harem pants), then progress into Pastel Princess, and finally reach their character apex when they, wearing literally nothing more than black rhinestone bras and pantyhose, play the role of Vamp and reward the men with a sexy striptease for valiantly fighting those weird light-up lizard creatures who have kidnapped the nymph thing.  This narrative arch is repeated almost point for point in Act II, with the only exception being a bizarre scene in which the women are in sports bras and yoga pants and the men, wearing pajama pants and open leather vests, look like 90’s boy band rejects.

These tropes – Virgin, Princess, Vamp – are out of date and detrimental to young women. Where was the strength or the empowerment? How come a gang of dancing females couldn’t help save the nymph thing? Why is it that the only scene that featured a female duet was one in which the two women literally fought over another man? Mr. Flatley, you managed to fail the Bechdel Test without saying any words.

I was so looking forward to an evening of fun nostalgia and delightful dancing. What I got instead was an insulting portrayal of women. Your vapid and trite storyline and poor use of costuming overshadowed the fact that the men and women on your stage are some of the best dancers in the world – and in spite of your machismo, still managed to create some very graceful moments.

In developing this swan song of your career, it appears that you forgot about a very important demographic – the young audience member. When I went home after seeing your show all those years ago, I put on my school uniform skirt and jumped and hopped around in an imitation of the women I had just seen, because that skirt was the closest thing I had to traditional Irish dress. It saddens me to think that now, when today’s 11-year old girls imitate the show they just saw, they will instead be tempted to remove the majority of their clothing.

I’m all for updates. After all, I once put Jesus in an FDNY t-shirt and called it Godspell. But your take on what modern audiences need to see seems to be more behind the times than ever.

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