Friday, 15 May 2015

Interview: James Keegan, star of Lord Of The Dance

James Keegan is currently starring as the Lord of the Dance in Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games at the Dominion Theatre. 

Born and raised in Manchester, James took up Irish dancing at the age of 4 with the Lally School of Irish Dancing. From a young age James competed in many Feisana consistently being placed top 3, winning his first title at the American National Championships at the age of 7. 

He continued to excel winning a total of 4 American National, 8 British National, 9 Great Britain, 3 all Ireland, 1 European and 2 World championship titles. In 2000 he won every major title that could be achieved competitively in Irish dancing. 

When James first played the Lord of the Dance he became the youngest dancer to have played the role. He has now played the part all over the world, in the USA, Mexico, Egypt, Dubai, Russia, Asia and Europe. 

I recently spoke to James about his journey with Lord of the Dance, what it’s like to work so closely with a living legend and why he’s up until 2am night after night…

How long have you been with the show now?
I’m coming up to twelve years which is a crazy amount of time! Do you know what? It sounds cliché, but time flies when you’re having fun. Every tour is always so different, I could be in London for six months – as I am at the minute – or we could be in Dubai for two weeks, or travelling around Germany or France doing back to back shows. It’s always a new experience, and obviously I’ve been around the block a few times [laughs] and been back to Germany and back to Dubai, but we have nice gaps between and there’s always new people coming in so it hasn’t felt like twelve years!

It must be nice to be settled in the same place for six months!
Definitely, I’m not used to being sat down in the same place for so long. To be honest it’s a nice change to get into a routine and join a gym and get a favourite restaurant, plus my family can come and visit from Manchester and I have some friends living in London – it’s really nice.

James in rehearsals with Michael Flatley and Aimee Black 

You started dance lessons at the age of 4, when did Michael Flatley and Lord of the Dance first come onto your radar?
My first experience was watching the Riverdance on the Eurovision song contest in ’94. I would have been roughly eight years old and remember watching it with the family because we’d heard there was going to be an Irish dancing performance on. We started watching it and were like ‘What is this? It’s not Irish dancing at all’ and then Michael came running out and the line of dancers and I just thought ‘wow’ and followed it from there with Riverdance forming and Michael breaking away to make Lord Of The Dance.

Did you go and see it?
Yes, probably in ’96 or ’97 in Manchester and – being a young, male Irish dancer – I couldn’t believe it, I just thought it was the coolest thing and thought ‘thank you God and thank you Michael for giving us this show’ [laughs]. All of a sudden at school my schoolmates had seen it and said they hadn't realise that’s what I was doing… even though it wasn’t because I was still traditional Irish dancing with my hands by my side. I’m not going to say it was a dream of mine to join the show, but I suppose I knew it was there and there was a career to be had in it… if it was going to last. I mean we didn’t know if it would still be around because I was only around nine or ten years old at the time Lord of the Dance was formed. Luckily it did, and when I was just turning seventeen I joined the show.

James as the Lord of the Dance
What was it like to join the show at first, having looked up to it for so many years?
In the Irish dancing world I was competing in Ireland and America and now and again one or two guys from the show would be popping in and out of the competitions which was the coolest thing ever and suddenly I had the chance to join. It was a whirlwind – everything happened so fast and you just realise they’re all normal guys and you’re all just going out and dancing on stage every night. It was a crazy, amazing time!

And then when did you get to play the Lord of the Dance for the first time?
Luckily I became the youngest lead in the show a year after I joined – I was eighteen. It was kind of like the understudy role. There were a couple of other leads, but I would get to perform it now and again – it was all part of my training. We were out in South Africa when I did it for the first time. As the years go on you work your way up and then, when Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games premiered at the Palladium, I became the main Lord of the Dance. We did a DVD and released that after the Palladium so it’s nice to be on that and have something to always have!

Michael is always very vocal about how proud he is of his dancers. What is it like to work so closely with him?
I just had a chat with him now; his first questions after he’s been away for a week or two are always “How are the dancers? How’s the morale? Do you guys need anything?” He looks out for the whole cast, he’s so caring. When working with him personally on the lead role he manages to dig in deep and get the best out of people. One thing he always says to the lead dancers – or to anybody no matter what part they’re playing – is “just push it as far as you want, give it as much as you want and then we can just pull it back”. It’s a good way of looking at things, he’s very good at getting the most out of people. He can be hard when he needs to be hard, which isn’t very often – thank God [laughs]. He’s inspirational and it’s amazing when he’s here.

When he makes special appearances the audiences go absolutely crazy – when I saw the show at the Palladium people around me physically couldn’t stay in their seats when Michael came on at the end. Those shows must be slightly surreal?
For us it has been a new experience. I’ve toured with Michael where he’s danced the full show, but with this he comes on for the last couple of numbers to make an appearance, so it’s almost like the crowd aren’t expecting it. I remember thinking ‘I can’t believe how crazy they are going’ but I suppose we’re lucky to always get that electric feeling during any show because the crowds always get quite into it. Michael is now a living legend, it’s like Sinatra or someone coming out – it’s that kind of feeling for people because he’s the guy who started it all. That’s why you get people hanging out the aisles [laughs], it’s crazy! It’s like a Mexican wave of people jumping to their feet! When he comes down those stairs for us it’s some feeling, it’s unbelievable when we’re dancing behind him.

James with Michael Flatley on press night at the Dominion Theatre

How do different audiences compare when touring around the world? Do you actually notice a difference?
Well we’re lucky to get a good response everywhere. There are slight differences in places; I’ve always thought countries out in Eastern Europe are particularly good, maybe because they don’t have as many shows passing through so it’s like a bit of a treat. You get countries which do crazy things, like they’ll start clapping in time completely in sync and sometimes singing too – I suppose it’s their version of “One more time”, I think it’s Scandinavia where they do that. There are always little differences. 

What can someone who knows nothing about Lord of the Dance expect from the show?
Well the storyline is good vs evil and there is a love story intertwined. It’s bright, colourful and powerful dancing, singing and music. The rhythm is probably what gets most people, the rhythm of the dancing with everybody completely in sync and dancing like an army in straight lines doing the exact same footwork. That’s why I think people love it so much!

James and James Breen in rehearsals
How does doing the show affect your lifestyle?
Every dancer is different, some people go to the gym during the day and work on certain exercises but some people don’t go to the gym at all because they want to save all their energy for the show. Everybody knows their own bodies in the show and knows what they have to do and what certain things to eat. It’s hard getting to sleep at night, you come off stage at 10 o’clock and you’re on a complete buzz, the adrenaline is still pumping because no matter what day of the week it is you’ve just performed in front of a crowd of people who were on their feet clapping. For me it isn’t until at least two in the morning that I get to sleep. I find getting up at 10 o’clock I feel like it’s six in the morning [laughs]! Luckily we have quite easy days, we don’t rehearse too much – it’s just mainly lines and checking our marks. 

Have you had the chance to catch any other shows in London on your nights off?
It’s flying by, but so far I’ve been to see The Commitments. Sunday is our day off and there aren’t many shows which perform on a Sunday. I loved The Commitments, I thought it was really good. To be honest it was my girlfriend who wanted to go, I didn’t expect too much but was quite happily surprised and was singing along to all the songs [laughs]. There are so many I want to see! I mean over the years I’ve seen Billy Elliot, Wicked, Stomp… I want to catch a few more – now that we don’t have Wednesday matinees I think I might be able to see some in the afternoons before our evening show.

What’s the whole atmosphere like here backstage at the Dominion? 
Great! I suppose we’re kind of like brothers and sisters. The buzz of opening in the West End again after doing it at the Palladium is great, everyone’s loving being in London! It’s coming into summer now, it’s good times! Everyone’s really, really happy. The Dominion is such a beautiful theatre; it’s not a bad place to come into work every day! 

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Lord Of The Dance: Dangerous Games runs at the Dominion Theatre until Saturday 5th September 2015. Please visit for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit: Brian Doherty

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