Follow Your Dream, Day #264: The Villain's Journey

When you think of Don Dorcha, the villain of Lord of the Dance, what comes to mind?

Every great story needs a great villain. If the process of good drama in storytelling is summed up as chasing your hero up a tree and throwing rocks at him or her, then *someone* has to be down below, throwing the rocks.

The original show programme, back in 1996, references ancient clans sitting in their stone circles, and one clan leader -- Don Dorcha -- disrupting the balance by seeking more power for himself. According to Lord of the Dance canon, the show is the Little Spirit's dream; Planet Ireland, and everything in it, is her creation. The stories had all been written, and everyone knew their parts.

The dream is then upended when one of her creations seeks to usurp it for himself.

Does this mean the Dark Lord is condemned, like Sisyphus, to always fall just short? And -- more importantly -- is he aware of this fate, and unable to help himself because of his nature?

This isn't anything new in storytelling. Greek myth, for instance, is filled with tragic characters who know they're ordained with a curse and yet can do nothing about it.

At face value, Don Dorcha is simply an antagonist, there to further the plot because he *has* to be there. But no one teaches "evil" Irish dancing in school, and up until Lord of the Dance, no one had ever conceived of such a thing in a commercial Irish dance show. So let's consider all the different interpretations of evil in this show.

The obvious place to start is the OG Dark Lord, Daire Nolan. When we first saw him in 1996, you get the sense he interpreted the role as the corporate banal face of evil -- a perfect foil for the brash, in-your-face rule-breaking of Michael Flatley. By the time we get to Feet of Flames two years later, Daire's interpretation of the role had dramatically evolved, so that now he had the same level of swagger as the Lord of the Dance -- as if to say that he'd learned all the good guy's moves and was able to match them.

(Plus, Daire got to pull off the evil villain cape onstage. That's not easy.)

Each person who plays the Dark Lord brings their own interpretation to the role. Tom Cunningham has the distinction of playing the Dark Lord in the most number of commercial video releases; his Dark Lord evolves from a young, cruelly handsome mirror image of the Lord into a twisted cybernetic monster. Go back and watch Dangerous Games; you don't see a performer onstage in a role. You see Tom literally disappear into the character of Don Dorcha, as an almost animalistic form of evil.

In today's troupe, we have three Dark Lords: Zoltan Papp, Alasdair Spencer, and Declan Durning. Each of them has a wildly different interpretation of the role. Zoltan, for instance, plays the Dark Lord as someone who's out to prove a point -- that he's the absolute strongest, the fastest, the best, and no one can possibly touch him. Alasdair, meanwhile, plays the role as someone who's genuinely psychologically disturbed; his Dark Lord sits at the center of a spider web, only moving when it's for the kill, and genuinely enjoying every moment of pain. And Declan plays Don Dorcha as a young punk upstart, like a leader of a street gang, causing chaos for the sake of it.

Here's the fun part about it: each one of these interpretations tracks. Each one makes sense.

In this production journal we've talked a lot about how Lord of the Dance follows the classic Joseph Campbell "Hero's Journey" Monomyth story structure. But it also has a fascinating journey for the villain, as well. In particular, in the Dangerous Games iteration of the show, it's made pretty clear that the Dark Lord is at least the equal of the Lord of the Dance, and arguably stronger.

So why, then, does he lose?

In the context of the show, it's because he has no empathy. No compassion. No dream.

The key moment in the story which defines the Lord of the Dance is after Hell's Kitchen, when the Little Spirit hands the broken magic flute to the Lord and asks her own creation to fix it. The Lord doesn't have to do this; it's implied heavily that with the flute broken, the characters are all free to do as they wish. Yet the Lord *chooses* to help the Little Spirit because it somehow is the *right* thing to do.

Would the Dark Lord do such a thing? No. He's the one who broke it in the first place. It would never occur to a good person to do such a thing; it is the defining moment of true evil in the show.

And this leads to a powerful point that's sub rosa in the show: you cannot achieve lasting personal gains at the expense of others. To paraphrase Eric Hoffer, cruelty is the weak man's imitation of strength.

You could see this as a parallel for Michael Flatley's life up to that point. Here was a child who was laughed at by grown-ups when he wanted to play the flute, grew up impoverished, got into street fights every day, created something amazing only to have it taken from him, and had to risk everything to achieve victory.

There are many levels of storytelling at work under the surface of this "simple" story, just as there are with all great myths, regardless of what format they're conveyed in. Central to every myth is the antagonist who shows us what not to do and how not to behave; it is through that contrast that we are both entertained and educated.

Tonight, in just a few hours, the monomyth cycle starts once again on our stage, as Planet Ireland is summoned forth, threatened, and redeemed once more. Down the lights; breathe in deeply; the adventure begins anew.


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