It’s a classic NYC tale: ambitious small-town boy comes to the big city and lets loose. That’s how it went for 19-year-old Michael Holland, national champion Irish dancer, when he visited the Big Apple last year. The “letting loose,” though, was no wild party; it was an artistic journey. And the final chapter held an unbelievable reward—a chance to perform at the Baryshnikov Arts Center and a pat on the back from a living legend.
Since learning his first Irish jig at age 5, Michael, an Ohio native who traces his roots to Donegal, Ireland, has excelled at Irish-dance competitions across the globe. What some dancers might call the pressures of competing, he calls “the joys.” “The adrenaline rush makes me perform better,” Michael says. When he gets on stage he soars through the air and gobbles up space with razor-sharp precision, propelled by fast-flying feet. In addition to three national and five regional titles, he’s won an All-Ireland championship and two runner-up prizes at the Worlds. (Oh, and he was a 2008 Presidential Scholar in the Arts.) Plus his rigorous training at the Richens/Timm Academy in Columbus, OH, has him practicing about four hours daily!
But in May 2008, Michael wrapped his mind (and body) around a foreign idea: “Don’t worry so much about every detail. Just let yourself go.”
Those were the wise words of Jean Butler, a former Riverdance star who mentored Michael during Arts Evolution, a week-long residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in NYC. As a high school senior, Michael was invited to BAC with 33 other young artists after winning a prestigious youngARTS award from the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. “The week in New York was about doing things in a new way,” Michael says. “Jean merges Irish dance with other forms, and she encouraged me to do the same.” For a final black-box showing at BAC, Michael infused traditional choreography with impromptu moments—like pacing the stage in bare feet—for an improvised feel that’s rare in Irish dance. “I wasn’t used to that. But
I started to like it,” Michael says. “It was nice to break out.”
The audience liked it, too, and one guest of honor was especially impressed: Mikhail Baryshnikov. Michael “could not believe it” when, after the show, Baryshnikov came up to him. “He said, ‘Michael Flatley, eat your heart out.’ He told me he thought I was amazing! I was in shock.” Baryshnikov also asked Michael about his plans for the future. “I remember he said, ‘You’re obviously very talented. What are you going do with this? Are you going to bend the art form?’”
For Michael, who is now a freshman at The Ohio State University, that’s a difficult question. His competitive streak continues to guide him. This month, he heads to Ireland for his ninth World Championships. “Once I win the Worlds,” he says, “then I might stop competing.”
While he’s open to joining a production like Lord of the Dance or Riverdance, he hopes to contribute something new to the field by choreographing or starting his own company. “I love to choreograph, and I think that, with Irish dance, there’s more than what meets the eye,” Michael says. “I have to take time to think about what I can do that’s different and what will draw people to watch.” Finding that creative path might be tricky, but with Mikhail Baryshnikov in his fan club, getting people to his show, at least, shouldn’t be too tough.