Once upon a time, across the Irish Sea, there was a dance-theater company called Fabulous Beast. Founded in 1997 by director and choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan, the troupe offered a magical blend of music and movement mixed with dark spirit and served with a beguiling Irish accent.
Awards were won and hymns of praise were sung – “a savage, horribly hilarious.” . . extravagance, ”raved the FT. Not all shows were a success – “theatrical nougat. . . the play may be of local interest. I found it unbearable ”(the FT baring its claws) – but Fabulous Beast had established itself as a troupe guaranteed to deliver an original and stimulating evening. Small businesses would kill for that kind of brand, but Keegan-Dolan wasn’t interested: “The name. . . no longer sounded, ”he says now. In 2015, Fabulous Beast ceased to exist and a year later, Teać Damsa [Gaelic for “House of Dance”] was born: a new incarnation for this changing, spiritual and intensely passionate artist.
First release of Teać Damsa, 2017 Swan Lake / Loch na heala, has enjoyed international success and last year MÁM is due to be relaunched for three performances at Sadler’s Wells this week, followed by a tour of Australia and New Zealand. When we meet at a dance studio in east London, the 50-year-old director is rehearsing for his next project, The only melody, which will be released next month.
Keegan-Dolan came relatively late to dance, enrolling at the Central School of Ballet in London in 1989 at the age of 19. There his mentor was former Royal Ballet star Christopher Gable: “He was a brilliant man. He had a brilliant take on ballet-meet-theater-meet-the-West End. Gable’s new pupil was dancing after only a year in school, but was increasingly baffled by classical ballet’s inevitable emphasis on technique.
“The way I was trained was that classical ballet was kind of a climax, but it’s not: it’s just a style of dance where people tend to point their feet and in the middle of it. other style, people tend to stomp. There are certain paradigms in the world of classical music or classical ballet where the humanity of people is put aside. When I look at some of these art forms that involve this kind of regulated discipline for such a long time, I just see a legacy of all the people not on stage, all the injuries, all the screaming, all the pain relievers needed to keep me having this fancy moment and, to be honest with you, we can create something comparable without all of that.
Despite this distaste for classical dance, he diverted titles and themes from the canon of ballet – Giselle, The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, Swan Lake – only to reimagine them in the wilderness of rural Ireland where myth and modernity are somehow made to coexist. This representation of his homeland has sometimes been criticized, in particular for the years 2005 The bull, who took the epic of the seventh century Cooley’s Cattle Raid and turned it into a dark and bloodthirsty satire on Ireland’s economic resurgence: “I was mad at things that were happening in Ireland”.
Some Dublin theatergoers feared that this focus on the negative aspects of Irish life might resuscitate old ugly stereotypes. This certainly triggered a wide variety of reactions from the public: “The bull upset a lot of people, but when it came to London everyone loved it. He stops short, suddenly shy. “I mean not everyone liked it, but there was kind of a celebration about it, and then I had a moment of dread when I realized that maybe I had fed a part of the English psyche that liked to make fun of the Irish. I had a bit of a rough time after that. I didn’t really change my job necessarily – Swan Lake still chasing things – but he has a slightly different perspective. . . The last thing I want to do is nurture a dynamic that promotes division between peoples.
Drama, not to mention dance drama, is no place for sissies, but the loons, waifs, and harpies that populate Keegan-Dolan’s tales are unsettling creations regardless of your nationality. Female characters broadly divide into monstrous matriarchs or damaged maidens – Juliet’s staging in The flowerbed; the silent and curled up Giselle; the rural Odette silenced by an abusive priest. A surprisingly bitter and twisted worldview for such a happy man? He shrugs and laughs, “I don’t understand why this stuff is in my job!” “
While a few critics have questioned his desire to tell women’s stories for them, the accounts are clearly rooted in his own experience. “I remember being deeply moved by the way my mother was treated and was treated by the world she grew up in and the world she lived in. There was a kind of universal misogynistic dynamic when I was growing up – less now. “
Her charm, her humanism and her determination to push the boundaries of dance theater have won over a loyal team of performers, musicians and creators. Familiarity allows for some measure of creative shorthand but also generates necessary friction: “We work together, we eat together, usually in a community hall in a rather remote part of Ireland. There is no separation for about 10 weeks; we are entering a collective atmosphere. When you really get to know someone, you can go places that you wouldn’t visit if you were polite to a stranger.
MÁM (Gaelic for “mountain pass”) is perhaps the closest Keegan-Dolan has gotten to a dance piece without a plot (only three words are spoken), but it returns to the narrative for The only melody. It is part of a triple dance program from Sadler’s Wells on the work of American composer Nico Muhly. The only melody takes as its text the traditional murderous ballad “The Two Sisters”, about a jealous woman who drowns her sister before being haunted by a violin made from the bones of the dead girl. The dancers will be accompanied by folk dean Sam Amidon and Britten Sinfonia playing the orchestral arrangement by Muhly.
The dark, folkloric setting may be familiar territory, but the design choices come as a surprise. “This is the first time that I put people in unitards. The people I work with are all nervous because they associate it with the hard technical work they did in dance school, but I like the idea that there is no hiding place. In the work I did, we never used the wings. Nobody leaves the stage; people are sitting down again, so the unitard is like a continuation of that idea. It exposes everything about the person, and I like it.
“MÁM”, from February 5 to 7; “The Only Tune”, March 19-21, sadlerswells.com
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