Friday, March 06, 2020

REVIEW: Mám - Teac Damsa and Stargaze (Ch. Michael Keegan-Dolan) - TSBArena 7 March 2020NZFestival of the Arts

Photo: maturetimes.co.uk
The first time choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan was in Aotearoa was in 2008, when he produced Giselle at the Capital's Shed 6.  He returned in 2014 for Rian and then Swan Lake/Loch naEala in 2018.  All have been Festival shows or associated with them.

When the new Festival of the Arts directors Marnie Karmelita and Meg Williams invited him to return to Wellington with a new show, he jumped at the chance. Part of the gig was a six week residency, where he also met local dancer Amit Noy, who we interviewed last year.   

Keegan-Dolan spent just under two years choreographing Mám.  He worked with Irish dance company Teac Damsa, in a Kerry Gaeltacht - a community hall, near the mountain of Cnoc Bhréanainn.  That mountain was the inspiration for the opening - 'Mám 1: Mountain pass'. 

“This venue was a crucible for a musical and choreographic exploration of the spiritual and cultural powers that are emerging once again” - Michael Keegan-Dolan



For the Wellington performance, the TSB Arena is clad all in black.  The whole show will only feature monocrome.  Everyone is in black and white.  The stage is an empty black plaform, with one or two tables that are used in various ways - as an alter, a plaform, a dining table and a bed. 

The audience sit on block of raked seating, in a formal rectangular shape, similar to a religious meeting.  The show opens with contemporary concertina player Cormac Begley sitting mid-stage in a sinister Ram's Head mask.  A wavering curl of sweet smoke rises from the head into sky.  A young girl (Ellie Poirier-Dolan)in white communion dress lies on a small table in a sacrificial pose.  As the show starts the massive 8 metre curtain the spans the back tilts on its rails rails and slides off, like a giant milk jug pouring its contents on to the floor, to reveal an austere line-up of adults in black formal wear and sinister black paper-bag balaclavas. They look like hooded executioners from the Jim Crow-era Southern States. 

Then Cormac Begley strikes up his concertina playing a mournful drone that morphs into a scampering rhythm. There is a musical spell that runs right through this wonderful piece. At first it seemed like this was a figment of the girl's imagination - a dream made manifest.  Then it becomes clearer that the congregation are here to celebrate her.

Keegan-Dolan's choreography mixes ancient and contemporary and pairs it with Begley’s inventive reinterpretations of what appear to be traditional Irish songs.  The first piece becomes a light airy thing of foot tapping and shoulder-shrugging, perhaps these are wedding guests, or attendees at a pub for wake.  We can't tell. The organic choreography grows like weeds out of this community of eclectic performers.  This includes BBC Young Dancer winner Connor Scott who mangles his deliciously loose and sensuousness with sharp-angled precise gestures.  Then there's James O’Hara's elastic delivery, as if there's not a single straight bone in his body.  Amit Noy, recently graduated from Te Whaea National Dance and Drama holds his own, blending in and taking on a huge variety of supporting roles.   They move like the music is enclosed in their cranium, other times like an invisible string is erratically pulling them across the stage like a drunken cat with a ball of wool.

In the early parts the dancers feet follow the old expected steps, hands clap and bodies reel.  But hands and gestures also flow into new playful shapes that reminded me of Madonna-era 'Vogueing'.  Later Ellie does her own short routine including a kid's version of popular dance moves.  Here and there are ritualised baroque, Scottish and Irish folk and pagan dance influences.  The modern twists and contortions work best in the collective ensembles. 

There is one section (Mám 2: Yoke. Faoi mhám an pheaca, under the yoke of sin. and 2. Lit: Obligation, duty, function) a man moves between fellow dancers feigning death and falling hard into their arms over-dramtically.  Sometimes he falls so severely you'd think he'd hurt himself.  Then one by one the whole cast appear to try it, too.

There's a short scene of a drunk sill in a haze shuffling to the airs of an old ditty, as dancer James Southward skilfully moves around the stage with that a gentle yet menacing unpredictability. Towards the end of this, Ellie drags a chair to the front of the stage, sits and appears to be watching a screen. Southward sidles up with his own chair.  He's wearing a tweed jacket and tie. He acts familiar, like a parent. A drunken scoundrel, reminiscent of the men in Angela's Ashes.  You don't know if violence or tenderness will ensue.

He hands the child a packet of sweets.  They sit in silence watching the imaginary screen.  Then a women appears with her chair and confectionery and starts to eat.  The trio share treats like a it's a family outing.  One by one extras arrive and also share candy.  They even offer some to the front row.  They all sit in a line like they are at the movies.  Then a man an woman at opposite ends stand and proceed to climb over the patrons laps, one by one until they meet in the middle, where they embrace and crash into the back row laughing.  This was just one beautiful and clever scene out of many little highlights that lifted the show and gave it a bright twist, just when the scenarios were becoming darker.  It's also a recurring theme of nostalgia, a thread that is sewn all through this work.

One of Keegan-Dolan’s strengths is his penchant for cherry-picking specifics from Ireland’s collective memory, selecting the familiar pieces of poignant iconography and giving it new resonance.  Take, for example, his interpretation of Swan Lake - which he made into Loch na hEala by incorporating references of recent agonising revelations of child abuse by the Catholic Church, and reinterpreting Tchaikovsky’s ballet so that it ended with a focus on the tragedy of the prince suicide, instead of, traditionally, the princess.

Repeating the peeling away of Sabine Dargent’s stark, otherworldly set, a second curtain spills off it's railing to reveal stargaze, the orchestral collective of seven players and their instruments.  They are as much part of the show as the dancers and will interact in many places. 

This transition between traditional and modern sounds works superbly, seemlessly.  Like two sides in some crazy battle, competing and then coming together as oil and water.  Gorgeous, soaring washes that sweep over Begley’s nervous, edgy reels and jigs.

Driven by the contemporary pop scene they've previously worked with Terry Riley, Lisa Hannigan and Deerhoof.  Which explains their unsettling disharmonies that sway between jazz, techno, traditional Irish and some kind of modern Kurt Weill styled Cabaret. Dancers twirl with distress at length, hold each other close and flash with violence and frustration. Like dervishes they spin with chairs outstretched like Icarus' wings.  There are many long moments where there is no clear reason why.  No context or rational.  But then given there is not perfect narrative for this show, why should there be?  

Most choreographers would focus on using movement to make a coherent point, from start to finish. But in Mám Keegan-Dolan prefers to recombine familiar images in brief solos and duets that barely get time to evolve before they’re swamped by group movement. The arcs of those dancers aren’t as important as the audience's registering of old references, putting them on our own past romances and heartbreaks. That can be deeply affecting, drawing on a nation’s social history, but it doesn’t necessarily make a dance complete.

The incoherence is conspicuous when you consider the dance's source. Keegan-Dolan’s choreography lives in Ireland’s subconscious, at the foot of a Kerry mountain. Its nostalgia is sweeping, but it can also be slippery, and not always attached to telling a good story.

Once again the curtains pour off their rails, to reveal five huge fans, the centre one as big as an aeroplane's turbine.  As the music swells for the finale, the fans spark up and create a massive wind, engulfing all the figures on stage.  Ellie stands on a table with her back to the tempest, like Sarah standing on the edge of her pier in The French Lieutenant's Woman.  Precisely why it's necessary to blow away the music, smoke and dance that has consumed the last 90 minutes is unclear.  But it's very dramatic. 

Mám could be interpreted as a gathering that's unravelling late into the night.  It could be a pagan ritualised sacrifice, a coven of modern day witches or townsfolk congregating around a fire.  Through out Ellie's little girl character remains impassive, as an observer, seldom interacting.  Her specific role is really unknown.  Perhaps she is a necessary element to allow us to be the observers.  Perhaps this is, as I originally considered, all part of her strange dream. 

Whatever the case, Mám is a show of engrossing dancing.  The music is just fantastic music.  There is subtlety and nostalgia. There is contemporary and modern.  Talking to audience members afterwards, many said they had seen very little ballet or modern dance, yet they loved the theatre and the drama - and those little moments - there were many.  Best of all, they loved the humanity. For many this was one of the only shows they'd seen.  Tickets weren't cheap.  They definitely considered it money well spent.  Educational, entertaining, provocative, and outstandingly creative. said one person.  I absolutely agree.

Review by the CoffeeBar Kid


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