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MÁM, Press Headlines
“An unmissable exorcism, OBSERVER ★★★★★”
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“a dazzling dance marathon at Sadler’s Wells, FINANCIAL TIMES ★★★★★

“spellbinding gathering of music and memories”, GUARDIAN ★★★★

“boisterous spirits and bruised souls in a non-stop, fully felt work, TIMES ★★★★

“ …will leave your heart aching”., REVIEWS HUB – London ★★★★★

“With such imagination, such thrilling, thunderous physicality, such beauty and evocative power, whatmore could anyone want?”, IRISH EXAMINER★★★★

“A choreographer at the top of his game”, THE ARTS REVIEW ★★★★★

“Alternately playful and provocative, funny and frightening, Mám is a stirring, sensuous showcase of the emotional power of the physical form”, THE IRISH TIMES ★★★★★

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MÁM, O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin
“Stirring, sensuous........90 minutes of ritualised ecstasy.”
Sara Keating, Irish Times, Sep 30, 2019

Michael Keegan-Dolan is a master of memorable imagery. Although his currency is bodies in motion, it is the stilled image that stays in your mind after his latest show, Mám: the white-dressed girl facing a glowering ram; 12 faceless dancers lined up as if for execution; the rakish poses of an off-duty chamber orchestra waiting for their cue. These are just some of the images that Mám sears upon the stage over 90 minutes of ritualised ecstasy.

Taking its cue from the Irish language word, which evokes ideas of duty and danger, Mám is less narrative-based than Keegan-Dolan’s previous work with Teac Damsa and Fabulous Beast. The loose scenario is a recognisable one – a young innocent (Ellie Poirier-Dolan) bears silent witness to the machinations of the adult world – but the composition of the performance is impressionistic rather than story-based, as the ensemble merge, pair off and regroup, the child a centrifugal force among them.

The original music from Cormac Begley and the stargaze ensemble plays a key role in manipulating the mood, as the initial celebration turns savage, as tenderness is juxtaposed with rage, as joy trembles on the edge of violence.

The loose and sinuous style of the choreography belies an exactitude and precision, which the company exploit in the opening movement of the structured performance to embellish the lone bleat of Begley’s accordion with the musicality of their feet moving in unison across the floor, as their arms enact a variety of fluid upward gestures. The simple set design by Sabine Dargent is also deceptive, teasing the audience with a slow reveal that it would be unfair to dwell on any longer.

Alternately playful and provocative, funny and frightening, Mám is a stirring, sensuous showcase of the emotional power of the physical form.

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MÁM, `Sadler's Wells, London
“MÁM — a dazzling dance marathon at Sadler’s Wells”
Louise Levene, Financial Times, Thur, Feb 3, 2020

It’s pronounced “ma:m” and it means “mountain pass” or possibly “duty” or, just possibly, “a handful of sweets” and it features 12 dancers from the Teaċ Daṁsa company, eight musicians, a small girl in a white communion frock and a powerful whiff of spiced woodsmoke.

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s previous works have taken (and run away with) established myths, legends, even ballets; but while the dancers and players of MÁM embody every human emotion during their dazzling 90-minute marathon, we are never spoon-fed anything as simple as a story.

Hyemi Shin has dressed the cast like the celebrants at a wake: prim black frocks for the women, misfit suits and ties for the men. Sabine Dargent’s simple-seeming set anchors the action in the everyday. A metal platform, a dozen chapel chairs and a bland wall of curtain suggest a school or village hall but even the drapes have their own drama, repeatedly slithering off the rail to reveal the next phase of action. The very blandness of the setting heightens the sense of a community in limbo, doomed to act out its frustrations, fantasies and rituals.

Centre stage sits West Kerry concertina virtuoso Cormac Begley, whose cupped hands dictate the moods and rhythms of the score. His four concertinas — bass, baritone, treble and piccolo — create a remarkable one-man band of sound from bagpipe groan to penny whistle. After the second curtain drop, he is joined on the platform by the equally splendid Berlin orchestral collective Stargaze with a genre-busting blend of classical and folk played with a demonic energy that fuels the frenzy below.

Each sequence kicks off with an ecstatic solo (or set of solos), allowing individual dancers to explore their own groove before the group magically coalesces into a wild, devil-may-care unison: the instinctive synchronicity of men and women weaned on the same rhythms. The choreography, co-devised by the company, is wittily laced with social dance pastiche — headbanging, shoulder-shuffling, a whiff of the Pulp Fiction twist — and while the bulk of the movement is barefoot, the lace-ups are back on for the sly spurts of Irish step dancing. There is no dialogue but several almost Bauschian vignettes in which individual performers go rogue, as when James Southward lurches around the stage kissing (almost) everybody like a drunk in “You’re my best mate” mode.

Ellie Poirier-Dolan, the small girl at the heart of the action, watches impassively as the grown-ups seethe around her. She is part ordinary girl — she is mollified with crisps and orangeade like a child made to wait outside a pub — but her knowing stare and almost sacrificial garb hint at something far darker. As the long show approaches its mysterious climax, Keegan-Dolan’s little daughter finally gets her own solo spot, a spinning dance which is immediately taken up and amplified by the adults, eager for new moves. When they finally come to a stop, the last curtain falls and the tiny figure leads them in a wordless chant as a bank of wind machines flood the auditorium with a fragrant breeze.

 

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Swan Lake / Loch na hEala Perth Festival,
“Swan Lake twisted into a gripping tale of clerical sex abuse and suppression ”
Brigid Delaney, The Guardian International Edition, 15 February 2019

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, which opened at Perth festival on Thursday, is an imaginative, deeply moving response to clerical sexual abuse.

There exists a deep kinship between Australia and Ireland.

The Irish fled to Australia in huge numbers escaping poverty, the potato famine and following rebellion for independence. By the end of the 19th century, a third of Australia’s population were Irish-born.

Along with the Irish population boom, the Irish brand of Catholicism also flourished. Throughout the 20th century, the Catholic church in Australia grew in power, property, influence and money.

But this century has brought with it a reckoning, as clerical sexual abuse scandals in Ireland and Australia have been uncovered on an industrial scale, and the Irish catholic community must confront the horrors. Both countries have held widespread investigations into the abuse, as they’ve undergone a profound crisis of faith.

If times of upheaval are reflected in art, what art comes from this?

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, which opened at Perth festival on Thursday, is an imaginative, deeply moving response to clerical sexual abuse, which comes from Ireland. It received a standing ovation, and left me eager to see what the Australian arts community may produce in response to our own crisis in the church, and the stories uncovered by the royal commission.

This is by no means a traditional staging of the much-loved ballet: created by director Michael Keegan-Dolan, and given a five-star review by the Guardian when it premiered in London in 2016, Swan Lake/ Loch na hEala incorporates spoken word, dance and theatre and is set in the bleak but beautiful Irish midlands.

Instead of Tchaikovsky’s famous score, Irish-Nordic folk music, played live on stage by the trio Slow Moving Clouds, provides both an unsettling and uplifting role.

In this retelling, the villain is a Catholic priest who, having sexually abused Fionnuala – a young girl famed for her singing and wild dancing – turns the girl and her sisters into swans so that they cannot reveal his secret.

Condemned to a lake in the midlands, they encounter a depressed 36-year-old Irishman, Jimmy. He had wandered across the fields late at night, intending to kill himself, when he meets the swan.

The dance between Jimmy and the white swan is the most tender part of the performance, and a powerful contrast with the vulgarity and darkness all around him. His home is about to be destroyed by a corrupt councillor, while his mother puts on a booze-soaked birthday party to snap him out of his depression.

And on this iteration at the Perth festival, the show is as tight as a drum.

A standout is Mikel Murfi, who takes multiple roles – including the paedophile priest – and who we first see as we enter the auditorium. He is naked except for some grungy underpants; he has a rope around his neck tied to a brick and is grunting and yelling. Is he man or animal? The scene concludes with him being knocked around by dancers wearing dark suits. On the ground, he is wrestled, then washed and put in a suit.

Is it redemption? Or is it the start of his corruption? We don’t get a clear answer in this production.

But it brings us right into the heart of evil at the hands of the church – and shows us how there might be some way out.

 

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Swan Lake / Loch na hEala, Luminato Festival, Toronto
“ Swan Lake is beautiful, brilliant and utterly gripping”
Martha Schabas, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), June 7, 2018

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s production of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake/Loch na hEala is as much a work of theatre as it is of movement.

What state of mind does a man need to be in to a) want to shoot himself, and b) fall in love with a winged apparition? There are so many layers of brilliance in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s slaying production of Swan Lake/Loch na hEala that it’s hard to peel back any single one and not find others loosened. Yet, part of the power of this beautiful deconstruction of Tchaikovsky’s ballet comes from its determination to take the fairy tale’s absurdity seriously. The insight we get isn’t just about individual suffering; we’re given a vivid portrait of an aching, modern Ireland – one that grazes deep-seated pain.

Keegan-Dolan is an associate artist at Sadler’s Wells in London and has built an international reputation for his inventive choreography. But you don’t need to be any kind of dance expert or lover to be utterly gripped by this show − part of Toronto’s Luminato festival − which is as much a work of theatre as it is of movement. Told non-chronologically, the story’s catalyzing event occurs when a Catholic priest (Mikel Murfi) attempts to rape a beautiful teenaged girl named Finola (Rachel Poirier). When he’s interrupted by her three sisters, silent witnesses of his crime, he transforms all four girls into swans to keep them eternally quiet.

The stage brings to mind images from Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, a damaged landscape of ladders and cinder blocks suddenly illuminated by the imposing expanse of white wings overhead. The ballet’s Manichaean undertones of light and dark are poetically evoked; the swans perform trance-like dances in crisp schoolgirl frocks, while the bog is created by an ungainly black tarpaulin, a Garda police car depicted by an amplifier on wheels. Meanwhile, the prince is no melancholy aristocrat; he’s Jimmy O’Reilly (Alex Leonhartsberger), an unemployed 36-year-old in a tracksuit who’s been diagnosed with clinical depression. He lives with his disabled mother and ends up camping out on the roof of their home with his dead father’s shotgun.

The story is relayed like an Irish folk tale, set to haunting and melodic traditional music played by the Slow Moving Clouds trio, who are poised above the action upstage. But the writing is distinctly contemporary, full of bleak humour and wry characterizations. The narrative structure also feels of the here-and-now in the way it engages so clearly with the theme of reconciliation. The play begins with Murfi tethered to a cement brick that he circles in his underwear, bleating like a goat. He is freed, washed, slapped to his senses and dressed only so he can tell the tale of his own horrible transgressions, transforming into the priest who abuses Finola, then the policeman who chases Jimmy to his death.

When Jimmy meets Finola, she materializes like a guardian angel, swooping down from her perch to stop him from shooting himself in the mouth. But she’s also a traumatized victim of sexual abuse; again, Keegan-Dolan is taking the fairy-tale and holding it to genuine psychological scrutiny. The lovers occupy the real and fabular simultaneously and this adds to the richness of their flickering, tentative steps. In both realms, they are damaged and ostracized people, wondering whether they deserve to find love or, perhaps, are even capable of it.

Keegan-Dolan’s choreography has a bracing naturalness; it seems to draw its impulse from deep within the dancers’ bodies and evolve inside each person a bit differently. When the swans dance in unison, they are all uniquely themselves, their simple movements sentient and reactive and infused with subtle folk tones. The final pas de deux between Jimmy and Finola is both radiant and tragic. He clings to her with a desperation that will stay burned in my mind for ages.

Is there a timelier moment to watch an Irish production take on the tyranny of church and state? Although this stunning Swan Lake is full of darkness, it ends on a note of intense rapture. By manipulating all of the plastic and the tarpaulin onstage, the cast create a gyre of feathers that descend on the audience in an ecstatic snowfall. It can’t help but bring to mind another unforgettable Irish ending in which snow symbolizes the overlap of history, beauty and pain, and falls in equal measure on the living and the dead.

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