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May 2nd, 2019
Six Weeks in Wellington

The first time I travelled to Wellington was in 2008 when we performed our production of Giselle in Shed 6. The company returned with Rianin 2014 and then with Swan Lake – Loch na hEalain 2018.

Over these ten years I developed a kind of love affair with Aoterao.

When Marnie Karmelita and Meg Williams, the Directors of the New Zealand Festival visited Ireland last summer and shared with me some of their ideas around potentially inviting an artist to be in residence in Wellington in 2019, I was very interested.

They talked about a how a sense of place can influence an artist and their work. How important indigenous culture and language are to one’s capacity to fully  appreciate and understand a place.  And how important family, friends and the quality and depth of relationships are to any creative process and it’s outcomes. When the formal invitation came, the answer was yes and we agreed to press on together.

I wanted the residency to be productive and I suggested that I use the time to work on the exploration of two different ideas for creations over six weeks, in the knowledge that once I was in Wellington, different forces would visit me and bring about different outcomes.

A lot of hard work went into organizing before we arrived.  Logistics, flights, accommodation, finding and preparing the right work space.

I can’t thank the Tāwhiri team enough for the sophisticated and thoughtful way preparations were made for our arrival.

The working space we walked into had been transformed form an empty warehouse unit into a bespoke dance studio.  The floor on which we danced was made entirely from recycled timber.  If we needed drums, drums appeared.  If we needed blankets, blankets appeared.

Our residency started with a Pōwhiri led by Tanémahuti Grey supported by the dancers of the New Zealand School of Dance and was also attended by the Justin Lestor, Mayor of Wellington and Peter Ryan the Irish Ambassador and many other fine people from the arts community. It was a warm and inviting affair and set the tone for the six weeks ahead.

In addition to working a daily schedule of 8am – 5:30 pm, Monday – Saturday.  I led workshops for the students at the New Zealand School of Dance and I also led open workshops where I shared ways of working and received much wisdom in return.

We had a continuous flow of guests coming in and out of our working space over the six weeks. Dancers from New Zealand, Australia and Europe joined the core ensemble who had travelled with me to Wellington and on occasion the working group would expand to twenty.

We always had live music in the space. Danny Diamond the fiddle player stayed with us for the first four weeks , while Romain, Mayah and Marlies from the Stargaze Orchestra and Cormac Begley from West Kerry stayed with us for the final two weeks.

Twice we opened the studio up to members of the arts community and public to witness some of the outcomes and our ways of working.

We spent three nights at the Tapu Te Ranga Marae, where we learned more about the history of Maori, culture and language from Tanémahuti Grey and Rangimoana Taylor. .

The post-colonial peoples were conditioned by their masters to feel embarrassed about the suffering of their ancestors and so chose to bury their collective painful memories. This type of imposed amnesia is without doubt the most sinister consequence of colonialism.  When the time comes to face up to historical events we not only have to deal with the related pain but also with a sense of shame or even embarrassment.

Talking with our Maori mentors I saw in them the bold acceptance of the truth of their history.   It is only through this acceptance that one can begin to heal the hidden violated parts of one self, of one’s family and of one’s ancestors.  This is a vital process for any colonised people and their colonisers because without it, there cannot be any true reconciliation.

During my six weeks in Wellington I wanted to find another way of working.  I wanted to have time without a deadline, to work with a group of dancers, musicians and actors, to see if we could find agreement and therefore remove any need for coercion in the realisation of a piece of theatre.

In the process I learned that it does not matter what I want.  That I am at the service of my gift.  That my gift will dictate what I should do. That if my collaborators don’t want what I want, then I need to accept that and not push but gently move on.

I learned to accept the idea of the communal good and that once you accept this, things go more smoothly.  Work gets made that demands to be made, that absolutely needs to be made and will therefore be full with the potential to benefit people who either witness it as an outcome or who work on its creation.

I believe in the power of unseen forces to transform a space.  I believe that it is significant how a space is charged and held in order to allow for creativity to unfold.

All great arts seeks to find  a deeper understanding of what it means to be alive. In order to explore this truthfully one must operate out of a sense of respect and love of what it is to be human and therefore seek empathy with the other.  To give support where needed. To listen where needed.  To share a story where needed.

Collaborating with the Tāwhiri Team at the New Zealand Festival has been a high point of my working life. They care and bring that care to each and every exchange.

I will be back in Wellington in March 2020 with a work that I hope will illuminate some of the people that will come in contact with it.

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Jan 8th, 2019
To Dance is to Burn (2012)

To dance is to burn as you pound out a rhythm with your feet – an act of sacrifice to a supreme intelligence that bestows on us creative gifts, which are our only means to attain liberation.

We pray for wisdom to clarify our seeing, hearing and feeling so that we may slip behind the veils of delusion, overcome the illusion of separation (the root of all suffering), and draw on the creative source.

Hearing clearly what is outside and within, we reduce the scope and interference of the judgmental mind.  Through clear seeing we become aware of what is in front of, around and inside of us.  The internal world can then begin to manifest the secret myths that will guide us on our journey.  Through feeling the air on the skin and the energetic currents beneath it as the limbs move in space, the dancer becomes aware of all sensations, from the coarsest to the very finest.

The dancer whose senses are engaged like this grows ever closer to the great creator, and the longer the engagement, the greater the transformation.  The capacity to maintain the connection comes from training with great discipline, patience and restraint.

Dancing is the art of transformation – the integrated, rhythmic, coordinated movement of the limbs in space, the feet the engine, the hands the expression.  The sides of the body create shape and as the shape of the body changes so does the space the dance inhabits.   The alchemy evokes spontaneous and universal symbols and rhythms.

Through acquiring the understanding and skills necessary to consciously participate in this transformation, we experience and transmit truth.

We dance to be reunited with the creative core from which we came.

  • Copyright © 2012 by Michael Keegan Dolan
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Jan 6th, 2019
Sharp Knives are Dangerous but they are Useful (2017)

From an early age my parents instilled within me with a very healthy disrespect for authority. Any rules or regulations I encountered where met with suspicion.  If I was told not do something, I immediately wanted to do it and usually did. 

I have my own children now, and I see in them a similar quality, assuming that it is a quality. If I say not to do something, they both instinctively recognises that if an action is ‘not allowed,’ it is therefore of some interest and so the negotiating starts, always asking, ‘why can’t I do it?’

 And although they are young if I give them a reasonable answer, they will pay attention and oblige me with their agreement however if don’t supply them with a good explanation, I will inevitably find one of them trying out the sometimes very dangerous, ‘not allowed,’ action for themselves.

 Children know instinctively that although sharp knives are dangerous, they are also extremely useful.

 I didn’t have the courage to tell my career guidance teacher at school that I had planned to go to London and train as a dancer after my Leaving Cert. so I obfuscated telling him that I wanted to do something that was a bit special. For some reason he assumed that I wanted to be a priest and I was sent to talk to the chaplain.  The chaplain wanted to take me on a retreat to deepen my connection with God and as you can imagine at this point, I panicked and so blurted out the truth, that I In fact wanted to be a dancer.

 As you can imagine, on the North side of Dublin in 1988, many people found it easy to tell me why wanting to be a professional dancer was impossible but no one could convince me, their arguments did not have enough energy to influence my conviction.

 My father never told me this, as his generation were not practiced in expressing their feelings but when I told my father what I wanted to do with my life, he was worried about me. He was worried that I would be poor, that I would later regret my decision and that I would eventually have to return to university complete my education and get a ‘proper job.’  He saw me as potentially wasting all my natural abilities in pursuit of a career that was unstable and only available to the very few and fortunate. But even my father whom I loved and feared, could not convince me to change my mind.

I auditioned for three schools in London and got accepted in two.  Not because I was any good but because I was a young man and young men were seen as an investment, it meant that the fee-paying girls could be guaranteed weekly pas de deux classes.  In the three years I spent at the Central School of Ballet in London, I got very accomplished at lifting women over my head.

 I also auditioned at the London Contemporary Dance School and I was given a physical examination.  I was told that I would not be accepted because my knees would not last the 3 years of training.  I am now nearly 50 and my knees are still working.

I signed up to the Central School of Ballet with only a one-year foundation course in dancing to back me up having never danced before this. I had played Rugby at school for 5 years and was muscle bound.  I was uncoordinated, unmusical and anxious. I could not remember sequences of movements and I could not even tell my left from my right.  To this day I still have to rub the middle finger of my right hand along the index finger of my right hand, to know what is right and what is left.

At Dance School, I was soon told I would never be a ballet dancer, that I should think about auditioning for Cats the Musical. So, I went to see Cats the Musical but fell asleep just after the interval.

 Because of an inspirational teacher I had at Dance School, I started choreographing in my first year and once I had the opportunity to show my first piece of work, at the age of 19, my path was set.

I have learned that many people will delight in telling you why you can’t do something, I was told I could not be a dancer, then I was told that I could not be a choreographer, then I was told I could not be a director.  But where there is a no, where there is a ‘cannot,’ there always has to be a why?

 A no is like a line or a border. When I hear no, I always ask why, and very often you find that when you peel away the superficial layers of the force behind the no, that you discover that the no is founded on some senseless prejudice or on some meaningless desire to maintain some self-serving status quo.

If the ‘no,’ is based on the rules or foundation of an art form and those very foundations are showing clear signs that they need to be dug up and replaced then that ‘no,’ has absolutely no value.

One aspect of the mind that I feel is relevant here is the play between the conscious and the unconscious.  The conscious mind likes form, it likes shape, lines and parameters, the unconscious works silently, formlessly, and in the dark.  It is connected to a deeper intelligence and one of its main functions is to be your guide. 

The conscious mind is useful when you are paying your phone bill or withdrawing money from the bank or changing a tyre on your car but it is less useful when you are making art. The unconscious cares little for borders or for the way things have always been done.

Looking back now I can see how my unconscious guided me delightfully sometimes very painfully through the last 30 years of my life.  And I can see now that whenever I have tried to use conscious or reasonable thought to make decisions relating to my work, it has never gone particularly well.

I am interested in the meaning of the word, aliveness.  I spent years wondering what are the qualities that make one performer watchable and another less so.  I have decided that it has something to do with the fact that when a performer thinks too much their head and their body separate energetically and when this fracture occurs, they become less alive.  Even in a very coordinated physically impressive person, if they are thinking as they are moving, they won’t be nearly as watchable as another person whose consciousness is not concentrated in their head but spread through their entire being.  A performer whose body and mind and breath are integrated will appear to be extremely watchable because in this state, they are most alive.

I will never forget the first time I saw a tiger in Dublin Zoo.  I was only a child so you can imagine how enormous the tiger looked and although this animal was clearly sad about being confined to a small enclosure in the very extremities of North Western Europe, I will still never forget its beauty and how it moved and how being in its presence made me feel. Imagine what it must be like to encounter one of these beasts in the wilds of the Bengali Jungle. 

Going to the theatre needs to be like this, like meeting a wild and extraordinary beast in the woods and then having an energetic conversation with them.

We go to the theatre to hear, see and feel things we cannot hear or see or experience anywhere else. This is getting increasingly challenging to achieve because of the unfathomable advances in media and technology.  On the internet you can witness anything you want whenever you want.  If you would like to witness a man being beheaded, just click. 

You are one click away from just about seeing anything. But there is one thing you can’t access on line and that is a deep energetic connection with another breathing, sensing, energetic being, be it animal or human. This can only happen in the company of another living being in real space and in real time.  And this is the realm of the theatre.

I am in this game for one reason and one reason only, so I can be present when these sorts of encounters unfold.  To see the energy created amongst a group of performers move from the stage and envelop the audience.  To see that same energy travel back towards the stage propelled by the intensification of the audience’s watching and listening.  And then to see it magnify further and be sent back into the auditorium again.  To watch as a game of energetic ping-pong unfolds until the performance ends.

It has taken me 30 years to begin to understand the energetic dynamics of performance in the theatre and I wholeheartedly believe in its holistic and restorative power.

To cultivate the power to make this kind of work one needs to develop certain qualities. One needs to became a master of the art of making connections and to achieve this you first need to know yourself, inside and out. Every nook and cranny needs to be cleared and explored. Anything you have not processed will seek to be processed, and this can be most uncomfortable experience especially if it happens suddenly in front of two thousand people. 

Most importantly you need to learn to relax and this is only possible when one becomes familiar with and in acceptance of the ever-changing nature of being.

When something needs to happen, let it happen.  If something needs to occur it will occur.

I approach my projects like this.  If a dance / theatre work needs to come into existence, it will.  And nothing will stop it.  I love it when you begin to notice on certain projects that it is not about making it happen but instead it becomes about giving in and watching the creation come into existence whether you like it or not. 

When things go wrong it’s never much fun but the pain can be assuaged a little by the knowledge earned through experience that when things go awry it’s the finest time to learn and to accept some previous indigestible truth about what it is you are doing or what it is you need to change.

I can’t think of a better place to develop as a human being than by working in the theatre.

I never sought to be International,’ and although I take great pride in the moments when the company tours to London, New York, Paris or Sydney and plays in all sorts of prestigious venues and festivals, I don’t take much pleasure from sitting on airplanes or waking in hotel rooms not knowing where I am.  But the international element to what I do was something I could not avoid.  it was simply always going to happen so I just let it happen and have learned to adjust my behaviour around it. 

The practical advantages of having your work tour outside of Ireland are significant but mostly because the allow you to diversify your base and sources of potential financial and energetic support.  Without International support you can become very vulnerable to the whims and political dynamics of one funding body. 

The fact that my company has always being populated by international artists is not premeditated or the result of some policy decision that was taken at a board meeting.  The show needs a cast and the show will demand who that cast of people will be. On Swan Lake for example the dancer who plays Jimmy (our Prince) lives in Auckland, the dancer who plays his mother lives near Canberra but the show demanded that these two artists would be part of it and so they are part of it.

I have also learned to never plan beyond the premiere.  That planning is contrary to any serious act of creativity.  Yes, it is expensive and energy consuming for the artists living in the Southern Hemisphere to come and perform in Moscow and then in Cologne and then in Clonmel but either it will happen or it will not happen and I am delighted to accept whatever outcome unfolds. 

If I can’t give the show what the show demands, then I won’t make the show.

Now I accept that this can sound a little irresponsible but it is quite the contrary. I do everything that needs to be done to ensure the show can manifest in its finest expression but after this we must allow things to unfold naturally and get busy about keeping out of the way. 

To have the strength and conviction to accept things as they are meant to be.  To not get caught in the memory of some bad experience and neither to allow our expectations or desires of what we would like to happen obscure our clear seeing.

A great artist in my view is a master shapeshifter, a person who can cross borders, either silently, secretly or with a sledge hammer and dynamite if necessary. It’s a person who has the strength to take responsibility for their actions and who is comfortable to sit with the related discomfort when necessary and through it all keep the light in their eyes shining. 

  • Copyright © 2017 by Michael Keegan Dolan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jan 6th, 2019
The Body (2004)

Over the years I have slowly begun to realise that my own development and the development of the work I do in the theatre are one and same.  When I become clearer so does the work!

In real time, in live theatre, the most exciting art of all, the actor’s body can sometimes betray the actor no matter how apparently ‘good,’ he or she is.  If for example the actor is playing the role of Macbeth in a traditional setting, he may be able to remember his lines and he may have a strong and beautiful voice but if we, the audience can see by the size and shape of his gut and the weakness in his knees that he most probably has never ridden a horse our swung a broad sword with any real intent, we will be doomed to sit in disbelieving, disenchanted silence in the crowded seating bank for the duration of the production.  Many times I have heard an actor’s voice expertly expressing an emotion and I see behind it, a body that is strangled, rigid and expressionless, a body held to ransom by that actor’s own personal physicality and limited range of movement, bearing little or no resemblance to the imagined body of the portrayed character expressing the given emotion.  

In spite of everything we impose upon ourselves in an attempt to make life more pleasing we will always be fundamentally physical beings.  We can never until death  escape the structure that encases our minds and our souls.  It is the separation between the mental and the physical, the cerebral and the visceral, the internal and the external that we have to be very careful of.  Many actors are talking heads, others are headless bodies and some others have had any sense of their own natural physicality taken from them by the pursuit of an external manifestation of perfection. 

When I work with a group it should be clear that everyone in that group is ready to undertake a process of daily training.  If the body is not at a certain level of preparedness, injury can visit it.  When prepared, we work to unblock blockages, sensitise areas of insensitivity and slowly remove physical habits or impositions that have been accumulated over the years.  Eventually and this can take many years, one may arrive back at a place where one’s body is open, free of mannerisms, sensitive and capable of working in unison with the mind. 

Grotowski wrote that an actor can not truly become another person until the actor can truly and fully be themselves. I agree with this. How can we inhabit the physicality of a character we must play when we can not fully inhabit our own?  In the world of the theatre we are obliged to discover our true natures, our true bodies and our true voices.

I no longer have any doubt that the external shape is a clear projection of the interior nature of a person. When I work to develop how a character might move, dance, talk or think, I look at the physical structure, the appearance of that character first.  For example, is he tall, small, heavy or light?  Does he move sharply or roll from one gesture to the next.  How much tension does he hold in his muscles while resting? What element dominates his physicality, fire, water, wind or earth?  What is his or her natural tempo, what is his rhythm?  How does he breathe?

I also work with sensation and energy.  How do I feel when I visualise a certain type of person, either being that person or being in their company?  Where does tension manifest in my body when I concentrate on this imagined character’s corporeal image; in the throat, the neck, the abdomen or pelvis?   I see and then feel my way around the characters who will eventually occupy the landscape of the dance/theatre creation .  These characters then become the building blocks of our productions.  

A certain set of pre-existing physical characteristics automatically dictates how a person will move in space.  Moving usually fully exposes the interior working of an actor or person.  When we walk down the street we are all unconsciously sending thousands of signals about who we are and passers by are unconsciously picking up these signals.  With a well trained eye and a sensitive nature one can read a person without hearing a word spoken.  In this way words become secondary.  The voice and its quality are secondary to that of the body and its quality.  The voice is dependant on the body, in a sense the body is the voice.  

Most actors’ faces are the most expressive and dextrous parts of their anatomy, closely followed by their hands. The rest of their instrument is very often left firmly behind in the shadows.   However we can teach the less developed parts of our anatomy with the parts which you use more expertly.  By relaxing the face we can in fact effect the relaxation of the body.  By making a fist and squeezing it softly we can teach our abdomens the correct tone.  

With the importance of the face in film, the lure of big money and the nature of our existing education system it is tempting and easy to leave a deeper exploration and understanding of the body behind but I would encourage you not to.  Some day sometime, somewhere you will an encounter a performer who has all aspects of his or her being highly developed and in equal measure and when you do, you will never forget the experience.

  • Copyright © 2004 by Michael Keegan Dolan
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Sep 18th, 2018
Don’t be afraid of the dark (2016)

Every winter, as the days grow short and the nights grow long and dark, thousands of migrating swans appear on the many lakes that surround the house where I live. In recent times the presence of these swans and that darkness began to merge in my imagination with the love story and tragedy, that is Swan Lake.

Much of Christian culture has been reduced to a simple notion that God is good, has a white beard and lives in the light and the devil is bad and sits in the dark.  This reductive view of the nature of things can be the root of much suffering and confusion.  Darkness is the absence of light. Fundamentally it is how we know what light is.

Depression like most illness can be a consequence of a continued state of imbalance, often connected with unresolved events from our lives.  The accumulated sadness eventually immobilises us and can make us sick.  This sickness often requires a fundamental change to move it.  Change, no matter how unwelcome, is an inevitable part of life, nature’s forces are constantly moving, seeking to find balance so that life can continue to endlessly unfold.  When depression visits us it is asking us to change.

Depression by its nature, forces you to be still long enough to hear what you are trying to tell yourself.  In the dark we can see nothing with our external eyes. In silence there is nothing to hear with our external ears.  When our senses have nothing on which to attach, our internal world wakes up and starts to speak to us quietly.  When this happens it is important to listen carefully.

The darkness in any story is there to teach us something. Don’t be afraid of the dark it is your friend.

  • Copyright © 2016 by Michael Keegan Dolan
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