Answers to Questions, planned for the programme for our cancelled performances of Swan Lake (Loch na hÉala) in Taipei 2020
How did you start to dance? What does dance mean to you?
My mother brought me to see a show when I was 4 years old, I knew I wanted to be a dancer then. However, I did not take my first dance class until I was 17. I grew up on the Northside of Dublin during the 70’s and 80’s. These were challenging times in Ireland, economically, as there was a lot of unemployment, emigration and a war in Northern Ireland. It was very unusual for a seventeen-year-old boy to take dance classes and then to want to pursue dance as a career as everyone assumed (and maybe rightly so) that it would be impossible to make a living from dancing. Times were hard then and getting a job to make enough money to survive was many people’s priority.
I went to all-boys school and when I was sixteen the priests that ran the school organised a show with the girls from the convent school up the road so we would have an opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex before graduating. In this show, I got to dance, and sing and talk to the audience. I remember one moment when I was given a microphone for the first time and I was asked to improvise few lines with the entire school watching. I remember thinking, ‘I could say anything I wanted. I could start a riot here and now.’ In that moment I realised the power and importance of theatre and of dance.
Dance is a way of communicating, of connecting, from one to another from the singular to the universal. The rhythmical, harmonious arrangement and movement of the limbs in space can bring us into contact with universal energy. Many of the most significant moments in my life have been through dancing or through seeing others dancing. Dance means everything to me.
How important is choreography and storytelling to you?
Storytelling is deeply woven into the fabric of the Irish mind and for my whole life I have been writing stories and telling stories. Every other Irish person is a storyteller of sorts. In Ireland the device of the story is used in many different complex ways to communicate information and ideas. I learnt about choreography later in my life. At the age of 19, after one term at ballet school in London, I began choreographing. I had a natural tendency to mix theatre and dance, imagery and movement, music and speaking or singing but it has taken me a long time to understand what I already knew when I was born. It takes a long time to learn all this stuff at school, which you then have to unlearn to access the thing you already knew. I would say to any dancer taking their first steps on their own path towards realisation through dancing, to be very careful who they learn from and what they learn because everything you learn that is of no use will have to be unlearned and unlearning can take a long time.
How did Irish mythology and folklore influence your early career?
I don’t like the word career. I don’t ever use it to describe the path my life has taken. I think the word career indicates a certain limited perspective of reality. It insinuates some sort of concept of a linear route towards the acquisition of some sort of position. I have no career. I am however influenced greatly by mythology and folklore. As I have gotten older and see things more clearly, I am also better able to allow myself be influenced by forces that have nothing to do with appearances or superficial social values. Myths are stories that have a certain kind of power. They disappear and reappear. They change shape. They exist for a reason. They have their own personality. They can be very demanding and on occasion frightening. They demand to be told and told well. To truly allow them in, you need to know what you are doing. You need to know how far you can go; how true you can be to them.
You co-founded Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre and had huge successes. How difficult is it to let the Beast expire?
In some ways it was very easy in others ways, more difficult. The thing is that the beast was already dead, or almost dead and I had not realised it. As it was dying it started to slowly drain all of my life force. Once I realised what was going on, I made the decision quickly and ended things quickly. It took some time to do all the unpleasant administrative duties around ending one company and beginning another one but the actual final euthanasia of the beast was quick. I completed the ritual by burning a huge number of objects, paper and properties related to the Fabulous Beast Company and that felt important. Gradually things improved and the way I make work now is much more like the way I have always wanted to make work. The Fabulous Beast was amazing but it was quite a thing to take responsibility for and I am lighter and better without it.
One of the purposes of forming Teaċ Daṁsa is to connect deeper with your cultural roots. How special is this that with Fabulous Beast it is unachievable?
There is power in a name. Maybe we don’t always fully realize this anymore. If you call somebody John, they become John. If you call a company Fabulous Beast, what do you think is going to happen? Teaċ Daṁsa (it is important not to forget the two dots, one above the ‘c,’ and one above the ‘m,’) is Irish, not English. By giving the company and Irish name you move the company in that direction. The word Teaċmeans house and the word Daṁsa means dance. The name evokes a place, a home and the name seeks to prioritise the art of dancing. I am naturally a stronger theatre maker than dance maker but I know that dance is more important to me as it has the power to bring one all the way home. After I ended the Fabulous Beast, I started looking for a house to live with my family that was situated in a Gaeltacht. A Gaeltacht is a place where people still speak Irish in their day- to-day lives. I wanted my children to have Irish as their first language. Their mother is French, so their second language would be French and their third language would then be English. In order to truly and fully connect with one’s cultural lineage and ancestry one needs to be able to speak the language of your ancestors. So, we now live in the Córca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht and I am more fully immersed in the culture of my ancestors. This is important for me, to make the next step down the path towards a kind of realisation.
You made ‘Giselle’ and other ballet-based titles. How did the idea of making ‘Loch na hEala’ come about?
The idea came about around the time I had ended Fabulous Beast. Swan Lake / Loch na hÉala was to be the first piece created with the new company. It was to be a very important piece for me. It was symbolic. It was part of a rebirthing process, a new beginning. The year it was made was significant also as 2016 was the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising which started the process of Irish Independence from the British Empire.
I was thinking that if this piece fails, then I will probably give up and I approached Swan Lake / Loch na hÉala as if it was to be the last piece that I would ever make.
Swan Lake is a little bit like the Giselle I made in 2003, in the way the theatrical disciplines are interwoven. It moves from storytelling to dancing, to singing, to music easily.
In truth the idea came to me while I was lying on the treatment table of a cranio-sacral therapist in 2013. He was helping me with my neck, which I had hurt. He was talking to me and told me he had seen our show, (Rian) the night before and said that the show had made him want to see Swan Lake, which was very strange, as Rian was nothing at all like Swan Lake. As I left his studio, I could not stop thinking about Swan Lake and in that moment decided that I would create my own version.
Your talented dancers are from all over the world. How did you grow the Irish sensibilities out of them? How did you create ‘Loch na hEala’?
There are some great advantages to working with international dancers on a piece about Irish mythology and contemporary Ireland. The main advantage is that they have distance, they have perspective. They relate to the elements that they can relate to and these are the elements that become part of the language of the piece. And because of this, the work although made in Ireland and written and directed by an Irish man, effortlessly takes on a universal sensibility, which is lovely.
The principle demand I make on the artists I work together with, is that I ask them to come and work with me where I live in Ireland. I ask them to live there for about 10 weeks. To eat, and work and breath together and not to leave until the work is made. By being in Ireland they naturally absorb what they absorb and this finds its way into the work. The main actor in Swan Lake / Loch na hÉala is Mikel Murfi and he is Irish although he trained with Jacques LeCoq in Paris.
Through this way of working I am trying to express the idea that it is wonderful to celebrate all our cultural differences and all the wonderful variations of how humanity is expressed and at the same time it is reassuring and very effecting to celebrate all the things that we share. And we share many things. One of my favourite performances of Swan Lake / Loch na hÉala that I witnessed was in Hong Kong. A place very different in so many ways to Ireland but when I talked with people after the performance, we recognised that we had many shared experiences.
In any attempt to make art, I believe it is important not to impose upon people. I believe it is good to allow them to be.
What kind of relationships can you see between mythology (folklore) and social issues?
Mythology only exists because social issues exist. Myths are maps, guide books, instruction manuals on how to behave and how not to behave. They are handed down from generation to generation, free of charge. They are sometimes violently explicit in the way they speak about the consequences of ignorant behaviour. They sometimes exist as warnings but also, they can be tremendously reassuring and indicate to one that they are on the right path.
Do you think the Irish or Celtic mythology is still an important part for the younger generation? How well are traditions and religious beliefs passing down in Ireland?
What I think is not so important and whether young people think myths are important or not is not significant either because I believe that what needs to be told will be told. If you choose to ignore the wisdom in a story you may very well end up suffering and through your suffering you will find your way back to the story and then will be in a better position to listen the second time around. If young people choose to ignore myths now, they will eventually find their way back to them. I think that many corporations, whose only reason to be is to make profit, manipulate young people terribly and at the moment it can be difficult to connect with teenagers but then teenagers have always, traditionally been difficult to connect with.
In Ireland, stories are constantly told. People here inherently value the power of a well written book. We have a long and powerful tradition as writers. We took the language of the conquering army and learned to use it better than them. The Irish have a natural disposition towards the world of imagination.
Because of this and many other factors it is easy to pass things on, through songs, stories and games.
What’s your message to the Taiwan audience?
My message is in the work. The audience will see and hear and feel what they need to see and hear and feel. I trust the work. I trust the audience. I have heard Taiwan is a great place. Every Taiwanese dancer I have met so far I have connected with easily. I think it is going to be a good meeting.
My message therefore might be, let’s meet. Let’s not be afraid to meet.
Michael Keegan Dolan, 2021