Review: MÁM, MICHAEL KEEGAN-DOLAN, Sadler's Wells

Keegan-Dolan manages to distil culture and replicate it through theatre and dance with apparent ease

By: Oct. 06, 2023
Review: MÁM, MICHAEL KEEGAN-DOLAN, Sadler's Wells
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Review: MÁM, MICHAEL KEEGAN-DOLAN, Sadler's Wells Michael Keegan-Dolan returns to Sadler’s Wells with his 2019 work MÁM 5-7 October. The piece includes 12 of his company (Teaċ Daṁsa, formerly Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre until 2016) dancers, virtuoso Irish traditional concertina player Cormac Begley and the music collective s t a r g a z e.

The programme notes tell us we're in a village hall somewhere in rural Ireland for a kind of gathering. Cryptic. We don't know if it's a celebration or commiseration, with formal attire alluding to both, and initial masks suggesting Paganism. In short: Keegan-Dolan manages to do what many try and fail at; he distils culture and replicates it through theatre and dance with apparent ease.

The overall look is über-stylish, to the point that at the beginning of the work it feels less substantial and more veneer focused. However my overly quick judgement was proved wrong soon after I thought it, with the tasteful production unveiling layers as it goes, first the dancers, then musicians and finally the big finish.

The village hall environment lends well to the sense of community, verging on cult even, but in a positive way if that's possible?! I reference the notion of cult for numerous reasons: there's clearly an element of deep connection between the entire cast, choreographically Keegan-Dolan uses mirroring i.e. one person starts an action, and very soon the whole ensemble is repeating the same movement almost involuntarily, and everything seems to be executed with fervour in a trance-like state throughout. Is this Ireland or Salem?

The choreography is a fine example of the innate simplicity of dance, and what passion it can imbue. The majority of the movement is basic, verging on the pedestrian - arm movements with gestural emphasis and spherical motion, sideways darts, ball changes, high reaches and released falls. Yet Keegan-Dolan takes all of this and performs magic, through manipulation, augmentation, rhythmic play, dynamic application and spatial formatting.

And somehow does it all in the most natural of ways, nothing feeling forced, no phrasing or spacing geometry being shoved down anyone's throats. For want of a better word: the whole experience feels organic.

One aspect I wasn't too sure about was the absurd. Shock screaming, manic laughter, lunacy even. Perhaps initially it causes surprise and the associated impact, but when repeated too often it reads a tad phoney and performative.

Fundamentally the music brings everything together, as well as the constant presence of a young child that all seem protective over. Cormac Begley offers endlessly atmospheric jigs and lilts which whip the cult members up into all different kinds of frenzies. And though s t a r g a z e felt a tad out of place at the outset, their sensitivity and range of instruments added to the overall score's footprint in a big way.

Two key excerpts for me were a duet which is probably best described as moshing; communicating extreme power in both its sense of energy and simple repetition, and a solo danced by Carys Staton. Staton is the real deal and a superb communicator of Keegan-Dolan's language. I haven't been so intrigued by a modern dance moment for quite a while, with Staton's execution demanding inquiry into who is this woman, why is she both disconnected and present, and what has caused this focused, intentive dance. I didn't come to a final answer, which is absolutely the best kind of outcome.

Knowing how to finish a piece is never easy, and Keegan-Dolan goes down the route of collective humming, slo-mo staring and numerous industrial size fans bellowing cool air into the auditorium. I felt the wind of the Atlantic ocean.

A mega night at the theatre.

MÁM shows at Sadler’s Wells until 7 October

Photo Credit: Rich Gilligan


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