tue 07/07/2020

Michael Keegan-Dolan, MÁM, Sadler's Wells review - folk goes radical | reviews, news & interviews

Michael Keegan-Dolan, MÁM, Sadler's Wells review - folk goes radical

Michael Keegan-Dolan, MÁM, Sadler's Wells review - folk goes radical

Digging deeper into Irish tradition has yielded Michael Keegan-Dolan's most visionary work yet

The man with the golden eyes: concertina player Cormac Begley and Ellie Poirier-Dolan in 'MÁM'Images: Ros Kavanagh

The Dingle Peninsula is a thumb of land that protrudes into the Atlantic as if trying to hitch a ride from Ireland to America. The choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan recently moved there, and its crags and vales and unspoilt coast have sucked him into an older, slower way of life that – paradoxically, because his work was and remains radical – has given him a shot in the arm.

The opening minutes of his latest confection of dance-theatre and live music feel like a sequel to his last, a savage take on Swan Lake that explored the effect on Irish communities of corruption in the Catholic church. Well, what else are we to think? A little girl stands centre-stage, dressed for First Communion, clutching a bag of crisps, and before her looms a man with the head of a ram.Cormac Begley, s t a r g a z e, and the dancers of Teac DamsaWhen a curtain falls to reveal a seated congregation of black-masked men and women beating a sinister tattoo with their feet, we fear the worst. But, unfazed, the little girl stands her ground and keeps munching her crisps. And after a while we notice that the insistent rhythm has turned into a jig, and the concertina played by the man with the ram’s head is no longer issuing a dirge, but a tune that’s increasingly sweet and merry.

Suddenly, the chairs are cleared and we’re at a party in a village hall – a wake or a wedding – and the people in their sombre clothes are boogying fit to bust. They race each other, fall into random trances, pogo wildly. Their dances are loose and expansive yet curiously precise. You only realise how precise when intermittently they fall into immaculate unison.

Cormac Begley, a rising star of the County Kerry folk music scene, is on a mission to show just how many sounds and moods the concertina can muster, from the chirpy chatter of the smallest size down through treble and baritone to the big daddy bass that can deliver a percussive beat, solid harmony and keening melody all at once. But just as you think you’ve got the measure of this rural knees-up, a second curtain slides away to reveal another layer of musical possibility.

A woman dances to exhaustion like the Chosen Maiden. A louche young man falls in love with everyone in the room

These are the members of s t a r g a z e, a pan-European collective of classical players who indulge in the most un-classical behaviour. As the violinist embarks on a private rendition of solo Bach, others chip in – grunting double bass, shrieking piccolo and half-dismantled piano. The band jams masterfully through a range of styles: funk, free jazz, world music, rock. Unfamiliar instruments swap in and out. Yet the global tour keeps coming home to roost in West Kerry and Begley’s concertina, and the dancers respond in kind.

A man kicks off a sequence of clogging. There are circle dances, and smoochy couple dances, twitchy and semi-conscious, entranced by – well, what? The procreative urge and the pull of folk tradition. A woman dances to exhaustion like the Chosen Maiden in Rite of Spring. A louche young man falls in love with everyone in the room. Intensity of experience is what links them, and the audience experience it too.

Keegan-Dolan set up his company Teac Damsa (“House of Dance”) in a bid to forge connections with the language, music and landscapes of Ireland. He has titled this piece MÁM, a local dialect word for a mountain pass. Yet it seems to me to be making a more important statement about celebrating difference – about the possibility of finding a fruitful balance between new influences and old certainties. The presence of the child, of course, is critical, because children are the future. Let's hope this visionary work will return to London for a longer run.

We're at a wake or a wedding, and the guests are boogying fit to bust

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