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There’s a jittery energy in the air at Dublin’s O’Reilly Theatre as a camera snakes its way up stairwells and backstage. Musicians warm up tucked away in corners, dancers stretch and bounce on pointed toes. The show’s choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan is waiting in the wings too.
“There he is,” someone says offscreen.
“Here I am,” he replies.
“There you are.”
A little back-and-forth to calm the nerves before curtain up.
The camera sits in the balcony and for a brief moment we’re part of the opening night audience. A cloaked figure wearing a goat’s head sits in the middle of the stage, concertina in hand. A series of curtains are pulled left and right to the sound of static.
There’s no time to make sense of the sounds and imagery. A cut takes us away from Dublin and the opening night excitement. An inter title reads: “EIGHT MONTHS EARLIER THE DINGLE PENINSULA”. Now, shots of mountains, tranquility, silence. Not a goat man in sight.
In a rehearsal room in the Halla na Feothanai, Keegan-Dolan sits among a group of dancers. He talks about what he wants from a performance. He is no longer interested in complex choreography – the “simplicity of people in space moving to beautiful music” is what he values more than anything else.
“People in space moving to beautiful music” works just as well to describe the action in The Dance. For eight weeks Keegan-Dolan, the dancers and a group of musicians work at intense improvisation. Meanwhile, the film’s director, Pat Collins, and his team are wallpaper, observing the creative process.
There are no interview segments, no introductions or backstories for the dancers. The work speaks for itself and the film is built around the work.
The Dance is edited so the eight weeks feel like one long day. The lighting in the interior of the halla doesn’t change. It’s like we are seeing one unbroken burst of creativity. The dancers and musicians _must _sleep but we don’t see that. We only see the process.
Time rolls on, The Dance rolls on and the almost constant musical score hums on in the background of the rehearsal space. The dancers dance and dance and dance. The feeling is that the work can’t stop or won’t stop for fear of losing some ambient creative momentum.
A series of blank A3 sheets pinned to one of the white walls gradually fill up and indicate that something is taking shape. The camera occasionally settles on a portion of this paper. We can read bits and pieces, but not the whole thing. We are dealing in parts of a whole.
There are no real narrative hooks to the documentary. Despite the intensity of the process there’s never an argument or outburst caught on film, or if there was it was left on the cutting-room floor. We know that the show happens because we see it at the beginning of the film. So, our investment is entirely in seeing the moment-to-moment building of the show.
Collins knows that the joy of The Dance comes from the action. There is no need for embellishment or heightening of drama for drama’s sake. The magic is in the method.
In any film – fiction, non-fiction or otherwise – it’s difficult to communicate mastery to an audience. A shorthand approach that appears in a lot of pictures is to show something complex being done effortlessly. In The Dance, Keegan-Dolan’s “simple” choreography looks difficult.
Now, I’m a so-so dancer, but any amount of rhythmic flailing I can muster could never amount to the gracefulness that we see from the dancers on screen. Their wild improvisation is built on the back of expertise.
The same goes for the musical accompaniment. The classical collective s t a r g a z e and concertina player Cormac Begley (the man in the goat head) seem to build melodies through and with the dancers’ movements. Music is always playing and so the effect of layering and building melodies has an almost subliminal effect as the sound of the show grows alongside the choreography.
Seeing it all come together from the ground up through the constantly rolling, roaming camera is like witnessing something cosmic, even spooky, occur.
Back at the O’Reilly Theatre a montage shows us movements and steps from rehearsal, now fully formed and integrated into the work. We see and hear fragments from the long journey that brought us to this point.
There’s a temptation to think someone like Keegan-Dolan is a magician pulling a dance performance out of a hat instead of a fluffy rabbit. Instead, he’s a consummate and savvy creator who embraces collaboration, experimentation and the beauty in simplicity.
The pleasures he harnesses for his show, MÁM, are the very same as those put onscreen by Collins and his team in The Dance. The joy of seeing bodies in motion and the wonder of witnessing creation take hold.
The Dance is in cinemas from 11 February.