Teac Damsa, Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth Festival, February 27
One definition of the West Kerry word mám is yoke and another is obligation or duty but that’s only the beginning of its possibilities. There are also implications of dealing with difficult physical terrain and having a handful of something. On the surface it’s a stern and forbidding word, laden with ideas of hard work and necessity yet it gives rise in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s new work to nothing less than transcendence. You can call Keegan-Dolan’s deep connection to place and tradition duty if you like, although it feels more like a sacred trust. MÁM is not far off being a religious experience.
The first, indelible, image is of a man wearing a ram’s head and a little girl in a white dress. The wild, elemental and sensual are juxtaposed with innocence and the future. And then we’re off. Virtuoso concertina player Cormac Begley starts playing and 12 black-clad men and women begin to dance. They have a freedom that seems to spring from the soul and, yes, the loins and whatever atavistic impulse that makes humans want to move to music.
It’s low-slung dance that cajoles and seduces with easy hips, flowing arms, fluid spines and mobile shoulders, driven by Begley’s irresistible rhythms. It’s fantastically complicated and looks so natural. It’s community-hall sweaty and out-of-body ecstasy all at once. Passions are close to the surface and there are fascinating micro-dramas wherever you look. Men and women love and leave one another, they move to their own inner beat or have solidarity with the group. Sometimes they take a breather, sitting at the back or side, tapping feet and nodding heads, involved and engaged. Whatever they do it’s impossible to look away. They are deeply fascinating individuals. Meanwhile the little girl – she is Ellie Poirier-Dolan, Keegan-Dolan’s daughter – keeps watch and the surprise introduction of a new musical language from the group s t a r g a z e changes the dynamics. The winds of change are afoot.
At first there’s a clash between Begley’s music, firmly rooted in his community and country, and s t a r g a z e’s glossier contemporary classical sound. But dissonance and discord slowly and beautifully give way to common cause. They can exist together.
MÁM fitted seamlessly into a festival program that celebrated Western Australia’s Noongar custodianship. There is a shared and profound respect for country; in the physical and spiritual landscape that has existed for millennia and will do so long after we are gone.