Michael Keegan-Dolan’s MÁM

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.

Photo Ros Kavanagh

Cormac Begley and Ellie Poirier-Dolan in MÁM. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

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.

Photo Ros Kavanagh

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s MÁM. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

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.

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala

Teac Damsa, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, August 30.

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake is unsparingly black in so many ways, starting with its indelible image of a near-naked, bleating man tethered to a block of concrete. The people in this midlands Irish community are damaged, the humour plentiful but grim and the prospects grimmer.

“Nature is stronger than will,” says the inappropriately named Holy Man (actor Mikel Murfi), describing the appalling event that led to the disappearance of four young women and their transformation into swans. Murfi, our narrator, will later also morph into a despotic county politician and the local law. There’s not much difference between them. They’re all called McLoughlin, petty tyrants each one.

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Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake/Loch naEala. Photo: Prudence Upton

The bare surroundings – some scaffolding, a few ladders – speak of the town’s poverty, not just in material things but in spirit. The ghastly birthday party (funny, though) sums things up. It’s thrown by Nancy for her son Jimmy so he might meet a local girl, shake off his depression and get married. Things don’t look promising.

In amongst the wreckage, though, there is great beauty and freedom. Keegan-Dolan’s depiction of abuse and debilitating grief doesn’t deny the harshness of life but he mitigates it with the consolation of optimism. The abiding memories of Loch na hEala are a love duet of exquisite tenderness and white feathers banishing the darkness as music plays and the ensemble dances joyously.

The story of a woman turned into a bird or sea creature is found in many mythologies, including Irish legend. Keegan-Dolan takes from that and is also strikingly faithful to the essentials of the familiar 19th-century ballet version while making them utterly contemporary.

His emotionally frozen anti-hero, Jimmy (Alexander Leonhartsberger), finds release when he meets swan-woman Fionnuala (Rachel Poirier) by the lake. His flinching tentativeness when he first sees Fionnuala is deeply touching and so right. Keegan-Dolan has a splendid eye for detail.

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Rachel Poirier and Alexander Leonhartsberger. Photo: Pridence Upton

Jimmy and Fionnuala can’t escape their fate but they are part of a much larger and longer history of endurance and resilience. Their sublime second pas de deux is an unforgettable paean to the power of love over malignity even as Keegan-Dolan doesn’t shy away from showing the pain that surrounds them.

Keegan-Dolan, who wrote the brilliant text as well as choreographed and directed, blends folk-inspired dance, spoken word and music into a seamless whole. The marvellous trio Slow Moving Clouds plays and sings Celtic and Nordic melodies live and the nine-member dance ensemble makes the heart sing. It’s a pity the season was so brief.

This review first appeared in The Australian on September 1.