- Film & TV
- 10 Feb 22
Something old, something new, something borrowed, perhaps – but there is nothing blue about the stunningly cinematic new documentary, entitled The Dance, about the stage show Mám. Directed by Pat Collins, choreographed by Michael Keegan-Dolan and featuring the musical stylings of Cormac Begley and the Stargaze Ensemble, it is a powerful expression of contemporary Irish culture.
MÁM, meaning handful, yoke or mountain pass in the Irish language, is a fitting name for the stage show, inspired by the picturesque Dingle Peninsula.
The Dance is the title of a new documentary – brainchild of Irish film director Pat Collins and Irish choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan – which chronicles the 8-week rehearsal period leading up to the opening night of the theatrical show MÁM. The powerful show features the music of Cormac Begley and the Stargaze Ensemble, as well as twelve international dancers, handpicked by Michael Keegan-Dolan for the project.
The opening scenes of the documentary were filmed on the spine-tingling opening night. One spotlight reveals Cormac Begley sitting centre stage wearing a ram’s head, and Ellie Poirier-Dolan (Michael’s daughter), lying on a table in what looks like a communion dress. Silence ensues before the upstage curtain shoots back to reveal twelve dancers with paper bags covering their heads. The beat begins with Cormac on his concertina and rhythmic beats from the dancers - who make use of their feet, hands, bodies and voices. It’s an electric, suspenseful opening that grab the attention of audiences. We are then transported back to the rehearsal space - Halla na Feothanaí in the Gaeltacht area of Corca Dhuibhne in Kerry, which has also been home to Michael Keegan-Dolan and his family for the past four years.
The story of MÁM is told completely through music and movement. It’s wide open for interpretation, harbouring the potential for an array of meanings. I was curious to know where Michael got the inspiration for MÁM, and what was the significance of the title.
“We moved to Kerry about four years ago," Michael explained. "and before we moved here I was friendly with Cormac Begley. I wanted to make a show about the move to Kerry and to collaborate with Cormac. One thing led to another and it ended up becoming the show.
“There’s a MÁM (mountain pass in this instance) that kind of separates where I live in Dingle and then the fíor-Ghaeltacht, West Kerry, where Cormac lives. I can see it now,” Michael adds. “When you look over, you’re looking out into real Irish speaking territory. There was something about going into the language, into the tradition and seeing what one could learn.”
This venture into tradition – and the language – is explored throughout the documentary. The traditional music of Cormac Begley and the Stargaze Ensemble comes together in a confluence with the contemporary, modern style of the Teac Damsa international dancers. With much of the choreography and scenes improvised, the audience can see the level of trust building throughout the project - as it developed over the space of eight weeks.
This blend of traditional and modern, in particular, drew director Pat Collins to the project.
“What attracted me, as well, was the fact that there was no particular narrative in the piece,” he tells me. “I wouldn’t have been as interested if there was a story in the piece. It was that idea of just really immersing yourself in the whole process and trying for us, as filmmakers, to just get out of the way and observe what was happening and not control it in any way.”
The entire documentary was filmed on just one camera – a seemingly impossible task – with principal cameraman Colm Hogan capturing almost 160 hours of footage over the course of 37 days. In total, he held the camera on his shoulders for four to five hours every day. Keith Walsh, editor and sometimes stand-in cameraman, then had the job of condensing all of that footage into the 90-minutes we see in the documentary.
As an audience member watching MÁM, it feels like you’re immersed in the energy of it, as if you were a fly on the wall in the rehearsal room. Pat mentioned that from a directorial point of view, he wanted that camera to be like an audience member observing the process. This very natural, observational way of filming, meant the process wasn’t intrusive.
Pat recognises that push and pull between the performers and crew was crucial to the process. “It’s also trying to build up that trust. If a dancer says, ‘I’m feeling crap, I don’t want to be filmed today’, we were open to that. We wouldn’t use that person on that day and once they knew that, they felt free in themselves,” explained Pat.
In order to stay as true to the experience as possible, most of the footage seen in the documentary is in chronological order. Cameraman Colm Hogan acted as the “thirteenth dancer”, according to Michael. Bob Brennan, the sound person, also had a huge role to play.
“98 per cent of the sound is sync sound so we didn’t lay down any tracks on top of it to make it more dynamic,” Pat said, his passion for the project unmistakable. “Everything you hear, or every piece of music, is coming from within that room rather than us in the edit putting the music down to make it sound better or make it more emotional or anything like that. We were trying to be as true as possible to the experience of being in the room.
“For me as a filmmaker, I don’t try to control everything. It’s much better for me when the dancers hear the full band playing a tune for the first time, because their response is completely automatic. I didn’t know that was going to happen, and neither did the cameraman. There was nothing tied down in terms of the weekly schedule. When we were in the edit suite, we were trying to be true to the passing of time."
Rehearsals consisted of five full days – Monday through Friday from around 8am until 6pm – and a half day on a Saturday. That pummelling schedule was maintained for all of eight weeks. It’s obviously a huge commitment, one which would presumably be draining, physically and mentally. Michael recalls the Saturday morning rehearsals as being ‘chaotic’.
“Saturdays are always interesting because everyone’s tired," he reflected, "but a lot of the footage Pat chose to keep in the documentary is from a Saturday morning. There’s something about when people are that tired; they stop editing, they don’t care anymore.”
The mornings usually started with an hour and a half of yoga, and then the cast and crew would have breakfast together. Some afternoons and days off were spent swimming, roaming the beaches or hiking up Cnoc na Péiste. Creating that connection to the place translates well on screen. The viewer can witness their burgeoning vulnerability up close.
The documentary was filmed back in 2019, and is clearly from pre-pandemic times. Michael laughed as he recounted how different it feels now, watching it back.
“There’s an awful lot of intimacy," Michael observed. "The room is small and there’s a lot of people in there, who stand close together a lot of the time. There’s kissing and hugging and rolling on the floor and sweat flying.”
He believes it’s important to start early because, “there’s something very precious about the energy in the mornings. Nothing has happened yet, so there’s this beautiful potential about that time of the day.”
The thing we all dread talking about, the pandemic, has caused chaos and devastation for so many people. This project was no exception. Due to take seven months, the lengthy editing process was then delayed for ten as a result of the complications of Coronavirus. The documentary was certainly worth the wait. Pat recalls how the setbacks weren't overly destructive to the editing process, but the show MÁM was due to begin a worldwide tour. They were slated to start performances in Japan when the pandemic first hit, almost two years ago.
Pat and Michael experienced the pandemic in very different ways, but in common was the fact that life slowed down.
Although there were great moments of what he calls “time and space”, it was a trying time for Michael. Sadly, he lost his mother during this period. “The dark really makes you appreciate what you have. That’s a real positive I’ll take from these last couple of years.”
For his part, Pat was lucky. “I just needed a break," he explained, "so it was really good for me in terms of being able to take the pressure off. Life became blissful for a while.”
As for now, the respite offered by lockdowns is well and truly over. Michael is full steam ahead and already has ideas for new shows.
“There's a huge backlog of work out there," he said, "so I would love to do a new show this year. However, I’m having difficulty finding a venue available for what I want to do. There’s always next year. I’d love to do a show that’s half written in Irish.”
Pat is currently in the post-production stages of a documentary made for RTÉ, which he hopes will be released in the next few months.
“I’m hoping to shoot a feature film later this year," he added. "It's an adaptation of the John McGahern novel, ‘That They May Face The Rising Sun’. We’re hoping to film over the summer - that’ll keep me busy for 12 months.”
Suffice to say, neither of these workhorses is ready to be shuffled into retirement just yet. Watching MÁM and The Dance, you'd have to see that as a blessing...
The Dance is in cinemas now.
- Film & TV
- 20 May 22
- Film & TV
- 20 May 22
- Film & TV
- 19 May 22