Improvised Trance

Published: Wed 11 Mar 2020 10:15 AM
This show marked Michael Keegan-Dolan’s fourth appearance at the Festival over the years, and came highly recommended. But while it was certainly full of striking moments, I wasn’t convinced by the overall construction.
MAM opens with a stark, unsettling image: a young girl, dressed all in white and lying on a table, wakes up to see a man wearing an enormous goat’s head mask, complete with horns, and playing a concertina. Then a curtain behind the man comes down and we discover a troupe of dancers who, also sporting masks, point at the girl while stamping their feet.
What follows might be the girl’s nightmares, or dreams, or fantasies. In a loose, episodic series of vignettes, the dancers, clad in suits and black dresses, enact scenarios that seem to play with ideas of consent, of adolescence, of desire and rejection. A dancer kisses nearly all his colleagues, sending to sleep – or killing – each of them in turn. Two dancers walk along the laps of the seated others, reach the centre of the line, embrace, and fall down. Pairs of dancers perform their own sad tangos. Behind them a band, revealed by yet another curtain drop, play Irish-inspired music.
Much of the work has an improvised feel, or might have come from one of those games in which dancers are given an initial situation, a set of variations, and are asked to play with them as they will. This impression is reinforced by Keegan-Dolan’s programme notes, which talk of developing the piece through “a process entirely based on agreement” with his performers.
This lends the piece an immense variety. It is also visually striking, a series of images sketched out in sharp tones of black and white. The dancers’ controlled energy is impressive, and many of the scenes have an almost hypnotic quality, conjuring up images of whirling dervishes as the performers carve out repeated gestures in a trance-like manner.
What the piece lacks, though, is a strong overall sense of structure. The opening, focused on the young girl in white, is highly effective as an introduction to a dreamscape, and the closing scenes have almost equal force. But throughout the young girl is essentially a bystander, taking almost no part in the action. It is hard to see how the performance would have been materially different if the opening and closing scenes were stripped out, a sign that they failed to effectively engage with the rest of the show.
There is also little sense of progression or narrative. And this is mirrored in the music. The playing is admittedly excellent, especially that of the virtuoso concertina player Cormac Begley. But musically it is all very one-note, or indeed one-chord. At no point does the music develop, progress or even modulate.
That’s no great matter if one values highly the more trance-like, repetitive, ostinato forms of movement and music. But it left this viewer at least with a sense of disappointment, a feeling that interesting and creative ideas had been left crying out for some more definite shape.
Max Rashbrooke
Max Rashbrooke is a journalist and author working in Wellington, New Zealand, where he writes about politics, finance and social issues.
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