‘MÁM is a celebration of ordinary moments, which are as mysterious and ambiguous as the supernatural spirits that haunt and weave through them’: Alison Croggon on Teaċ Damsa’s exhilarating dance theatre
As the audience files in to the Heath Ledger Theatre, MÁM is already beginning. Slowly, very slowly, the curtain rises. The stage is mostly bare, aside from a table on which lies a child in a white Christening dress, her feet towards us. Behind her, on a raised platform, sits a figure dressed in a funereal suit. He’s silently opening and closing a squeezebox, smoke rising behind him.
He’s wearing an extraordinarily realistic goat’s head – bearded chin, slotted eyes, thick horns folding back. It’s an unsettling image, to say the least, and there’s plenty of time to contemplate it. I wonder who he is, this hircine master of revels? Death, perhaps? Perhaps he’s a púca, an ambiguously amoral shapeshifter of Irish Folklore that’s often portrayed with a goat’s head? One of the Fomhóraigh, the Irish equivalent of the giants in Norse mythology, supernatural beings from malevolent nature, who also are often said to have the body of a man and the head of a goat?
‘I wonder who he is, this hircine master of revels?’
When the lights go down, the prone figure on the table sits up. It’s a young girl (Ellie Poirier-Dolan), maybe about nine years old, with a beautiful loose fall of red hair. She matter-of-factly draws out a packet of chips, opens them with a practised pop, and starts eating.
There are some ominous lightning flashes and then the curtain rail above these two contrasting figures tilts, so the curtain slides to the floor. Behind them, seated on plain wooden seats, are 12 dancers, again in funereal attire, wearing what look like black balaclavas made of paper bags. They take off their masks. Our púca, or Fomhóraigh, takes off the goat head and puts it by his feet, revealing the face of concertina player Cormac Begley. And then the dance begins.
Michael Keegan-Dolan’s MÁM, a dance theatre work devised by his company Teaċ Daṁsa in Corca Dhuibhne in West Kerry, is certainly rich in memorable imagery. It mostly seems to take place in some kind of community hall – the chairs are a constant, placed and replaced by the dancers – on a wild night that encompasses most of human history, from the pagan past to the modernist present.
Begley and Poirier-Dolan are the twin axes around which this dance makes its wild orbit. Perhaps they represent youth and age, music and silence, Christian and pagan, past and future? I don’t know. Poirier-Dolan is also the child waiting for her parents at the pub, placated with chips – there are always packets of chips – while they follow their sometimes frightening, sometimes exhilarating adult desires. Begley is also just the musician.
The dance itself is like witnessing some kind of faerie ball, in which the participants are bewitched, possessed by the music. This is wild dance, its choreography drawing Irish folk dance into contemporary movement that shifts between representation – drunkenness (there’s some very good drunk dancing), lust, love, community – and pure, exhilarating dance.
The second curtain tips and reveals the contemporary European music ensemble s t a r g a z e, who bring another musical language – or languages – a classical violin solo, hints of jazz, wild bursts of folk music, led by the concertina.
‘Begley and Poirier-Dolan are the twin axes around which this dance makes its wild orbit.’
There are moments of naked aggression – when the dancers divide into two groups, either side of the stage, and scream at each other – and other episodes that have a cruel edge. Others are benign moments of community, such as where they line up before us on the stage, watching the audience as if we’re a movie, sharing packets of chips. The movement is constantly mobile, constantly shifting, circles of ecstasy, hair and fabric and bodies whirling in the dance.
I never lose the opening image; it persists with me through the entire dance. MÁM is a celebration of ordinary moments, which are as mysterious and ambiguous as the supernatural spirits that haunt and weave through them, one informing the other.
It leads inevitably to the stunning final reveal, a coup de theatre in which the girl stands before a giant backlit fan, her hair streaming out before her, and is transfigured. She becomes Walter Benjamin’s catastrophic Angel of History irresistibly propelled into the future “to which his back his turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward”. We, the audience, are the debris: the storm, Benjamin said, is “what we call progress”.
And yet she’s not, either, that angel: like the spirit that opened the show, she is at once terrifying and benign, a portent of dread and hope. A young girl in the wind at sunrise.
MÁM , created by Michael Keegan-Dolan in collaboration with the company. Music Cormac Begley & s t a r g a z e. Set designer Sabine Dargent, lighting by Adam Silverman, costume design by Hyemi Shin, sound design by Helen Atkinson, live sound design by Sandra Ní Mhathúna. Performed by Imogen Alvares, Cormac Begley, Romain Bly, Lisa De Boos, Tyler Carney, Marlies van Gangelen, James O’Hara, Aki Iwamoto, Zen Jefferson, Mayah Kadish, Maaike van der Linde, Amit Noy, Keir Patrick, Ellie Poirier-Dolan, Rachel Poirier, Connor Scott, David Six, James Southward, Latisha Sparks, Carys Staton and Aart Strootman. Heath Ledger Theatre. Teaċ Damsa at the Perth Festival. Closed.