Dance Fab­u­lous Beast is head­ing to Aus­tralia

An edgy Ir­ish ver­sion of the Stravin­sky mas­ter­piece has met with great ac­claim, writes Paola To­taro

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - The Rite of Spring

IT’S a breeze­less 33C and the sea­side town of Gal­way on Ire­land’s west coast is in a kind of me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal shock. The an­nual arts fes­ti­val is in full swing and every­where you look, peo­ple are barearmed, bare-legged and sport­ing shiny pink faces and be­atific, vi­ta­min D-over­dose smiles.

Michael Kee­gan-Dolan is not one of them. The di­rec­tor of Ire­land’s ac­claimed Fab­u­lous Beast dance com­pany is nurs­ing a cold, and with two chil­dren un­der four with him — his wife, Rachel Poirier, is a dancer — and a week’s back-to-back per­for­mances be­hind him and more to go, he is clearly tired. Very tired.

I’d read he is a com­bat­ive in­ter­vie­wee — feisty, fierce about his art — but the night be­fore, I watched incognito as the chore­og­ra­pher spent time with his troupe post­per­for­mance in the fes­ti­val’s river­side bar. He has an in­fec­tious smile and laugh, an ease and flu­id­ity of move­ment and ex­udes a pal­pa­ble, child­like ex­cite­ment as he tells his peo­ple that

‘‘ it’s not just ru­mour any more’’: they have just been nom­i­nated for two Bessies, New York’s pre­mier dance awards.

Kee­gan-Dolan’s lat­est of­fer­ing, soon to wing its way to the Bris­bane and Melbourne arts fes­ti­vals — is a re-imag­in­ing of his ac­claimed 2009, Olivier Award-nom­i­nated ver­sion of Stravin­sky’s The Rite of Spring with the English National Opera. It and a new Petrushka were com­mis­sioned by Lon­don’s Sadler’s Wells to head­line a pro­gram of three new works ti­tled A

String of Rites cre­ated to cel­e­brate the 100th an­niver­sary of the per­for­mance of Vaslav Ni­jin­sky and Igor Stravin­sky’s ground­break­ing 1913 mas­ter­piece.

Kee­gan-Dolan’s Rites is dark, con­fronting and in­tensely, un­ex­pect­edly mem­o­rable. There are mo­ments when this phys­i­cally dis­parate group of dancers — tall, short, slen­der, mus­cu­lar, black, white — are so clearly at­tuned and in­ti­mate with the mar­riage be­tween his chore­og­ra­phy and Stravin­sky’s com­plex, polyrhyth­mic pat­terns that they seem to be­come mu­sic in­car­nate.

The Rite of Spring is, of course, the story of pa­gan rit­ual, of an­ces­try and youth and the creative force im­plicit in the change of sea­sons. Tra­di­tion­ally, it cli­maxes in the choice of a young woman as sacrificial vic­tim to dance her­self to death. Scores of chore­og­ra­phers have ap­plied their minds to Stravin­sky’s orig­i­nal vi­sion, set in pa­gan Rus­sia, al­though it is in­vari­ably Ken­neth MacMil­lan, Leonide Mas­sine and Pina Bausch who are el­e­vated into the pan­theon of greats and used for com­par­i­son. Kee­gan-Dolan has cre­ated a work as orig­i­nal, in­fus­ing Rite with the spirit of Ire­land’s pa­tri­ar­chal past and the men­ace of male pack be­hav­iour, but shap­ing a de­noue­ment that is un­ex­pected and mod­ern. The ballet has re­ceived gen­er­ally glow­ing re­views, from The Times de­scrib­ing it as ‘‘ ex­hil­a­rat­ing as it is har­row­ing’’ to the Fi­nan­cial Times plac­ing it in the trio of his­toric greats.

Sit­ting out­side in the bril­liant sun­shine, eyes crin­kled against the glare, Kee­gan-Dolan ad­mits he won­dered why any­one would take on Stravin­sky. ‘‘ Rite is so com­pli­cated, so com­plex. I do ques­tion a lot why one would do th­ese pieces now. Some­times I sit in the au­di­to­rium and the com­plex­ity of scores and den­sity of the mu­sic for the whole evening and you think, ‘ Well, it’s just not go­ing to sell tick­ets’,’’ he says, smil­ing.

He says he felt over­whelmed at times by the de­sire to un­leash his vi­sion, but Stravin­sky’s mu­sic does not al­low it: ‘‘ In Petrushka, it is re­leas­ing and re­leas­ing and re­leas­ing but the score closes down in the end. Same with Rite, it starts to re­cede at the end . . . it doesn’t have the big . . .’’ he says, open­ing his arms and hands wide and then draw­ing them to a sud­den, dra­matic snapped-fin­gers close. ‘‘ I have to con­trol it. I have to sub­mit to Stravin­sky, and I am happy to. But some­times it is frus­trat­ing,’’ he adds with a flicker of em­bar­rass­ment.

In fact, it has taken scores of per­for­mances across Europe for Kee­gan-Dolan to be happy (or at least as con­tent as any self-crit­i­cal artist can be) with the work, and he ad­mits he is still tweak­ing, chang­ing, ad­just­ing. The chore­og­ra­pher is known for sit­ting with the au­di­ence dur­ing per­for­mances to tune into their re­sponses and last night was no ex­cep­tion.

‘‘ You re­ally only can see if it’s work­ing with peo­ple watch­ing ... when I sit next to some­one, I start see­ing it as they would, it’s weird I can feel their en­ergy.’’

The dancers for this Rite, he says, have taken time to ad­just to the dif­fi­culty of the mu­sic be­cause of the ten­sion be­tween ‘‘ feel­ing and en­gag­ing’’ with what they are hear­ing and mov­ing with and count­ing out the com­plex beats.

‘‘ It took a lot of work and when we opened in Lon­don and then took it to Ger­many, the work was strug­gling be­cause as soon as they stopped count­ing and tried to en­ter into the truth of the feel­ing, they got it wrong. Now they have em­bod­ied the counts and they are just start­ing to feel the beats . . . Gal­way is get­ting it at its best, and Aus­tralia will too.’’

Born in Dublin in 1969, at 18 Kee­gan-Dolan left Ire­land to study dance in Lon­don. He says he was as stiff as a board and in­sists in the three years he trained in the Bri­tish cap­i­tal, noth­ing worked for him. He cred­its his present phys­i­cal­ity to the in­flu­ence of an Aus­tralian yogi, Shan­dor Remete.

‘‘ I had learned to dance for years from var­i­ous in­di­vid­u­als. I had started late and noth­ing worked for me. Then, when I was 30, I met one of Shan­dor’s stu­dents in Lon­don. He was more of a Ja­panese swords­man but he in­tro­duced me to th­ese es­o­teric prac­tices and I dis­cov­ered that the rules of en­gage­ment from th­ese prac­tices un­locked the whole dance thing for me. That is an abridged ver­sion of about 10 years of look­ing and about 10 or 11 years prac­tis­ing. I don’t re­ally talk about this much, I don’t like to draw at­ten­tion to it. Maybe, be­cause you are Aus­tralian I can start to talk about it,’’ he says.

Much of his and Fab­u­lous Beast’s creative and new work has been fash­ioned and re­hearsed in Ire­land, un­til re­cently in a re­mote farm­house stu­dio in Long­ford. Kee­gan-Dolan is not keen on tra­di­tional au­di­tions and has found many of his finest dancers while run­ning work­shops and find­ing creative spir­its who, in a way, also find him. He calls it ‘‘ putting out the call, beat­ing the drum’’. ‘‘ It’s a com­bi­na­tion of know­ing peo­ple and peo­ple hear­ing how I work, word of mouth,’’ he says. ‘‘ Fo­cus is not just about how good the work is but the process, too. I don’t like go­ing to see work that

is about hu­man­ity and know­ing that an artis­tic di­rec­tor has made it by ter­ror­is­ing ev­ery­one to ful­fil his own needs. That to me is a lie.’’

Talk­ing about his chore­o­graphic process, Kee­gan-Dolan de­scribes what sounds like a gen­tle fox hunt, with him sniff­ing out the dancer who is most in tune, ‘‘ in the mood’’ each day and al­low­ing them to move and cre­ate with him close by shap­ing and re­shap­ing. He in­sists his dancers are much more dextrous than he is and that he re­lies and leans on them to re­mem­ber and re­peat move­ments, al­low­ing the work to evolve.

The com­pany is now no­madic, he says slightly wist­fully, ap­par­ently hav­ing out­grown its farm­house hosts and home. Petrushka, he says, was made in Ser­bia, Rites dur­ing a freez­ing win­ter in the space in Gal­way where they per­formed the pre­vi­ous night.

"Maybe a won­der­ful, phil­an­thropic Aus­tralian has a stu­dio for us, maybe some­where in Wol­lon­gong,’’ he says, pro­nounc­ing the word with an Ir­ish lilt. The Nige­rian mu­si­cian Fela Kuti’s leg­endary Shrine, where mu­si­cians and dancers gath­ered to­gether to live, work and play, is a model he is en­thused by, but says he’d in­sist on se­ri­ous artis­tic cre­den­tials for mem­ber­ship: ‘‘ A love of the art, the form ... be cool to be a mem­ber, that’s my am­bi­tion!’’

He is look­ing for­ward to the tour to Aus­tralia, where he has good friends and creative col­leagues — the Lim­er­ick-born Noel Staunton, artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Bris­bane Fes­ti­val, and Syd­ney Dance Com­pany’s Rafael and all th­ese body sizes and no­body re­ally cares how they look. I love that about Ire­land, you know, it’s great.’’

Ire­land, clearly, is etched deeply into his heart and, ide­ally, the com­pany’s new home would be here, he says. He and his lit­tle fam­ily now live in a ver­nac­u­lar cot­tage in the coun­try, a house left to him by his par­ents — and which Bonachela — and he laughs whole­heart­edly at the con­trasts be­tween his troupe’s work­ing life, danc­ing and re­hears­ing in freez­ing Ir­ish win­ters ‘‘ in their coats and hats’’, and that of their Syd­ney Dance Com­pany col­leagues, who nip off ‘‘ to the beach in their lunchtime’’.

Syd­ney dancers all look like mod­els, he teases, adding quickly that he loves com­ing back to Gal­way where the body-beau­ti­ful cul­ture hasn’t bit­ten: ‘‘ All th­ese body shapes his fore­bears lived in dur­ing the great famine.

An­ces­try is a pow­er­ful force, com­mon to hu­man­ity and the co­ag­u­lant that binds us all to­gether, but Kee­gan-Dolan is adamant it can­not be al­lowed to be a paralysing force.

The im­pact of a col­li­sion be­tween past, present and fu­ture ex­ploded for him in­deli­bly in Aus­tralia watch­ing the Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany’s The Se­cret River: ‘‘ At the end, when the ac­tors who played the white and the black guy take you into the fu­ture and the Abo­rig­i­nal guy’s just sit­ting there and the white guy who says ‘ Can I help you?’ gets an­gry and says ‘ Don’t you want my help?’ and the Abo­rig­i­nal guy just says, ‘ This is my place’, I swear to God, I could still cry now. I can­not ex­plain it. It was how he said it, what came be­fore, where I was, be­cause I’m Ir­ish, be­cause we have prob­lems of our own,’’ he says.

‘‘ I was f . . ked for about an hour. I just had this very deep con­nec­tion and I re­alised the power of theatre at that mo­ment. It gave mean­ing to my life. From all the poverty I have had, from all the an­ni­hi­la­tion I have had in the pa­pers, all the self-doubt. I thought it is all good be­cause if I can make a piece that has that one mo­ment, one of those mo­ments — man, I could die a happy man!’’

Clock­wise from left, scenes from The Rite of

Spring and Petrushka by Fab­u­lous Beast

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