Bringing the Irish Beast to bear on a Russian masterpiece
Michael Keegan-Dolan and his dance company Fabulous Beast brought an epic vision to ‘Giselle’. Now he is taking on Stravinsky
Scenes from Galway Arts Festival and Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre’s co-production of The Rite of Spring/ Petrushka. Photograph: Colm Hogan
Michael Keegan-Dolan moves with a bouncy ease that belies his training as a dancer and choreographer. Clad in a green tweed suit, he strides across the crowded tea rooms of the Westbury Hotel in Dublin with confidence, and even when seated he is never quite still, using gestures both expansive and subtle as he talks. He is terrific company: earnest, unguarded, passionate, and funny. At times he drifts off into romantic monologues about the “transformative nature of art”, the “necessary isolation of the artist”, and the “other worlds” that his work gives him access to; these are attitudes that are easily ridiculed in a contemporary culture that privileges accessibility and democracy above high art and the unique.
However, anyone familiar with the repertoire of Keegan-Dolan’s dance-theatre company Fabulous Beast will know that, while the work may be rarefied in intent and conception, its incarnation in performance speaks for itself. It is visual and visceral, poetic and political. It is Irish in its vision, universal in its reach. It is also, importantly, a lot of fun.
Fabulous Beast seemed to appear, phoenix-like, with its first production Giselle, which premiered at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2003. Keegan-Dolan had left Ireland for London in 1989, and had not worked here professionally since. He was a late starter to the world of dance, taking his first formal dance lessons at Billie Barry’s Raheny school when he was 17, but he secured a place at the Central School of Ballet in London and, after finishing school, he made his home there. However, the young ambitious dancer felt his opportunities were limited.
“The odds are stacked in your favour when you are a male ballet dancer,” he says. “Often you get work because you have a penis, not because you’re Nureyev, and I didn’t want to be a crap ballet dancer.”
Keegan-Dolan had been involved in rugby at school, “so I was quite physical and had to do a lot of partnering, lifting girls up and down. It was great for meeting girls but it wasn’t challenging. It wasn’t creative in any way, so I started thinking about, focusing on, choreography. I knew in my first term that was where I wanted to go.”
After graduation, Keegan-Dolan found a niche for himself in the opera world, choreographing the short ballets that are often used to structure instrumental interludes. “It was a great schooling,” he says, “working in opera houses all over the world, but it also gave me an opportunity to develop skills you would never get anywhere else in the dance world. I was working with huge numbers of people, directing choruses, working with orchestras and famous directors like Robert Lepage.”
The epic visions supported by big-budget productions also proved inspirational. When Giselle opened at the Dublin Theatre Festival, few in its Irish audiences had seen anything like it before. In her review for the Guardian, Karen Fricker called it “a work of narrative originality and technical achievement that challenges and extends the definitions of all the words with which it is necessary to describe it: ‘Irish’, ‘dance’ and ‘theatre’.”
The history of Irish theatre is traditionally text-based; an awareness of the body and physical performance is secondary to its literary quality, while dance is seen as its own entity. However, Giselle was dance as storytelling; something that was unique on such a large scale in Ireland. And yet, for Keegan-Dolan, it was not an entirely radical idea. “Good theatre is implicitly choreographic,” he says. “The thing that defines it is bodies on stage. And good dance, even the most abstract, is highly theatrical. To get caught up in the differences is a pointless exercise: pure things are very attractive and alluring, but so are hybrids. Crossbred dogs live longer and are healthier animals.”