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


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.”

Keegan-Dolan was surprised by how the work, inspired by classical ballet, evoked a home-sickness in him. “I didn’t set out to make something about Ireland,” he says, “but it was certainly there.” The following year, he decided to move back to Ireland, though not to Dublin, but Westmeath, where he “bought a field about five miles from where the Keegans had been pushed out during the Land League days”. It was in these intimate and isolated rural environs that Keegan-Dolan would create The Bull and James Son of James, which together with Giselle became the Midlands Trilogy – a series of works that spoke directly to the changes that Keegan-Dolan noted in “concrete Celtic Tiger Ireland”.

It also established a working pattern for Fabulous Beast, which would rehearse and premiere work in Ireland, before launching it on the international touring circuit. Abroad, the work was received as Irish, “especially in England, maybe because of the tense historical relationship. But people really attach to the Irish thing, no matter where you are.” However, Keegan-Dolan found that while there were certain cultural expectations, there were few aesthetic prejudices: “I mean, what should you expect from an Irish dance theatre company? It doesn’t really exist.”

However, the reception of the Midlands Trilogy as a statement about globalised modern Ireland, its cultural complexity and its re-evaluation of nationalist history, troubled Keegan-Dolan a little bit. After seven years working with a rolling ensemble, Fabulous Beast was ready for a new lease of life, and he set about reinventing the company. The resulting work was more difficult to talk about in narrative terms and more varied in approach.

His last two major projects are a case in point. Rian, which premiered in 2011 at the Dublin Theatre Festival, was a celebration of Irish music and dance, motivated by nothing more than the joy in their linked energies. His new versions of The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, meanwhile, which premiered at Sadler’s Well’s earlier this year before an Irish run at this year’s Galway Arts Festival, bring a surge of new and distinctly Irish life to the pagan ritual of Stravinsky’s most famous ballet score, and a sense of tragedy to the less well-known puppet play.

Keegan-Dolan is both specific and abstract about his newly-defined artistic manifesto. “My definition of the work is a constant process of discovery,” he says. “But there are things I think are important if you want to make work that has a transformative quality, that asks people to create a space where they might believe in an unseen world, a world of imagination.

“That’s what I am interested in; making work to open a crack into another world just for five seconds, and everything else is secondary. Obviously, the quality of the room you are sitting in, the acoustics, the temperature, the texture of the floor, the people in the room with you, all that is important, and the more attention you pay to those details, the better work will be. You can use anything – dancers, actors, imagery, a story, music, no music – to get this thing to happen. But that’s the goal, and everything and nothing is important in that journey.”

The Rite of Spring/Petrushka is at the Black Box Theatre as part of the Galway Arts Festival from July 15th to 20th.