Pat Collins captures the magic of creativity in The Dance

Documentary achieves the near impossible: capturing transience of the medium it observes

In 2019, choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan, virtuoso concertina player Cormac Begley, the European musical collective, 12 international dancers and film-maker Pat Collins converged on the Dingle Peninsula for some eight weeks of rehearsals. Collins was there to chronicle the creation of Mám, the Irish choreographer’s follow-up to his award-winning 2016 piece, Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, a work that was named as the second-best dance production of the 21st century by the Guardian.

“It was such a monster of a process,” says Collins. “We were shooting a huge amount of hours, something like 150 hours, and trying to get that down to one hour. The average TV or long documentary would be a seven-weeks edit. We were nearly six months editing. For Keith Walsh, the editor, it was just a huge job.”

The resulting film, The Dance, achieves the near impossible: it captures the transient nature of the medium it observes. It’s one of those rare films – like Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio, Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy, or Peter Greenaway’s Nightwatching – that is a work of art about a work of art.

“It seems to me that Pat Collins has made the impossible possible, the invisible visible,” says Michael Keegan-Dolan. “He has succeeded in capturing on film the essence and narrative of the invisible energetic process of making a new and complex piece of dance theatre. When I watch The Dance documentary I see a fiercely true and beautiful account of a magical process of work, of which I was part, that unfolded in a west Kerry community hall during the summer of 2019.”

“What Michael does on stage is so ephemeral,” says Collins. “It’s the difference between watching a play and watching a filmed play. Filmed plays don’t ever really work. Because when it’s live it’s completely different. I’m not sure that I’d be capable of making a musical. This documentary is maybe as close as I could get.”

An illuminating interview with Michael Keegan-Dolan was left, tantalisingly, on the cutting room floor

Collins has made many award-winning documentary portraits of artists, including John McGahern, the poets Michael Hartnett and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami and, most recently, American folklorist Henry Glassie. The Dance, however, studiously avoids biographical details. None of the dancers – including the bendy James O’Hara, Ellie Poirier-Dolan (the choreographer’s daughter), 2015 BBC Young Dancer Competition winner Connor Scott and Rachiel Poirer – who was shortlisted for Outstanding Female Modern Performance by the UK Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards – are profiled. An illuminating interview with Michael Keegan-Dolan was left, tantalisingly, on the cutting room floor.

“Michael, because he’d gone through this process before, said to me at the beginning, that sometimes everything happens in one day,” recalls Collins. “It’s something that’s outside of their control, it’s to do with energy and spirits or whatever. And you worry that you won’t be there on the days or moments when the magic happened. There were probably three major days during that whole eight-week process where everything went into a kind of harmony. I remember we were trying to capture this dancer called Aki (Iwamoto). And she’s spinning around, and that kind of feels like pure cinema to me. You are so lucky to be in a room where that’s emerging naturally and you can stay with the shot for like four minutes and get lost in it.”

In this whirling spirit The Dance offers a fascinating glimpse into Keegan-Dolan’s organic choreography, a free-wheeling process the choreographer characterises as being “ . . . about discovery, revelation and connection – and [how] these moments of discovery are a revelation to everyone present”. It’s a journey that, in The Dance, starts with communal vegan lunches, occasional dips in the Atlantic and instructions that can sound (deceptively) more like guided meditation.

“They did a limited version of the show for the local audience,” says Collins. “But going from that to the opening was huge in terms of the changes. It was a departure in terms of costume and lighting. But when they introduced the kind of orchestral sound you hear in a big auditorium, and the smoke machine and the effects, I was blown away by it. I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was. That’s Michael’s gift. He is literally overseeing the organisation from day one like he’s improvising.

“But he’s also in control. He’s allowing things to happen, even while the dancers initiate certain moves. He’s got that vision from the beginning of what it’s going to look like. It’s like a film. It probably needs that one person to have that vision to be able to carry it the process and bring the dancers and musicians altogether. I do think Michael has a definite visionary thing. I have no doubt that he actually turned his hand to film-making that he could do the same. Even if that kind of visionary film-making isn’t happening so much anymore.”

The Longford-born Keegan is the founder and artistic director of the Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre. He has directed and choreographed Handel’s Julius Caesar, at the London Coliseum for the English National Opera, The Rake’s Progress at the Royal Opera House, Idomeneo for the Royal Flanders Opera and Pique Dame and Ariodante for the Bavarian State Opera.

Collins is one of Ireland’s preeminent film artists, in every sense. As a documentarian, he has studied cartographer Tim Robinson, Loch Dearg, Irish writer and priest Pádraic Standún, and, as the director of the three-part 1916 series for RTÉ. Elsewhere he has crafted a unique milieu creating quietly powerful films that draw from the history and landscape of rural Ireland. His politically charged essay films What We Leave in Our Wake and Living in a Coded Land are essential viewing for anyone interested in contemporary  Irish cinema.

I wasn't really sure what I wanted to talk about except for my appreciation for his work

Collins first found common cause with Michael Keegan-Dolan watching a performance of Rian, the award-winning collaboration between the choreographer and musician Liam Ó Maonlaí. Collins emailed the choreographer and a year later they finally met for coffee.

“I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to talk about except for my appreciation for his work,” says the film-maker. “I thought he was getting at something that I think that a lot of other people aren’t getting even close to. I wanted t see if there was something we could collaborate on. And then he met him in England in 2018. He was talking about this new show that he was doing. It was non-narrative theatre work. Through talking with Michael we came up with  the idea of making a film of the process of him staging the show. Michael has a kind of a unique approach and very strong philosophical outlook about how theatre and dance should be done.

“I was interested in the improvisation process. If it was a dance piece where you’re following a narrative, it would force the documentary to have that kind of narrative. I would gravitate to that kind of theatre more so than the written or spoken kind of Theatre. I’m not interested in fulfilling people’s narrative expectations . . . It’s fine for documentaries and I like it in other people’s work. But I like to make things more challenging for myself. My work is more to do with feeling than three-act structure.”

Collins is working on a documentary about Thomas McCarthy, a Traveller and traditional singer who moved to England when he was 10. His screen adaptation of That They May Face the Rising Sun, John McGahern’s last novel, goes into production this summer.

“I think I’ve learned from every film that I’ve made,” he says. “I’m learning as I go along. I feel I have to be challenging myself every time I start a new film. For most of my work, I want an Irish audience to watch it. I’m only interested in talking to Irish people; in a sense that you can go deeper if you’re just setting your sights on an Irish audience, because you can presume that they know more about certain subjects. You don’t have to explain it to the Americans or anybody else. I’m not too worried about a big progression. That it frees me up in all sorts of ways.

“I need to make a living out of film-making. That can change the way I work. I have to keep making films to make a living . . . it shapes the films that I make. I feel a little bit more confident making films than when I started, but I’m never really confident because I think I’m make it hard on myself all the time. That They May Face the Rising Sun is a challenging story, because there’s very little story in the book. It’s set in a community over the course of years, so that’ll keep me going. Hopefully, in 20 years time when I’m in my 70s I’ll realise that making films doesn’t have to be difficult all the time.”

  • The Dance opens February 11th.

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