Michael Keegan-Dolan: Back on the boards

The internationally acclaimed Kerry-based choreographer returns to the stage after 20 years with his new show for Dublin Theatre Festival

Michael Keegan-Dolan is talking about movement, and it is enthralling. So it should be: the Longford-born choreographer has garnered raves and acclaim around the world. “You don’t ‘make’ bodies do anything,” he says. Instead, it’s about the mind and the spirit. “The energetic essence of a person. As soon as you impose on someone, you’re reducing their space.” While that may sound vague, the results in his own work are powerful and profound. His productions always bring you somewhere unexpected, and it’s quite a ride.

In 2003, his Giselle took threads from the 19th-century ballet, a staple of the classical canon, and transposed it to Ballyfeeny, Co Roscommon. He made the eponymous heroine a lonely local woman caring for her abusive brother, added a Bratislavan line-dancer, and set both the dance and theatre worlds on fire. That was with his company, Fabulous Beast, which he dissolved at the height of its success in 2014, to move to west Kerry and reinvent as Teaċ Daṁsa. Its first production, Swan Lake/Loch na hEala (2016) similarly unravelled and remade myths, won awards and toured from Stuttgart to Sydney, Moscow to London’s Sadler’s Wells.

Leaving behind Tchaikovsky’s score, in favour of folk music with an Irish/Nordic inflection, Loch na hEala wove a story of ugliness and beauty into one of strange and then utterly unexpected joyful redemption, as Mikel Murfi’s clinically depressed character, Jimmy, encounters a flock of swans, an abusive priest, a dodgy local councillor and equally shifty police chief.

Then there was the moment in MÁM, his extraordinary production which premiered at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2019, when I gave up searching for story and suddenly discovered something better. As dancers, including Keegan-Dolan’s young daughter Ellie, moved, connected, intertwined and disentangled across the stage of the O’Reilly Theatre to the sounds of Cormac Begley’s accordion score, I stopped thinking in words and started understanding ideas that seemed to be coming from a deeper, richer place.


“That’s it,” says Keegan-Dolan smiling broadly, glad that I’ve got it. He smiles a lot, moves and gestures as he talks. You’d expect that from a dancer, wouldn’t you? Beside him, his wife and long time collaborator, dancer Rachel Poirier, is surprisingly still. Her energy seems more held and contained, yet when she does move to express a particular point, there is a graceful owning of the gesture that carries the strength of something precious.

Keegan-Dolan and Poirier have taken a break from rehearsing his latest piece, How to Be a Dancer in Seventy-two Thousand Easy Lessons, and from shifting a dance floor from one place to another at their Kerry base. That is not a metaphor, they have been physically hefting it out of a container; tasks at Teaċ Daṁsa being pretty hands-on.

In Ireland we love telling stories, and whenever I retell a memory, I make it sound much more interesting than it really was

How to Be a Dancer is autobiographical — or is it? There is a script and a soundtrack and, as with the choreographer’s other work, it draws on stories, myths and memories, including this time, the often fraught relationships between Ireland and England. But he is mischievously keen to emphasise that none of it is actually true. More accurately, like most of our histories, both personal and otherwise, it is a blending of the lived and the imagined, fact and fiction.

“When we remember things, we remember a memory of a memory of a memory,” he says. “Then we re-tell it. In Ireland we love telling stories, and whenever I retell a memory, I make it sound much more interesting than it really was. Life, as we know, can be extremely banal, mundane and boring.”

So instead of reflecting the facts of a life, he’s keen to create spaces for people to come away with their own sense of what happened, their own ideas. “I love leaving that open. You come away with what you want. I have no desire to push.”

Still, there are some very good stories woven into the mix, along with props that, we’re promised, include concrete blocks, fire extinguishers, timers and wings. There is the great uncle, Edward Keegan, who left his desk — and lost his job at The Irish Times — to go and fight with the Irish Volunteers in 1916. He later acted in plays by Yeats on the Abbey stage. “When I made the connection, my whole life kind of made sense,” Keegan-Dolan has said on discovering his forebear was not just a revolutionary, but a theatre person too. Born simply Michael Dolan, the choreographer added his great-uncle’s name to his own to honour the connection.

Another memory that may, or may not be in the show, is of the school guidance counsellor, who also happened to be a priest, assuming the then 17-year-old wanted to become a priest himself after he had tried to explain his desire to do something he felt “people wouldn’t appreciate”. Later he reasoned, in an interview for the Guardian, that “maybe there isn’t a whole lot of difference between being a priest and being a dancer. For me it’s about a spiritual practice, it’s a way of life, and when I’m dancing I’m praying. It’s not about showing off or looking good, it’s about connecting with something that is not necessarily tangible.”

If memories can be a slippery business, music tends to fix things, brilliantly evoking time and place; although the joy of it is that those evocations are purely personal, and shift with each listener. The soundtrack of How to Be a Dancer is made up of layers, recalled from the radio, played back, rather than via a live orchestra. “Radio has always been such an integral part of my life. It was always on in our house. Your first meeting with music is often that way.” Keegan-Dolan details an eclectic collection, by Jacques Brel, Stravinsky, Depeche Mode, Edward Elgar, Men Without Hats, all of which will be part of the show.

It’s a lovely levelling, which, like so many of Keegan-Dolan’s gestures, seems both effortless and immediate, while at the same time being precise and deliberate. “I used to recognise a hierarchy in the musical world, where somehow we decided classical music was more important than folk music. You know, that classical music is serious, and pop music is not serious. But I can tell you pop music has changed more people’s lives.”

Funny, engaging and charismatic, Keegan-Dolan has a warmth and a sincerity that is disarming. It occurs to me, half-way through the interview that he is one of those rare people who knows exactly who he is, and is comfortable with it. He is also irreverent, riffing on different subjects, then swooping down like a kestrel on a significant insight. Anyone who has seen Pat Collins’s 2021 film, The Dance, which followed Keegan-Dolan gently ushering the movements and details that would build to become MÁM into being, will get how his conversation reflects his approach to art, as well as life. With MÁM this was through the work of a group of dancers and musicians, now a much smaller group is involved.

Surprises can be very destabilising and distracting. They can lead you in all sorts of directions that you don’t necessarily need to go or want to go

“It’s different, then it’s not different,” Poirier says, thoughtfully and enigmatically in her soft French accent. The two are sitting close together, she has shoulder-length curly hair, swept back and silvering, strong features and dark, expressive eyes. He is a little taller, grey eyes, close cropped hair and a short beard. Both have an interestingly different form of intensity, and while he is the more vocal of the two, he soaks up what she says when she speaks.

Long-time collaborator Adam Silverman is directing How to Be a Dancer, as well as creating the lighting design; and Poirier and Keegan-Dolan are the only dancers on stage. I wonder how that changes the energy. After all, it’s one thing to discover the strengths and the emerging emotional cores of a group of relative strangers as you go through the exercise of movement and develop intimacies, it’s another to go through a similar process with your long-time partner.

Have there been surprises? “They’re not necessarily a good thing,” he says. “Surprises can be very destabilising and distracting. They can lead you in all sorts of directions that you don’t necessarily need to go or want to go. And yet, actually, there is a comfort in other people’s surprises in that it can be, well, for me, really life-affirming. It makes one feel kind of useful and good, when you’re facilitating and supporting another artist to figure some stuff out.”

Here, it’s a deeper dive. “When you work the way we’re working on the subject matters we’re working on, with people you know so well, you can go very deep. With me and Rachel and Adam, for example, we can go very far together. And we have met stuff that really took me by surprise, and which is now becoming part of the performance.”

This is one of the most brilliant things about dance: movement and music can bypass the language centres of the brain, and just like that moment in MÁM where I forgot “story” and found “knowing”, dance can deliver.

“There are lots of great books written about it,” he agrees. “About the connection between psychotherapy and working through action.” He talks about triggering — not in its modern “snowflake” take, but in the sense of the practice of acting out an experience to release feeling, and to discover and negotiate what it brings up. “You know,” he says, as an idea strikes him, “it’s a really necessary skill working in the creative performing arts because people can and do get triggered when they’re trying to explore emotions or ideas or actions that are unfamiliar, and then suddenly, something will come at them. And then people get the idea that they’re being a difficult artist, but instead they were triggered. Something happened.”

It is a topic which makes me wonder what life at the Keegan-Dolan-Poirier house is like away from the rehearsal room. Do they have a quiet, calm and balanced relationship? Or is it quite dramatic? “Well, we’ve been together for 16 years and we have two children,” says Keegan-Dolan.

“We’ve done a lot of shows and travelled the world,” adds Poirier. “We have no problem working together.”

“It’s easy if you love someone. Or maybe if we use the word ‘like’ it makes it less complicated. Yes, if you like someone, it makes everything much easier.” He pauses. “I like Rachel a lot.”

Now 53, Keegan-Dolan came to dancing relatively late, despite having long come to understand it as the source of a sense of displacement he felt growing up. “I came from an incredibly bright family full of doctors, architects, lawyers and civil servants and I felt like an alien,” he has said elsewhere. Still, his first formal dance lessons, at the Billie Barry school in Raheny in Dublin, only begun at age 17.

The Central School of Ballet in London followed and he later became an associate artist with Sadler’s Wells. Moving into choreography, he worked with London’s Royal Opera House, the English National Opera, and the National Theatre, returning to Ireland and to Longford to create his Midlands Trilogy: The Bull, James Son of James, and Giselle.

Rachel has a gift that I do not have. And so I rely on her gift, I lean into her gift

How to Be a Dancer is being billed as the first time Keegan-Dolan has performed on stage in over 20 years. This isn’t strictly true; earlier this year he joined in the spontaneous dancing that followed the event held at the Abbey Theatre to support the people of Ukraine. He had worked with Ukrainian dancer Taya Shevtz to create a piece for the night. But that apart, why wait so long?

“Because I’m so bad. Really — so bad. I had a gift as a choreographer and the decision was made easier because I was so bad at dancing. Actually that was a blessing. I do wish I was better, because I have struggled sometimes in this. Rachel has a gift that I do not have. And so I rely on her gift, I lean into her gift.” The pair smile at one another and it is warm to watch.

When he says he’s “bad”, it’s a relative measure in terms of degrees of greatness as well as in terms of the hierarches of the dance world, which can lack empathy. “You get put off: you’re getting too old. You’re too young. Your feet are not pointy enough. Your legs are not long enough. There’s this whole imperial way of perceiving the world, which objectifies an aestheticised reality. And because I couldn’t participate in that world, I actually started getting interested in another one which is the world of nature, of energy. It doesn’t matter how straight my leg is, or how long it is. Instead, is it true? Is it resonating?”

You might think this is a strange way of talking up a new performance, and while I suspect Keegan-Dolan is way too ethical and honest ever to “talk up”, I think instead it’s better to wonder what we might see when How to Be a Dancer takes to the Gate Theatre for its premiere. After all, who could have imagined the glory of a Swan Lake set in the Irish midlands? Or of Giselle falling for a line dancer from Bratislava? Throughout his stellar career, Keegan-Dolan has reimagined dance, opera and theatre, brilliantly. Who could fail to be excited at what he might achieve, returning to the stage to sum up the story of a life whether real or imagined? I imagine it will be amazing.

MÁM is currently on tour throughout Ireland, find dates and venues at teacdamsa.com. How to Be a Dancer in Seventy-two Thousand Easy Lessons is at The Gate Theatre as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival, September 28th-October 8th. Previews from September 24th. Tickets from €15, gatetheatre.ie

More to See: Dance at Dublin Theatre Festival

What We Hold

Jean Butler’s site-specific piece returns the dancer to trad roots with a cast of traditional and contemporary dancers, performing throughout the City Assembly House. October 5th-9th, from €15


Dive into the thick of a wildly committed party with Gisèle Vienne’s intoxicating piece that aims to dazzle, and then lay some souls bare. O’Reilly Theatre, October 7th-8th, from €30


Inspired by the Video Vixens — the female models who appeared in hip hop videos in the late 1990s, Cherish Menzo’s work takes a look at the stereotyping of women, and women of colour in particular. Project Arts Centre, October 3rd-4th, €25

The Cold Sings

Junk Ensemble explores female identity and mental health through the words of poet Sylvia Plath, with a blend of dance, text and music in a 1950s setting. The Depot @ The Complex, October 5th-9th, from €15