The dance sector in the north welcomes Michael Keegan-Dolan

The internationally acclaimed Irish choreographer, in Belfast this week, takes aspects of our everyday lives, the mundane and the newsworthy, and turns them into something supranatural, both beautiful and brutal

A group of comtemporary dancers on a stage  with young girl at the side
A scene from Michael Keegan-Dolan's production of Mám, a film of which is being shown in the Mac on Friday night followed by a Q&A with the choreographer

In a bright room in the 6th floor of the Metropolitan Arts Centre in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter on Monday night, something wonderful was happening.

Gathered together were 20 young people from all over over Ireland, the UK and Europe learning about the process of dancing from one of Ireland’s great contemporary choreographers, Michael Keegan-Dolan.

“It’s an exciting and diverse group of professional dance/movement artists, many of whom are working internationally. It’s brilliant to see both this group and Michael come to Belfast, to experience the place and be immersed in the work with Michael and the city” says Niamh Flanagan from Theatre and Dance NI who organise and run the intensives.

I knew of Michael’s work having travelled in 2019 from Belfast to the Opera House in Cork to see one of his productions, Loch na hEala/Swan Lake, a fantastical show that mixed the Irish legend of the Children of Lir, clerical child abuse, the killing of John Carthy by members of the Garda’s Emergency Response Unit in Abbeylara, Co Longford - and lots of feathers, some of which I still have as a memento.

Michael Keegan-Dolan takes aspects of our everyday lives, the mundane and the newsworthy, and turns them into something supranatural, both beautiful and brutal

It was a stunning piece of work featuring dancers, an Irish-Scandinavian folk band and actor Mikel Murfi in his underpants and chained to a breeze block.

Work out the symbolism yourselves but it gives an idea of the depth within Keegan-Dolan’s work.

He takes aspects of our everyday lives, the mundane and the newsworthy, and turns them into something supranatural, both beautiful and brutal.

Four of his shows – Giselle (based on the story of Ann Lovett, the 15-year-old who died after giving birth at a church grotto in Granary, also in Co Longford), The Bull, The Rite of Spring and Mám – were all nominated for Olivier awards,

A photograph of Michael Keegan Dolan with a ram's skull
Michael Keegan-Dolan

Chatting on Monday evening, I asked what kind of dancer he wanted to be. Did he want to be like Rudolf Nureyev or Vaslav Nijinsky or was he more Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers?

“Yeah, I think Nureyev and Nijinsky had a touch of the mythological about them,” says Michael.

“Nureyev was someone my mother was very taken by so I would have looked at lots of pictures of him and when I was a young fella, I tried to do his face because of those great cheekbones that he had,” laughs Michael.

But classical ballet wasn’t ever going to be Michael’s thing.

After getting accepted into the law department at Trinity College to train as a barrister - he had the idea what he would be a human rights barrister, freeing people from wrongful imprisonment – Michael’s heart was already given to dancing and he rejected Trinity and went to the Central School of Ballet in London.

For him, the dance world started to change and became more much more technical. “I’m not blaming Baryshnikov because there was already a shift in the dance world towards technical perfection, where I was more interested in the idea that Nijinsky could turn in to an animal,” he says.

Michael’s views on the ballet world would fill another article but suffice it to say that he believes that “ballet is the art form of the kings”.

“It’s based on a hierarchy of power and those who are best get treated the best. Those who are the best looking get put in the front. For me, politically, it made no sense.

“And actually, I was terrible at it, as well,” he recalls.

Even after leaving ballet, it took Michael a long time to find the place he wanted to be.

" I went into contemporary dance but I didn’t fit in anywhere and it took me another 15 years of suffering before I could make a show like Swan Lake,” he says.

Now with a worldwide – if at times controversial reputation - Michael Keegan-Dolan is one of Ireland’s top choreographers.

He has since moved to the Kerry Gaeltacht, reigniting his love for the Irish language and is busier than ever.

Michael is also working on a commission for 2024 programme, one which came about since Claire Kieran from An Droichead saw his show Mám, a stunning piece of dance featuring Kerry concertina player Cormac Begley.

After seeking and getting funding from Belfast City Council’s Belfast 2024 programme, the show will take place “sometime this year”.

He didn’t share the details – but at least it’s better than having to travel to Cork to see a fabulous piece of Michael’s contemporary dance.

The dance intensives continue at the MAC all this week but on Friday February 9 at 6pm there will be a screening of Pat Collins’s awe-inspiring film, The Dance, which follows the rehearsals for Michael’s show, Mám.

It will be followed by a Q&A in which I will be asking Michael about his career before handing it over to the audience for their questions.

You can book tickets at https://www.androichead.com/ag-teacht-anios/damsha-a-celebration-of-dance

Latest Entertainment Videos