WELLINGTON REVIEW: MÁM (NZ Festival)

Review by Brigitte Knight

[Sensory Blurring]

Teać Damsa (House of Dance) was founded in 2016 by choreographer Michael Keegan-Douglas “…as a means to forge deeper connections with the traditions, language and the music of Ireland”. In 2019 the New Zealand Festival of the Arts facilitated a six-week residency in Wellington for Keegan-Douglas, which included studio space and a marae noho at Tapu Te Ranga. MÁM was born in this creative space of visiting dancers, Irish and German musicians, and emerging cross-cultural voice. 

MÁM is apt programming for the TSB Arena, as the poorly-disguised sports venue often detracts from the theatrical magic of slick or polished shows. A heavy, herbal incense is the first hint of the sensory world of Keegan-Douglas’ work, the thick smoke of it visible and rolling out from an exposed, industrial stage as we enter the arena. Pre-set are a black-suited concertina player in a huge black ram’s head mask (Cormac Begley), and a child in a white communion dress laid flat on her back on a table, stylistically reminiscent of an Irish wake (Ellie Poirier-Dolan). The Irish word mám can mean mountain pass, obligation, or handful, and all these meanings feel loosely woven through the texture of this abstract, roomy creation.

A fusion of harmonious contrasts, MÁM is a as joyful as it is dark, as human as it is other-worldly. Succinctly described by Alan Mooney from Trinity News as “modern rural Irish mysticism”, there is a tangible warmth to the production that feels like a generous hug from a tarot-reading, drunken aunty. Sabine Dargent’s large set design includes audible scene changes as enormous curtains tilt, slide and reveal dancers (and later musicians) who have been waiting just out of sight all along. The peak of this large-scale, industrial environment is saved for the closing image, (which would be unfair to spoil here) a behemoth of a theatrical moment covering four of our five senses simultaneously. Delightfully, MÁM values detail as much as scale, right down to packets of Taytos (Irish crisps) and a bottle of Club Orange (Irish soft drink) with a straw. 

Keegan-Douglas’ movement vocabulary in MÁM is a similarly marvellous fusion; gesture-based yet animalistic, deliberately choreographed with intricacies of formation and pattern yet wildly attacked and without a single placed hand or stretched foot in the entire show. The result is utterly human and accessible, with unmistakeable elements of ritual, ceremony, social behaviours, passions and love. Each of the dozen dancers is empowered and featured, with soloist choreography mostly in the realm of fluidity, relinquishing control and exploring momentum akin to Sufi semazens (whirling dervishes) in ecstatic, experimental or meditative rites. Costuming by Hyemi Shin is traditional and binary (suits and dresses), but nuanced for each performer, and with elements that are subtly shed or restored during the performance.

Throughout the work, Ellie Poirier-Dolan is both included and other. Like a child in a country pub near closing time, she is both protected yet scenting volatility or danger. Theatrically her physical body could’ve been afforded higher status, particularly given that she both opens and closes the performance with aplomb. Listed together in the programme under Performers, the company of dancers and musicians tease the boundary of the theatre’s illusion, acknowledging the fourth wall without dissolving it, connecting with the audience and the blurring the lines between their performance genre.

MÁM brilliantly evokes both the utterly down-to-earth and the sense of a living mythology just out of reach in the collective peripheral vision. Like village community on the edge of a folklore-infused forest, the Teać Damsa cast straddle the dual worlds of the performance with earthy honestly and good-natured humour. Keegan-Douglas has embodied Balanchine’s now infamous “see the music, hear the dance” with MÁM; a witching-hour celebration for our tumultuous times.

MÁM plays TSB Arena, Wellington as part of the New Zealand Festival of the Arts 5-8 March, 2020. 

Created by: Michael Keegan-Douglas in collaboration with the company
Music: Cormac Begley, Stargaze
Set Design: Sabine Dargent
Lighting Design: Adam Silverman
Costume Design: Hyemi Shin

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