For fans of the terpsichorean arts, this documentary about the creation, rehearsal and debut of the 2019 work Mám, by Irish dance and theatre troupe Teac Damsa, will be a treat. That’s especially true given the pandemic disrupted Mám’s scheduled tour, so this may be one of the few chances for people to see some of it, although crucially not the whole thing. Instead, slow-cinema maestro Pat Collins (last seen with ethnology documentary Henry Glassie: Field Work) and no doubt longsuffering editor Keith Walsh have excerpted an assortment of moments and passages from the final staged version that they’ve montaged nimbly together, although sometimes the music heard doesn’t correspond to the dancing seen.
Mám lacks any kind of story, and its creation was more about process than product for choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan and his ensemble, and so the film’s fragmentary, sliced-view approach works just fine. Keegan-Dolan, best known for his work in ballet and choreography for the Royal Opera House, explains to his collaborators near the start that he wants to make something that evades the usual hierarchies of dance, opening up a space for the performers to be as instrumental in the creative process as either Keegan-Dolan or his key collaborator Rachel Poirier (she’s also his wife). Meanwhile, just as essential to the process is the input from bravura concertina player Cormac Begley, who pulls together the score in a parallel collaboration with stargaze, a musical combo using traditional instruments to make a heady sound that’s closest to contemporary classical but with bits of jazz and folk thrown in.
For all the abstraction of the show, which involves animal masks, soft-shoe shuffling, manic twirling, and an interlude where dancer James Southward goes around snogging everyone on stage, there are some surprisingly emotional moments. For example, Keegan-Dolan enjoins the dancers to move as if they’re showing a beloved, dying relative everything about their craft in one frenzied performance, and this stirs up strong feelings. Elsewhere, Collins’s camera watches the catering team preparing to feed everyone as they work at the troupe’s rehearsal space in Kerry and that helps to enhance the sense of place that’s somehow embedded deep in the show’s own ineffable themes.