MÁM – Sadler’s Wells, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Creators: Michael Keegan-Dolan and Teaċ Damsa

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s new work is full of contradictions. A young girl is both ancient Ireland and modern Ireland. She observes as the country’s past and future unravel around her. The setting is both a wake and a wedding; the story is both an end and a beginning. These paradoxes provide an evening of powerful dance.

The start is a little ominous as the young girl, an undaunted Ellie Poirier-Dolan, lies on an altar like a human sacrifice. Above her, squeezing a concertina, is a man with a goat’s head mask. Behind him, a row of people, all in evening dress, their heads obscured by black paper bags, point and stamp their feet. It seems that she might come to a sticky end, but instead she gets out a bag of crisps, and one of the dancers starts to sing, ‘diddly-do’, an ironic gesture to Irish music.

The mood then changes as the dancers come to the floor stripping off their jackets and their shawls, and it seems as if we are witnessing the final moments of a great party. Dancers swoop drunkenly around the floor, couples slow dance, and make out. Some spin like dervishes, others jig in true Irish style. When they come together to dance the same steps, their arms flaying up and down, the result is joyous and haunting.

At one point they stop and bring chairs to the front of the stage to watch the audience, spilling crisps in their laps. This breather before they go back to the bar, to the dancefloor, or the countryside, allows us to recognise ourselves in them. We watch, they watch. But soon they lift up their chairs and return to the dance, a little disco here, a little ballet there, even once the glimmer of the floss.

The goat-headed musician is Cormac Begley, award-winning concertina player (instruments of different sizes await at his feet) and his tunes, both melancholic and celebratory, seem to tell the whole history of Ireland. His tapping foot provides the beat until another curtain slips away to reveal the band s t a r g a z e, a collective from Berlin with all kinds of odd instruments.

In translation ‘MÁM’ has many meanings, but commonly it’s used to refer to a mountain pass that is used either as a way of escape or an entrance. This, then, is another contradiction but when James Southward goes round kissing each dancer or musician it seems as if he’s going away for a long, long time. This touching, yet humorous scene becomes the spine of this extensive dance, which never misses a beat over 80 minutes.

The whole show was completely created in an Irish-speaking part of Southwest Ireland, but the images that Teaċ Damsa creates speak to us all. As the dancers turn to watch the audience one final time, MÁM will leave your heart aching.

Runs until 7 February 2020

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