An immersive, rousing look behind the scenes of the acclaimed production ‘Mam’

'The Dance'

Source: London Film Festival

‘The Dance’

Dir: Pat Collins. Ireland. 2021. 87 mins.

Director Pat Collins (Silence, Song Of Granite) has always shown an appreciation for the effort and craft required to make beautiful art. The Dance is no exception. His latest documentary follows Irish choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan and a company of dancers and musicians as they work towards the Dublin premiere of the acclaimed show ’Mam’. Collins’ sensitive understanding and discreet presence allow the work to shine and results in a rousing ode to the joy of creativity. It should have a ready appeal to dance-loving audiences and arts channels.

It feels as if we have lived and breathed ’Mam’

The filmmaker begins amidst all the electric anticipation of an opening night in September 2019 at the Dublin Theatre Festival. Dancers warm up, appearances are given a final check in backstage mirrors, fiddlers try a few chords, audiences are ushered in. We are led towards the opening moments of the piece, which feature a Guillermo del Toro-looking vision with horned beast and innocent child. Collins then cuts abruptly to eight weeks earlier and the start of rehearsals in West Kerry. It is the one flourish of showmanship in an otherwise self-effacing, immersive film.

There may be some establishing shots of the Dingle Peninsula; the tossing seas and mist-covered mountains. There may be some moments outdoors as the dancers swim together. But The Dance is mostly concerned with the process of what happens inside the safe space of the rehearsal hall. There are twelve dancers who are joined by concertina player Cormac Begley, and later by seven other musicians from the pan-European orchestral collective stargaze.

Keegan-Dolan comes across as an affable choreographer/director, keen to tease out the best in everyone and create a calm atmosphere in which all are free to contribute. Early days are a chance to play and experiment. The running, skipping and scampering make it feel like a school playground. A repeated action might become the basis of a sequence. A note of music inspires a chain reaction of movement. Energies rise and fall; sometimes exuberant, sometimes mournful. As the weeks tick by, a theatrical show starts to take shape.

Collins is very much there to observe. The filmmaker is like a quiet, unseen presence in the room, privileged to watch the creativity flow. The camerawork in never obtrusive but still allows the viewer to feel the flow of the piece. Begley’s playing adds the haunting lilt of a sea shanty, whilst the giddy, swirling maypole of sinuous dancers starts to feel like an unruly wedding ceilidh as drink is consumed and wild abandon results. There is a muscularity to the fusion of music and movement. The editing seems to reflect that as it picks up on the repetitive patterns and a hypnotic beat that could prompt even the most staid viewer to tap a toe in response.

What becomes apparent from The Dance is the sheer hard work that goes into making ’Mam’. The sweat and strain are obvious, but so too are the camaraderie and the sense of constant cheer among those working towards a common aim. If there was conflict or artistic differences, then there is no sign of it here, which may be a testimony to Keegan-Dolan’s generous, collaborative approach. Eight weeks to devise, refine and rehearse ’Mam’ seems incredibly short, and yet by working at this level of commitment it seems exactly the time that was needed. The more layers are added, the more energy is focused, the more exciting and emotional the show becomes.

Even with a relatively trim running time, The Dance risks feeling repetitive, but Collins is too experienced a filmmaker to let that happen. The documentary reflects the way repetition is an essential element on the road to making something ready for public scrutiny. Collins doesn’t spare us that, but it translates into the viewer sharing the release and confidence when the whole piece takes flight. As we are guided back to opening night, it feels as if we have lived and breathed ’Mam’ and can fully understand why it became such an admired, award-winning production.

Production companies: South Wind Blows, Harvest Films, RTE

International sales: Taskovski Films Ltd.,

Producers: Philip King, Tina O’Reilly, Sharon Whooley, Pat Collins

Cinematography: Colm Hogan, Keith Walsh

Editing: Keith Walsh

Music: John Brennan, Cormac Begley, stargaze