Choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan is the first to admit that trying to describe Rian, the production his company Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre is bringing to the New Zealand Festival in Wellington in March, is difficult.
The broadest description would be that it mixes contemporary dance and Irish folk music composed by songwriter and member of well-known Irish band Hothouse Flowers Liam O Maonlai.
"I didn't use much of what you call ‘traditional Irish dancing'. I went to a whole another imaginative space. That's why you can call it contemporary dance. It's not recognisable as one thing. It is very old as well as being very modern," says Keegan-Dolan.
"I work with a lot of dancers and with dance and a lot of what I do does not feel very contemporary but more highly traditional and folkloric."
Despite its Irish roots, the eight dancers in Rian come from around the globe including Greece, India, Finland and Britain. Other dancers have a heritage based in the Ukraine and Denmark. Keegan-Dolan drew dance moves from his dancers' respective backgrounds to choreograph the production.
At the beginning, Keegan-Dolan allowed the dancers to move naturally until they got to the "essence of that person and how that person wanted to move naturally. When that starts to happen, you start to see their ancestors appear. They move like their parents and grandparents." Such dancing is what makes Rian so special for the audience to watch, Keegan-Dolan says. "It feels new and modern. It's not conceptual, or weird or abstract."
The collaboration with O Maonlai was an "easy marriage", he says.When Keegan-Dolan initially heard O Maonlai's album titled Rian, he was so impressed with the deep-rooted Irish tracks that he wanted to meet the musician "right away" to discuss working together. They eventually met one year later. Keegan-Dolan says Liam is a "great watcher of dancers. He responds to their movement and the dancers respond to his playing.
"Music is our finest connection to our art in the past.
I found it very useful to work with these great musicians to help me to envision a vocabulary of movement."
Keegan-Dolan says his philosophy of dance is simple. "You need to dance for somebody. The presence of the audience needs to be honoured". The audience's emotions "bubble up through the performance, enlivened by it. [The venue] is full of life, joy and spontaneity. Often people start dancing in the auditorium. Some people even climb onto the stage. It has a very beautiful effect on people."
Another aspect to Rian is the the stark simplicity of the set - dominated by the colour green. Keegan-Dolan says there's the obvious link to green as Ireland's national colour. However, he had other reasons. "When I researched the colour green, green was related in Hindu to the planet Mercury; the mercurial god is green. The mercurial god is the god of communication."
Dance, says Keegan-Dolan, is a form of communication as it can tell a story in a non-verbal way. The choreographer and director of Fabulous Beast also did not want the audience to be distracted by the setting but simply focus on the performance on stage.
Rian is also a stark contrast to Keegan-Dolan's other works. He says that his older work such as Giselle - staged in the New Zealand Festival in 2008 - was "much darker and more violent". All of his previous work was also narrative-based whereas Rian is more abstract.
"There is so much anger going on in the world and rage and I didn't want to be another angry voice and figured there had to be another way."
Rian won the Outstanding Production Award at the 2013 New York Dance and Performance Awards in October last year.
- Rian is performing as part of the New Zealand Festival at St James Theatre, Wellington, March 12-15
- The Dominion Post