Michael Keegan-Dolan can take criticism, but he’s not exactly fond of it. That hardly makes him a unique figure among creative artists, but the artistic director of Fabulous Beast, Ireland’s most successful dance theatre company, is remarkably responsive to it; never more alert to its power to promote or inhibit than when his criticism stems from within. “I had a feeling that I have a part of my nature that is very critical,” Keegan-Dolan told an audience in Longford’s Backstage Theatre shortly before Christmas last year, “and I wanted to look at that more closely in a piece of theatre.”
On the stage, that internal critic became manifest in Helen + Hell, a work in development which was performed for two nights for an invited audience. Played by Olwen Fouéré as a darkly fantastical figure, by turns crudely humorous and wildly demonic, Helen seemed no less a destroyer than Shiva. And, as writer of his most text-driven play so far, Keegan-Dolan could appear unambiguous in his pot shots. Helen, for instance, was a theatre critic for “The Irish Herald Times Tribune” with the power to close a show, who kept a singer, Liam Ó Maonlaí’s Fintan, in beaten subservience and a dancer, played by Rachel Poirier, confined to a cage or shackled by the ankle.
Any resemblance to real persons, Keegan-Dolan told me the other week, was purely coincidental. Indeed, as its humour moved from dark to sour, Irish politics, religion and the arts were all dragged into its merciless, scabrous sway. And if it seemed that Keegan-Dolan had not so much silenced his inner critic, as come to marvel at what would happen it he let it loose on the world, the event was also notable for another reason. This was the first appearance of Fabulous Beast on an Irish stage since 2008 and the first work to be performed since the break-up of its ensemble, the loss of its producer and the resignation of its company manager last year. Keegan-Dolan never liked it when people in the company remarked, “that’s not very Fabulous Beast.” As the ensemble and executive dissolved and the company has weathered a period of immense changes, the outsider’s question may be: “what is Fabulous Beast now?”
Although it has taken some months to arrange an interview, when we do sit down Keegan-Dolan is content to talk about the company’s period of flux, one that is now coming to an end: the company hired a new general manager, Marina Harten, and is recruiting a new producer. “I don’t really know what happened,” he says of the ensemble’s implosion in January 2010. “I suppose there would be ten or fifteen opinions on that one.” By all accounts, though, it happened in Sydney when tensions in the company of ten dancers – which had come together for 2003’s Giselle and largely cohered for The Bull, James Son of James and The Rite of Spring – became unignorable.
“The obvious themes are to do with spending a huge amount of time together,” says Keegan-Dolan. “And people getting older. For me, I suppose, there’s great advantage in what happened. I didn’t want it to become complacent. It breeds terrible contempt… When we did Giselle last May in Toronto, I decided that it was the last time we were going to do Giselle.”
In part, the friction in Fabulous Beast may have been a consequence of its success story. Since 2003, Keegan-Dolan has been producing work on an ever-expanding scale, fulfilling an ambition, he says, that was instilled during his early-career work in opera. Fabulous Beast are in receipt of generous subsidy from the Arts Council – €240,000 in 2010, which had dropped from €299,860 in 2008 – but producing at such scale demands extra support and co-producers: from festivals, venues, Culture Ireland and international partners. Such arrangements have committed the company to international tours but made it difficult to find Irish presenters who can afford to stage the work. It is a curious condition, one that has arguably made Fabulous Beast too big for Ireland: the company last performed here when Giselle featured in the 2008 Galway Arts Festival. Its members were similarly international, but they developed their productions in Shawbrook, the farm turned dance retreat in an isolated part of Longford. Fabulous Beast’s methods have been unusually cloistered, intense and demanding. After seven years, something had to give.
In dance, the sudden loss of an ensemble also means the immediate loss of a repertoire. The Rite of Spring, Fabulous Beast’s recent co-production with English National Opera, had been scheduled to appear at both the Galway Arts Festival and the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival last year, but when the ensemble disbanded both performance runs were cancelled before either programme had been released. Now Giselle, The Bull, and James Son of James all belong to history. With the reduction in the company’s activities, its producer, Felicity O’Brien, was made redundant with the end of her contract last August and, shortly after, the company manager Andrew McLellan resigned to take up a position with Pan Pan.
Keegan-Dolan, who began teaching in Trinity College Dublin’s drama department, admits that he wondered if he would persist with the company or begin again. “I did think long and hard about becoming Michael Keegan-Dolan, but I’ve made the decision that I don’t want to do that. I want to shore up Fabulous Beast and carry on.” There is now a particular urgency in renewing the company: Fabulous Beast is about to become very busy. There are details of one production, close to home, that he cannot yet discuss publicly, but the show will build on partnerships made during the development of Helen + Hell. Also in the pipeline is a co-production with the RSC and the Barbican on Macbeth as part of Britain’s Cultural Olympiad in 2012. Discussions are also on-going about future projects with Copenhagen’s Betty Nansen Theatre, the Sydney Arts Festival and a Yeats project at the Abbey. International co-productions, however, have become more tentative in recent years. When we spoke, Une Symphonie Imaginaire, another ambitious co-production between Sadler’s Wells, the Manchester International Festival and the Lincoln Centre, had recently collapsed. “That’s the kind of rollercoaster I ride,” says Keegan-Dolan.
In his own approach, he seems to be trying to remove some of the loops and twists. Late last year, Keegan-Dolan held two workshops, one in Dublin and one in London. He is slow to use the word “audition” to describe them, but the purpose of these workshops was to find people with whom he can develop projects. “Dancers, in my experience, don’t feel like they have too much power in who they work with or what they choose to do,” he said. Here, they could decide whether or not they would commit to Keegan-Dolan’s process, one that will remain residential and intense, but, he thinks, “less extreme”. “I’m interested in the quality of performance,” says Keegan-Dolan, “and a really great performer has great coordination, fully involving themselves in an action: body, mind and voice in harmony.” He recalled, with some rueful humour, a remark made by a member of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, who said, “What killed Pina in the end was keeping that ensemble together” and I asked if his methods would remain the same.
That’s a ridiculous question!” he replied (though not impolite, Keegan-Dolan, can be a combative interviewee). I tried to be more specific. Did he still want to work with an ensemble? “What does that mean?” A group of people working together on the same projects over a longer period of time than a one-off basis. He considered for a moment. “Yeah, I think there are great advantages to consistency when working with performers because of the shorthand and understanding you can evolve. So, yes.” The collaborative function of the ensemble may be different, though. The Rite of Spring, he pointed out, marked a departure from the Fabulous norm: “It’s not dependent on individual personalities or characters; that’s very much Michael Keegan-Dolan.” There are plans to revive the production with Sadler’s Wells in 2012, and to present it alongside the Ritual Dances from Sir Michael Tippett’s “unstageable” opera, The Midsummer Marriage. Keegan-Dolan hopes to bring both pieces to Ireland in 2013 for the centenary of Stravinsky’s ballet.
But Helen + Hell represented sharper departures, both in form and production. It’s a small-scale work, produced by Fabulous Beast unassisted and designed to tour to Irish venues. Since The Bull, his excoriating and crude Celtic Tiger satire, Keegan-Dolan has been introducing more spoken text into some of his works, to the point that dance can sometimes seem marginalized (in Helen + Hell it erupts very late). It is a vexed question. “This is so tedious, this conversation,” he says when I mention it. “To me there’s absolutely no difference between a gesture and a word. This is what’s wrong with the work: everything is divided between the text and the body. Directors bring in movement directors; choreographers bring in dramaturgs. This creates a disembodiment and a lack of co-ordination. If you’re really trying to create dance theatre or theatre dance in its purest form, you cannot be bringing in dramaturgs, choreographers or composers in that dislocated way, where they’re doing it all for you. I think you need to be involved in all of its facets.”
Helen + Hell was, he conceded, an experiment to see if he could write a play. When I suggested that The Bull was similarly dependent on spoken text, he replied, gamely, “Yeah, but there’s no dialogue and it’s mostly just, 'Fuck'.” From crudeness to abstraction, he said, “I’m learning how to write the way a child learns to speak.”
We all learn to attach significance to words, though, and I wondered what Fabulous Beast now meant to him, philosophically. Keegan-Dolan is not given to sentimentality though. “It’s just the name of a company. I wouldn’t like to use my own name in that way.” He adds: “Michael Keegan-Dolan isn’t my name anyway. Michael Dolan is my name. Keegan is my mother’s maiden name. I made it up.” The name Fabulous Beast came from a chapter heading in a book on Tarot, but its identity has been forged through productions, in the earthy beauty of its style, in the sincerity and anarchy of its dance, and in the progress of its dancers too, step by step, word for word.
“The ensemble wasn’t Fabulous Beast," he says, and nor was the executive. "Michael Keegan-Dolan isn’t Fabulous Beast," he adds. "But Michael Keegan-Dolan is probably closer to Fabulous Beast than any of the above. So Michael Keegan-Dolan will carry on and see what happens.” His approach now may be softer, he allowed, realising that his previous intensity was not sustainable and also that ensembles may have natural life cycles. “Like anything, things grow, then they flourish and then they die. Trying to keep anything going longer than they should be going is slightly vampiric. It’s a bit sad to let things go, but it’s also important.”
He was confident, though, that the new phase of Fabulous Beast could still yield striking results of co-ordination while it tempered the rigour of his old approach. “There are definitely disadvantages to rigour,” he said of dance. “Take a knee joint, for example.”
Peter Crawley is News Editor of Irish Theatre Magazine and Theatre Critic with the Irish Times.