Trying to gore the Celtic Tiger

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The rise of the Celtic Tiger has left its mark on Dublin’s fair city. O’Connell Street is now dominated by a futuristic spire – a giant, space-age knitting needle protruding 120 metres into the sky, presumably meant to symbolise the country’s gravity-defying economy. The surrounding side-streets are clogged with sports utility vehicles and sleek German cars, their bodywork almost uniformly gleaming – like the spire – in glittering, resplendent silver, the chosen colour of the Irish economic miracle.

Most dispiriting of all, the city’s famed pub culture has been decimated by a craze for glitzy renovation, with any surviving traditional establishments now pointlessly “made over” to look like the fake Irish pubs you might find in Manchester or Hamburg. Even Bewley’s Café – for more than a century and a half the haunt of poets and playwrights – is now boarded up, the latest victim of the country’s new-found love of all things minimalist and back-lit.

All of which makes it hard to find a cosy spot for an interview – particularly with someone as exacting as Irish choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan. “The city is a wasteland,” he laments. “A few generations down the line we may scratch our heads and say: ‘What the fuck have we done?’”

We decide eventually on the Central Hotel, one of the last untouched outposts of Old Dublin, where I find Keegan-Dolan installed in a corner reworking the script of his latest work, The Bull – a searing dance-drama assault on the viciousness of the Celtic Tiger revolution which ignited a firestorm of controversy when first shown at the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Throughout his career, Keegan-Dolan has never shied away from difficult subjects. Fragile, an early work of 1999, was a meditation on death, incorporating earthy movement, fragments of text and stunning stage imagery. The Flowerbed, in 2000, was a ferocious dance-feud based on Romeo and Juliet. However, it was his production of Giselle, nominated for an Olivier in 2006, that established Keegan-Dolan as the first (Michael Flatley doesn’t count!) internationally acclaimed Irish choreographer.

In his version, the flouncy ballet was transplanted to the fictional Irish town of Ballyfeeny, with a cast of Irish gombeen men and Yugoslav bisexual line-dancers. The text was reminiscent of Beckett, with overtones of television’s Father Ted, and the choreography was sensual, seething and unlike anything that had emerged from the staid world of Irish modern dance. “This is a cross between an Irish bog play and gangster cabaret, riddled with savage sadness at the perils of rural isolation,” enthused one London critic, while another warned: “Start by forgetting everything you know about Giselle.”

The Bull, based on an Irish legend, is Keegan-Dolan’s most ambitious work. Lasting almost two hours, it lampoons practically every aspect of Tiger Ireland, from the pretentious arriviste city dwellers to the farmers left behind to guard the lucrative real estate in the country. Even Riverdance is not safe, hilariously depicted as an Irish dance troupe called “Celtic Bitch”.

Reactions to the work in Ireland were, perhaps predictably, mixed. “I had wine thrown at me on the opening night,” he recalls, “I was called names. People in power in this country have said that The Bull was a disgrace.”

The controversy spilled over on to radio talk shows and into the letter pages of the Irish Times. “I found its attempt to shock, cumbersome and unstylish,” wrote Outraged from Dún Laoghaire. “If only Michael Keegan Dolan had stuck to the day job . . . and abandoned his schoolboy chiming of naughty words . . . A sprawling, inarticulate swipe at 21st-century Ireland.”

However, Keegan-Dolan seems to relish his position as an outsider, and underscores his contrary stance with as many “chiming” and “naughty” phrases as he can pack into every sentence.

He grew up in the north Dublin suburb of Clontarf in a family with no dance tradition whatsoever, and was exposed to movement only through television. After training at the Central School of Ballet in London, he worked as a choreographer for hire, before temporarily abandoning dance for the life of a bicycle courier. All of this, he feels, has liberated him, allowed him to approach dance in startling new ways. “I’m lucky in that I’ve no pedigree. I’ve had no guru, there was no one telling me how to do it. I had to work it out myself.”

Now 38, Keegan-Dolan lives on a windswept hill in the Irish Midlands in an old schoolhouse he converted himself – a good vantage point from which to observe the monumental changes sweeping through modern Ireland. “If you drive around Ireland, everything has been dug up and the earth has been ripped open. It’s almost post-apocalyptic. It’s as if the country has a massive, real-estate developed wound running through the centre of it.”

The idea of channelling his rage into one of Ireland’s oldest mythological texts – the Táin Bó Cúailnge (translated as The Cattle Raid of Cooley) – came as he was motorcycling around the same lacerated countryside. “I looked to my left and I saw this huge Limousin bull standing on the top of a hill. And about 200 metres further on I saw one of those signs for the Táin tourist trail. I believe in signals.”

Written in the 11th century, the Táin centres around Medb, queen of the western Irish province of Connacht, and her quest to obtain a bull from the legendary warrior Cúchulainn. Taught in schools – and presented to tourists – in an emasculated Celtic Twilight version, it is actually a story of immense cruelty. “It is violent and visceral,” says Keegan-Dolan. “We have an incredibly violent past. And no matter how much we pretend we’ve changed, it’s always churning away underneath.”

In Keegan-Dolan’s version, the queen becomes Maeve, a sex-crazed Irish property developer in search of a Limousin bull to add to her portfolio. Her adversary, renamed Colm Cullen, is a pugnacious bog-man farmer whose crimes range from ignorance to infanticide. The action is packed full of Irish stereotypes, engaged in various permutations of squabbling, shagging, grabbing, exploiting and brawling.

But perhaps most memorable are the scenes involving Celtic Bitch (in which Maeve has invested in some of her ill-gotten euros). Here, Keegan-Dolan has managed to shear away the Flatley kitsch to produce choreography that is not only funny, but also elemental and sexually charged. “There is nothing wrong with Irish dancing,” he insists. “There is nothing wrong with a person striking the floor with their feet in an expression of something rhythmically to wonderful music. It’s only when it is part of the tourist export trade that it becomes tainted.”

Keegan-Dolan would be first to acknowledge many of the criticisms levelled at the piece after its Irish premiere: The Bull was dangerously long, unwieldy and text-heavy, and for long stretches rather similar to a straight dramatic play. Thirty minutes have been expunged for the version just opened at the Barbican.

Even the irrepressible Keegan-Dolan seems doubtful anything can be done to stop the rampage of the Tiger, and is convinced it won’t be achieved by a piece of dance theatre. “I don’t think it will ever turn back,” he laments, as we emerge from the Central Hotel into a street jammed with BMWs. “Nobody wants to go back to being an economic basket case. But I just wish it could continue with a little bit more sensitivity and less tunnel vision. I’m not fooling myself into thinking that The Bull is going to make any difference. I’ve never believed that my work could change the world. Sure, I can’t even change Ireland.”

“The Bull” is at the Barbican, London, until March 3. Tel +44 (0)20 7638 8891.

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