Sunday, February 17, 2008

Fabulous Beast - an overview of the Midlands Trilogy

Fabulous Beast - an overview of the Midlands Trilogy,
Commissioned by Barbican Centre for James Son of James Brochure December 2007
by Manchán Magan

Who are Fabulous Beast? They are a dance theatre company, which can mean anything from the play-thing of an ego-maniacal director, to a way of branding uneven work under a saleable name, or a haven of relative stability for wandering dancers. In the case of Fabulous Beast the dance theatre company is a way of being in the world, an ethos that infuses the minds and bodies of the members in the company. They are a community of diverse performers from five continents who are based all around the world, but who gather together in a converted cowshed in the Irish midlands to develop performances under the guidance of Michael Keegan-Dolan, a pure-hearted, fearless and visionary theatrical choreographer.
The work they produce is theatrical in that it is rich in dialogue and involves complex plots and subplots. The dance element of their work is two-fold: firstly, their performances involve fully choreographed dances, both skilfully arranged duets and occasional ensemble works, secondly the whole movement and staging of each production is choreographed as one large dance performance - whether the performers are acting, singing or clowning, they do so with the grace, intensity and integrity of physically-trained, body-aware performers. The meld of the two juxtaposing concepts of dance and theatre is more fully realised in Fabulous Beast’s work than in most dance theatre productions.
For the last five years the company has been working on the Midlands Trilogy, a series of works written by Michael Keegan Dolan in conjunction with the company. The trilogy is loosely set in the Irish midlands, and while the primary concern of all three productions are the strains and struggles of the human condition, a secondary theme running through them is the radical social upheaval being experienced in the dour, bog-covered Irish midlands as a result of new prosperity, foreign inward migration, shifting sexual mores, erosion of religion and increasing reliance on medicine. The trilogy treats these concerns as universal themes which underscore the primary stories being told. The works offer a bleak, though cathartic, take on the hypocrisy of modern society; yet there is always a hint of redemption, most apparently in James Son of James, this final instalment of the trilogy.
The first in the series was Giselle (2003), a brazen reinterpretation of Gautier's classic romantic ballet, set in a fictional town in the Irish midlands, in which the character of Hilarion takes on the role of Giselle’s mentally disturbed brother who literally treats her as a farm animal and Albrecht becomes a Bratislavan line-dancer. It's a darkly comic, anarchic tale of betrayal, abuse and disaster, cauterised by an impossibly beautiful final act involving androgynous Wilis dancing in a bogland setting. Moments of terrible depravity are leavened by occasional bouts of hilarious slapstick, seaside-postcard farce and a memorable Slovak-Italian version of an Irish ballad. Giselle offers a raw exposition of the harsh, inbred nature of rural life, which surprisingly, because of the beauty of the dance scenes, leaves one feeling sanctified - or at least somewhat less traumatised.
The second instalment of the Midlands Trilogy was the Bull (2005). It too was a co-commission by the Barbican International Theatre Events and the Dublin Theatre Festival. It involves a sensational and expletive-ridden retelling of the ancient Irish myth, An Táin Bó Cúailnge (The cattle raid of Cooley), written again by Michael Keegan-Dolan. This radically modernised version is played out in a ramshackle, roller-coaster spectacle of greed, deception and venality between two vying families: grasping, urban land developers versus traditional, stubborn farmers. It is again set in a fictitious midland village, which is contrasted with the booming metropolis nearby. Both families display the classic Irish obsession with land and it drives them and the rest of the unsavoury cast of deviants and ne’er-do-wells to a series of massacres. The violence and profanity is both in keeping with previous Fabulous Beast works and the style of the mythological source material. The themes of greed, abuse, violence and debauchery appear again. It is even more violent than Giselle, though again, sweetened by moments of great sensitivity.
It would be natural, having read the above, to be concerned about what awaits in this third and final instalment of the trilogy. Thankfully, it is a calmer, more tender piece. The glimpses of redemption revealed in the earlier works are more prominent. James Son of James, while occasionally caustic and hyperactive, and frequently uproarious, is a more sensitive piece, offering an almost compassionate view of society. This final work in the trilogy explores the parameters of true love and goodness; echoing themes that were touched upon in Fabulous Beast’s earlier Flowerbed (2000) piece (re-staged by the Barbican in 2006). The piece is in parts a musical, in that the sporadic use of popular song which played a minor role in the earlier works has been brought to the fore. James serves as both a great introduction to the work and mindset of the company, and a fitting conclusion to an exhilarating triumvirate of productions
One of the most interesting facets of the trilogy is the location in which it is set. While Dublin, the western seaboard and the north of Ireland have all been the settings for great works of theatre, poetry and literature, the Irish midlands have long been regarded as an artistic Siberia of lakes and boglands, ignored by everyone, apart from the novelist John McGahern. Keegan-Dolan, who’s father hails from the area and who now lives there himself skilfully uses it as a lens through which to examine both the changing nature of modern Ireland and the timeless yearning of the human soul. He and his company manage to incorporate the blocked physical energy of its people and the rhythmic harmony of their daily yoga and breathing (cut this, don't need it) practise to give a performance that is both brutal and beautiful.
In conclusion, a good way of regarding Fabulous Beast is as the Van Gogh of the dance world: bright, garish, brutal, honest - somewhat tortured - and with an intense central integrity. Their work has the vitality and immediacy of his brave, broad brushstrokes. Performances are moulded through improvisation, often focused on breath-work. Keegan-Dolan describes his dancers as energy-based rather than technique-based. The choreography is as pure and intense as mineral pigments poured straight from the tube. There is no artifice. The work is elemental and true, often unsavourily so. Those seeking the subtly and veneer of Manet or Matisse should look elsewhere, but if you’re after the edginess, integrity and unsullied purity that Van Gogh strived for, then this is the place to be.

Manchán Magan is an author and travel documentary maker.