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“You had to be very alive to what was happening in the room;” Pat Collins on capturing The Dance
15 Feb 2022 : Nathan Griffin
Pat Collins' The Dance.
Having made its world premiere at the prestigious BFI London Film Festival, Pat Collins’ critically acclaimed documentary The Dance is currently on release in Irish cinemas.

We caught up with the Irish director ahead of the film’s release to find out more about the origins of the collaboration with theatre director Michael Keegan-Dolan, the art of organic collaboration, and the challenges of creating an old-fashioned observational documentary.

The Dance follows the staging of a new international dance and theatre work (MÁM) by the acclaimed choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan from the first day of rehearsal to the opening night performance. The Dance is a fiercely true and beautiful account of a magical process of work, brought to life by Collins (Song of Granite, Silence). 

MÁM saw Keegan-Dolan bring together the revered Irish concertina player Cormac Begley, the European musical collective S T A R G A Z E, and twelve international dancers to the remote Dingle Peninsula in Ireland to create a unique confluence between soloist and ensemble, classical and traditional, the local and the universal. The project went on to be reviewed rapturously, toured internationally, and was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best production in London.


Collins followed Keegan-Dolan’s career for a number of years before the idea to collaborate came about. In 2010, Michael toured a show titled Rian, which starred Liam Ó Maonlaí as the lead character and included a group of international dancers and musicians, one of whom was Cormac Begley. “It was just a really exhilarating show. I saw it in the Cork Opera House,” Collins recounted.

A few months after the show, Collins got in touch with Keegan-Dolan to see if he would be interested in meeting up for a cup of coffee. “I just wanted to talk to him about what he'd done with that show. I wasn't really sure (about the purpose of the chat), but maybe I was thinking of it in terms of collaborating on something down the line,” Collins told IFTN.

“I think it was that mixture of traditional music with modern dance and that's the area that I like. The energy from the two of modern and traditional - that's an interesting place,” Collins explained. “I think Michael was doing theatre in a way that most other people weren't doing it. It was theatre and dance combined. It's because it was so involved in movement, energy and flow, I was drawn to it.”

Collins continued to follow the Irish theatre director’s career, attending a London performance of his acclaimed Loch na hEala (Swan Lake) in 2017. The pair met again shortly after in 2018 and this is where Michael told Pat about a show he was thinking of doing.

“He told me that Cormac Begley's music was going to be the centre of it and that he was bringing dancers from around the world in this S T A R G A Z E orchestra,” Collins explained. “It just sounded rather perfect in terms of following the process and that's something I had decided I wanted to do with a documentary like this.”

For Collins, the fact that there was no narrative within the show was an added advantage. “I was just purely free to concentrate on the movement and the music,” the director explained. “That was liberating because if there was a storyline and there were actors delivering lines of dialogue, then you'd have to follow the story in the documentary. That's not what I wanted to do.”

“I was trying to become as if the audience member is the camera, and that there's no separation,” he continued. “That's what appealed to me.

“Also, that idea of tradition and modern classical music, combining and clashing, and then the modern dance in the middle of it, set in the spectacular location (West Kerry) as well - there was a lot going for it.”

Organic Collaboration

Part of the excitement around the project stemmed from Keegan-Dolan’s encouragement for genuine collaboration to take place among his dancers and musicians, which is captured in the documentary. This was something Collins relished, as he could observe the process in its purest form. “It meant we weren't in any way trying to control it. We were just literally in the room watching what was going on,” Collins recounted.

“We never knew what might turn into something. For instance, sometimes we might be filming one person who is improvising, or two dancers improvising. Then you would see it evolving, and then it becomes part of the show,” he explained. “Sometimes, we captured little movements that other dancers would copy, and then it becomes something that all the dancers do together, and then it becomes a bigger part of the show.”

Collins explained that Keegan Dolan had certain aspects of the show in mind prior to bring the dancers and musicians together, which provided the parameters for organic exploration. “He knew Cormac Begley was going to be there; the goat's head at the beginning, the young girl on the table (Michael’s daughter, Ellie); and there was going to be smoke,” Collins told IFTN. “He knew the general sense, that there was going to be three curtains and he knew that there was going to be a line of people on chairs, and the revealing of the curtain, the dancers, and the musicians.”

“He had a sense of what the outline was, of course, but then the rest of it, a lot of it was improvised,” Collins continued. “A huge amount of the dances were improvised and they were fitted into that overall structure.”

Observation and Style

“You had to be very alive to what was happening in the room, and that was great for us,” Collins recounted. “It kept the energy up as well.”

Collins assembled a minimal crew for the shoot that consisted of cinematographer Colm Hogan, editor/DoP Keith Walsh, and sound engineer Bob Brennan. “Sometimes something would happen, and you just catch one of their eyes and just go, ‘Oh my God.’ You shake your head. It was so good,” Collins told IFTN. “The scene with the Japanese dancer, when she's spinning around, and the music is really powerful. We had no idea that that was going to happen. You're only saying to the camera person just don't be thinking of cutting it.”

“But then obviously other days nothing really happened and you might not use anything from that day in the documentary,” Collins explained.

Over the course of 36 shooting days, The Dance produced somewhere in the region of 150-160 hours of material. It took roughly seven months of editing to work through the footage and meticulously piece together the finished product. It’s really painstakingly put together,” Collins admitted, “but I find the more attention you pay it, the more rewarding it can be.”

“Even when I watch it with an audience now, I can actually stand back from it and admire, not my work as such, but I admire the work that the dancers and musicians are doing,” he explains. “You just get swept up every time.”

“I liked the idea of it just being handheld, said Collins, when discussing the filming style. “We weren't going to use any tracks, or steady cam or anything like that. I think it's much more difficult for an audience member, to relate to the material if you're tracking around the dancers. You become very aware that the camera is moving - and moving in a way that the human eye doesn't move.”

“I suppose I also didn't want to be spending a half an hour setting up tracks, or thinking about camera movement too much. That we could react, at any second, to anything that was going on, if it was handled,” Collins continued.  

“I think, in terms of me as a director, those decisions were made very early on. There has to be one camera. It has to be just one person doing a sync sound,” he explained. “We weren't going to introduce any music from outside of the hall. Everything that you hear is 98% sync. It's just music from what we're looking at.”

Standing with People

Building up trust with Keegan-Dolan and the dancers was also very important to Collins. “They needed to knew we were going to respect the work and that we were going to match his commitment and the dancer's commitment with our own commitment,” Collins explained. “We weren't going to just breeze in for a day, film a few hours and head off again. We were committed to it in the way that they were committed to it.”

This in turn required much more of a commitment for the cameramen to capture what happened over the 36 day shoot. “You're talking four hours a day, maybe, or five hours a day sometimes. Sometimes some of the shots were like an hour long, so it's a big commitment physically, but I think it probably seems that it should be, given the level of physical commitment that the dancers are doing,” Collins told IFTN.

It feels like the crew should be doing the same thing for making the documentary about it,” Collins continued. “I think it was really just about respecting the preparation and spending time there committing to it.”

Making sure that the dancers were comfortable with the film crew, and that there was an openness in terms of communication, was something Collins sought from early in production. “Sometimes we were very close to them. There's a scene where they are in a circle, which was quite early on (in production),” Collins recounted. “They look into each other's eyes, and they move around a circle. There's one girl, Imogene, who breaks down crying and gets upset, and the camera is very close.”

Following the intimate scene, the directors checked with the dancers about what their feelings were regarding the closeness of the filming, to see whether it was intrusive. “They actually hadn't realised that that scene was being filmed,” said Collins. “It meant that they were completely immersed in what they were doing themselves, and they weren't really that conscious of (the camera). “They were very, very open.”

“Sometimes I suppose, it's very easy for dancers to appear foolish, when they're improvising, they're trying something out, it might fail. So then, they're trusting us,” Collins explained. “It's like Henry Glassie, the folklorist; who I did a documentary about a few years ago. He said about standing with people, as opposed to trying to get anything from them.”

“That's the way I think I approach documentaries, whether that you stand with them in a way, that you portray them in as in a good light as possible, without it being a thing where you're just slavishly at their behest.”

The Dance is currently on release in Irish cinemas.

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