In our new Summer 2021 issue, we were pleased to have a conversation with acclaimed choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan about dance and the creative process. Enjoy the full feature below!
Exploring Creativity With Michael Keegan-Dolan
by Alison McEvoy
Interview by Paul Congdon
Michael Keegan-Dolan has had a long and prolific career. He is a talented choreographer and is the founding artistic director of award-winning dance theatre companies such as ‘Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre’ and currently ‘Teac Damsa’ (meaning ‘House of Dance’ in Gaelic/Irish). He is, in his own words, “a theatre man” – a man whose gift shines the brightest, and who is at his finest, when putting his energies into theatre.
Here is someone who has found his way to a place where so many of us long to be as we grapple with questions such as; ‘who am I?’ or ‘what should I be doing with my life?’
Michael tells a wonderful story about his discovery of yoga…
He wound up at a yoga retreat after a particularly gruelling phase of work in the bustle of the London theatre scene. He found himself drawn to the yoga teacher – a man who had trained as an expert in The Japanese Sword. This man became his mentor and Michael eventually fell in love with yoga enough to want to become a teacher. The response to his application was a short and, in the long run, sweet one. It took the form of a few simple sentences stating that he was a theatre man, and should remain a theatre man.
Creative Principles ~ The Relaxation Factor
Michael is aware that “I am at my most creative when I’m at my most relaxed.” He goes to great lengths to ensure the presence of relaxation among his company.
“For their particular gift to fully sing… in my humble opinion, the best way to allow that to happen is to create a situation where they feel the most relaxed. A lot of it comes down to me and how I am. So I have to do a good bit of work on myself … ask myself questions about life, what I want, and why I am doing this.”
Michael is well-known in theatre circles for having a slightly unusual manner of collaborating with his company-of-the-moment. He brings his collaborators on retreats in rural Ireland – yoga and vegetarian retreats, essentially. This apparently simple act, of bringing people to live in a rural setting and eat three healthy meals a day, has quite a profound effect on the creations that ultimately emerge from the process of collaboration.
The nutritious food, the forced enclosure which encourages people to share their truth, and the quality of the relationships that people naturally forge within such close confines, all become a very significant part of the creative process. While there can be challenges to such an experience, the benefits are significant. The boundaries among the collaborators can quite naturally soften in such an environment; there may be revelations, sharings, moments of connection and a crucial deepening of the level of relaxation possible when they are together.
When creating a complex piece of work, which balances the energies of both the brighter and darker aspects of what it means to be human, relaxation allows the entire company to dive deeper.
“It’s like free-diving,” Michael says. “The key to it is relaxation. Working with complicated or darker themes, you can only go as far as you can stay relaxed with the subject. And know your limitations. And it’s important to know why you’re going free-diving anyway.”
~ The Empathy Factor
While there seems to be “no reliable metric in the field of creativity”, there are things that Michael has come to see as requirements in order for awesome moments of connection-through- creativity to occur;
“When the majority of people sharing the collective space agree, for a moment, that creates a special feeling. When you’re in the room and that happens, it’s so beautiful and reassuring. It assuages your fears and your loneliness when you experience that level of connectivity. When that happens, I feel like Superman.”
“You need empathy for this process to happen.”
Empathy among the dancers allows them to connect with one another, while empathy from the audience allows the dancers to connect to the viewer in a way that creates a new possibility. The viewer doesn’t simply sit and judge, assessing whether they like or dislike what they see. They are touched in a much more profound way.
“Dancers are not showing you what they can do, but showing the audience what they can do.”
~ The Discipline Factor
Interestingly, Michael identifies the fundamental reasons for his being good at something as a sense of; timing, structure, sensitivity and co-ordination. He applies these disciplines to all of the various practices he performs as a ‘Theatre Man’, whether it be writing, acting, singing or choreographing.
In order to make something count – to make it useful, and turn it into something that can be articulated in some form or another – one needs to put structure on the thing. Michael jokes about the amount of improvisation his collaborators and he engage in. There’s a lot of playing around. Things emerge from the flow and new ideas spring into being. However, in the end, there must be structure in order for the thing to be what it is.
~ The Likeability Factor
Michael adds that it is very important, in the field of creative work, that “they like me and I like them.”
“If you like each other, you can go much further with any relationship… if you like each other, it’s an amazing kind of glue.”
Some of the people he works best with are the ones he talks very little to; “When a relationship is low on verbal communication, that’s an indication that it’s going well. We get each other. It sounds very crude and simple, but it’s describing a very complex and profound relationship, based on love and mutual respect.”