Movement and Memory: Dance Love and Dance Rejection in Ireland

“For some reason I wanted to be a dancer,” Michael Keegan-Dolan said of his younger self. “And then I realized I was really bad at it.” Keegan-Dolan, a choreographer and director, was talking on a video call from his home in Dingle, a remote spot on the southwest coast of Ireland where he lives with the dancer Rachel Poirier, and where his dance company Teac Damsa is based. “I was this kind of tragic character.”

Sitting next to him, Poirier chuckled. “I didn’t see him dance then,” she said, “so thank God I don’t need to comment.”

Keegan-Dolan’s dance-theater work “How to Be a Dancer in 72,000 Easy Lessons,” which opens at St. Ann’s Warehouse on Saturday, springs from the tension between this thing he loved beyond all others — dance — and the realities of his body.

In a mix of stories and dance, he and Poirier trace the dogged efforts of a young Irishman, based on Keegan-Dolan, now 54, coming of age in the 1980s and ’90s, struggling to find his place in the world of dance. It plays out against a backdrop of ingrained ideas about masculinity, I.R.A. violence and his feelings of being an unwelcome outsider in England, where he went to advance his training.

“I was a kind of tragic character,” Keegan-Dolan said of wanting to dance but not being much good at it. Poirier didn’t see him perform back then, she said, “so thank God I don’t have to comment.” With the couple is their dog Chamalo.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

In ballet school Keegan-Dolan was told that his pigeon-toed feet were hopelessly untrainable. In the show he recalls being asked by a teacher, with as much kindness as she can muster, “Is there anything else you might like to do with your life?” He can’t think of anything.

His salvation, it turned out, would be choreography, and through it, theater. After his last appearance onstage as a dancer in 1994, he turned to making dances and eventually rose to acclaim as a choreographer, first in opera and later in ensemble works of his own.

In 1997 he founded Fabulous Beast Dance Theater in the Irish Midlands, which, after its relocation to Dingle, became Teac Damsa. (The name means “house of dance” in Gaelic.) With those companies Keegan-Dolan has explored themes from Irish history and myth in well-received works that combine live music, theater and dance, like “The Bull,” “Rian,” a reimagined “Swan Lake,” and “Mám,” recently presented at Sadler’s Wells.

In “How to Be a Dancer” he turns his lens inward. There are just two characters, the Dance Man and the Dancer, played by Keegan-Dolan and Poirier.

The work’s intimate scale is partly a product of circumstance. “How to Be a Dancer” was created during the pandemic and rehearsed at a theater down the road from Keegan-Dolan and Poirier’s house. (It premiered in 2022 at the Gate Theater in Dublin.)

For Susan Feldman, the artistic director at St. Ann’s, the small scale offered an opportunity. “I’ve been aware of Michael for many years,” she said in an interview, “and I’ve seen many of his works, but our space isn’t really conducive to presenting large dance pieces.”

Feldman was struck by the honesty and humor of the show. “I was really interested that it would be him dancing,” Feldman said of Keegan-Dolan, who hasn’t performed in decades and appears in a series of wigs. “At first I didn’t even realize it was him.”

Keegan-Dolan turns his lens inward in “How to Be a Dancer,” which he developed in Dingle during the pandemic.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

The material that makes up “How to be a Dancer” began to emerge before the pandemic, Keegan-Dolan said, but the period of forced inactivity gave him time to look back on memories that had dogged him for years. The number in the title comes from yoga practices that hold that 72,000 channels, known as nadis, circulate energy through the body.

The stories in the show draw upon the kinds of memories — small revelations, as well as shameful or painful experiences — that help shape our inner lives. Keegan-Dolan describes sitting in his home in Dublin, the youngest in a large family, watching Gene Kelly on television as his mother ironed. And how he felt when he took his first dance class, at 18, towering over the barre in rugby sweats in a room full of “9-year-old girls in pink leotards,” he says. He should feel ridiculous, he adds, “but instead I feel like I am in exactly the right place.”

After moving to London in the ’80s, a period of deadly bombings by the Irish Republican Army, he remembers being called a terrorist and worse. Often he reframes such painful experiences as absurdist comedy. But the sting is still there.

Onstage, the stories roll out of him like well-worn yarns. And like all such tales, they contain some fabrication. “I like the idea that you can change a memory, like you can change a story,” Keegan-Dolan said. He is a natural storyteller, lively and funny, “un peu cabot” (a bit of a show-off), as Poirier put it in her native French.

The storytelling is layered with snippets of movement and dance, as when Poirier and Keegan-Dolan re-enact a happy-awkward dance at an Irish disco in the ’80s, while bullies hurl insults from the sidelines. “I wait for him to go,” Keegan-Dolan says of one of them, “and when he’s gone I start dancing again.” Nothing can deter his joy in movement — not even the fear of being punched in the face.

Keegan-Dolan, a natural storyteller, said, “I like the idea that you can change a memory, like you can change a story.”Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

The more technical dancing in the show is left to Poirier, who has danced with the Rambert dance company and the Merce Cunningham Repertory Understudy Group among other troupes. She is the dancer he would have liked to have been, Keegan-Dolan said — along with Rudolf Nureyev, Fred Astaire and Jacques d’Amboise.

The climax of the piece is a 15-minute solo performed by Poirier that the pair choreographed together to Ravel’s “Boléro.” Here, the memories that rise to the surface are hers.

“There are bits of steps hanging there, dance memories,” Poirier said, “and the feeling of what it’s like to be a dancer, all the struggles and the lack of money, and the greatness and the poetry that comes with doing the job we do.”

And even as she pushes through exhaustion, the freedom and force of her movements, sustained by Ravel’s music, suggest something about the power of dance, the thing that has kept Keegan-Dolan in its thrall all these years.

“It connects you to a part of yourself that is otherwise totally inaccessible,” he said. “And you don’t even have to be good at it.”

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