Documentary ‘Jig’ steps into Irish dancing world
One of the great things about the movies is how they can take us to unusual and slightly terrifying places we might never otherwise see: the planet Pandora, Mark Zuckerberg’s ambition, the world of competitive Irish dancing.
Sue Bourne’s documentary “Jig’’ is about last year’s Irish Dancing World Championships, held in Glasgow. Six thousand dancers competed, with another 20,000-30,000 parents, coaches, and fans in attendance. It’s a self-contained universe where a costume can cost $2,500 (and get worn no more than five times, since its 10-year-old wearer outgrows it) and participants are as likely to come from Russia or the Netherlands (by way of Sri Lanka) as the vicinity of Dublin.
“We were just in it for some fun,’’ says the father of one of the young competitors, Julia O’Rourke. “It was a nice cultural thing to do. Then we saw the wigs, the dresses, and I went, ‘What’s that all about?’ ’’
What it’s all about is a subculture where youth, aspiration, and ability get cooked — sometimes overcooked — in a cauldron of competition. In that respect, Irish dancing differs little from tennis or ballet or figure skating. We hear from a Californian who gave up his medical practice to move to England so his son could study seven hours a day with an eight-time world champion. “You hear about families that move to Florida so their child can play tennis,’’ he says with a shrug.
Of course none of those subcultures has terms as enchanting as “hop over’’ or “front click.’’ Conversely, none of them — not even the monstrosity that is figure skating — requires female participants to wear bread loaves of curls atop their heads. “It was like a Shirley Temple convention, wasn’t it?’’ shudders the mother of 10-year-old John Whitehurst. “You just find yourself staring at people, thinking ‘I’m glad I’ve got a boy.’ ’’
John is so endearing and intense, not to mention flat-out talented, that he’s one of the three standouts among the dozen or so competitors “Jig’’ focuses on. Another is Julia, who’s half-Filipino and lives on Long Island. She seems less intense than some of the others — until we learn she danced once on a broken foot. Julia’s biggest competition is Brogan McKay, from Derry, in Northern Ireland. Brogan’s a cheerful little spitfire, so consumed by dancing that she breaks into steps while walking her dog.
“Jig’’ is involving, if at times overly slick. Bourne has a fondness for transitional shots of moving trains, and her selective use of slow motion and reliance on the score to build tension can get annoying. She has the good sense, though, to shoot the dancing straight. No editing trickery hypes all those hop overs and front clicks.
“Jig’’ inevitably summons up the names “Riverdance’’ and “Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance.’’ Yet those blarney-on-the-hoof stage presentations have a lot less in common with Bourne’s film than another documentary does. “Spellbound,’’ the 2002 documentary about the National Spelling Bee, is very similar in spirit and approach. Toes or letters: Either way, a stumble is a stumble.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.