Appraising the ‘Jig’ documentary: entertaining; but context is an issue

By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR
It’s not just Irish dance aficionados and child development experts who can find grist for conversation in “Jig.” Add classical philosophers to the list, too.
Sue Bourne’s documentary on Irish competitive dancing, released early last year and now available on DVD, touches, albeit somewhat indirectly, on universal questions about perseverance in pursuit of an elusive goal. When is it all too much? Why endure the sacrifices when the returns, at least in material terms, are virtually non-existent?

But a more immediate and relevant question for some viewers might be: Is that all there is to Irish dancing? Hours (and hours) of practice, accumulated exhaustion and stress, nagging injuries, plus the wigs, make-up, spray-on tans and outlandish, often expensive dance costumes?
The film chronicles a widely dispersed and disparate group of young dancers as they prepare for, and compete in, the 40th Irish Dancing World Championships, which took place in 2010 in Glasgow. Bourne’s cameras head to New York City, the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, and even Russia, to offer a glimpse not only of the dancers’ training but also of their personal and family lives as well. These clips are interspersed with interviews of the competitors, and their parents and instructors.
Bourne uses this approach to set up several stories within the larger narrative, each with its own distinctive tension. One contrasts the lives of 10-year-olds Brogan of Derry, Northern Ireland, and New York City native Julia, competitors in the same age category who come from clearly different socioeconomic circumstances. Another thread involves three older girls from Galway, England, and Glasgow who have gone up against one another practically all their lives. In a third, 10-year-old John Whitehurst, full of promise but still prone to losing focus, finds a role model at his Irish dance academy in three-time Worlds champion Joe Bitter, who faces the challenge of surpassing his already impressive achievements.
The film’s most fascinating stories emerge in the most unlikely settings. Bourne finds a troupe of determined Russian women in Moscow (with an equally determined instructor whose commute is mindboggling) training for the Worlds, largely just to have the experience of engaging the wider Irish dance community. And there is probably no better example of contemporary multiculturalism than Sandun, a Sri Lankan-born adoptee of Dutch parents attempting to move into his age group’s top five at the Worlds.
Bourne’s keen choice of her subjects, and the way she intermingles them, make it almost impossible not to empathize. Hearing Sandun talk about how important Irish dance is to him, and his awareness of how “brown faces” like his are rare in Irish dancing, puts you in his camp from the beginning. Similarly, the imminent arrival of adulthood lends poignancy to the scenes of the trio of girls, young women, actually, as they near the end of their competitive dancing days.
Things get complicated as “Jig” juxtaposes Brogan and Julia. Brogan, precociously expressive, has to make do with whatever instruction she gets at her crowded dance academy, since her family can’t afford private lessons; Julia has both academy and private instruction, and her mother, who assiduously takes notes during these sessions, works with her at home. Are you supposed to feel resentment for Julia, who seems more reserved than Brogan (until the Worlds, that is; it’s startling to see her emotions percolate up) but doesn’t act entitled, for the resources she’s been given?
But it’s the thread with Joe Bitter where the parental role really gets your attention, as we learn that his father gave up a lucrative career and moved the family to England so Joe could attend the academy run by John Carey, a former champion and understudy to Michael Flatley in “Riverdance.” And that’s where those aforementioned deeper questions come to the fore: Just because you can do something, does it mean you should?
Inevitably, these issues get pushed aside, at least temporarily, during the last portion of the film, which takes place at the Worlds. Not everyone’s story has a happy ending—the expression on one dancer’s face when he knows he’s fallen short, even before the scores are announced, is devastating—and the Brogan-Julia drama reaches epic intensity.
In and of itself, the film makes for compelling, yet also entertaining, fare. What’s missing, though, is some context: “Jig” presents Irish dance as grand spectacle—including the obligatory “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance” references—without giving you a sense of its tradition, and the diversity of styles therein. Nor is there a hint of its non-competitive aspects. If you didn’t know already, you might never guess that some people actually dance just for fun, and without all those wigs and costumes.