Judge Gordon Sullivan left Irish dance for Irish step kickboxing.
…To win they must be foot perfect!
I was an Irish step dancer for seven years as a child. Like my classmates I danced for everything from the local cultural center's St. Patrick's Day events to state competitions. I hung up my shoes at fourteen (largely because I didn't enjoy performing and competing). In the fifteen years since, I've never looked back—until I saw the trailer for Jig. In those two minutes I was reminded for the first time of all the things I missed about dancing: the speed, the passion, the precision. Luckily for me, I didn't have to feel pangs for very long, because the intense pressure of competition documented by Jig reminded me why I gave it up. Although the film is obviously going to affect me differently than most of the intended audience, Jig still offers an excellent introduction to Irish step dancing and its competitive side.
Jig examines the phenomena of Irish step dancing not by focusing on its most public faces—Riverdance and Lord of the Dance—but by going to the 40th annual Irish Dancing World Championships held in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2008. The film follows a number of families as their children compete for the medal. The documentary is about equally balanced between giving audiences an overview of the dancing and documenting the drama of the competition proper.
Those who've seen Riverdance or Lord of the Dance might think they know Irish dancing. To a certain extent, they do. Many of the basic moves are shared between traditional Irish dancing and its popular counterparts. However, the difference between competition dancing and something like Riverdance is the difference between a martial arts demonstration and a real live fight. Much of the more flowery hand movements are eliminated—since solo dancers keep their arms rigidly at their sides—and the emphasis is on the feet: their control, their timing, and their ability to make movements that civilians can barely follow, let alone perform. That's the chief virtue of Jig—it provides a nice counterpoint to other Irish dance offerings by giving audiences a peek at a "purer" form of the activity. Director Sue Bourne does a really effective job bouncing between wide shots of dancers and closeups of the intricate patterns woven by their feet. Those sequences—when we watch dancers do their thing—are the film's most effective and those who enjoy the more popular forms of the dance will certainly appreciate these moments.
The film's other main virtue is its narrative drive; we learn about Irish dancing from real dancers and their families. The world of Irish dance—not unlike many other competition-oriented subcultures—has its own brand of strangeness. In addition to the long hours required to learn the basic moves, Irish dance aspires to a certain archetypal "look" that requires elaborate dress that flows with the dancers, and well-done hair or wigs to have curls that bounce in time to the music. To most spectators (and I speak from personal experience), it just looks neat, but the agony of choosing a dress, finding a way to pay for it, and doing hair and makeup before a show is intense. Jig captures this backstage world of dance faithfully, not shying away from the strangers aspects (like fake tans), but not trying to turn the dancers into freaks. The film's tagline emphasizes the perfection dancers must strive for, and the film does a good job documenting their sometimes-obsessive search for that elusive extra something that their dancing lacks—even, of course, when it appears perfect to the audience.
Jig comes to DVD after a stint on television overseas in a nice and bright 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. This is a clean, well-saturated presentation of the film. It's not a mind-blowing film from a visual perspective, but this DVD is clean and clear of compression or authoring problems. The Irish music (always one of the best parts of the dancing) comes out of the 5.1 surround track with impressive presence, and it's well-balanced with the film's dialogue. Extras are sadly nonexistent for this release. I would have liked some cut scenes, maybe some more interview material, especially with cultural historians or those not directly tied to the dance world itself.
If I have a complaint about Jig, it's that it falls a little too neatly into that genre of documentary that looks sympathetically at a subculture, especially subcultures based around some kind of competition. The film is especially strong when it's introducing us to the world of Irish dance, but once things turn towards Glasgow, the documentary falls into the typical narrative of competition. It's an effective narrative—that's why it's used so often—but part of me wishes people could be introduced to more "authentic" Irish dance with another setting (like looking at a particular Irish dance school or other performance group), leaving the competition documentary as a separate entity. These are relatively minor charges against the film, coming from someone with a background in the art and a wide exposure to documentaries. For the average viewer this documentary will serve as a great introduction to Irish dancing and a decent little competition drama as well.
This is a must-see for anyone at all interested in the world of Irish dancing. While not as flashy as Lord of the Dance, Jig presents the day-to-day life of dancers from around the world competing at the highest levels. The dancing is fantastic, the costumes beautiful, and the drama nail biting, which adds up to both an effective documentary and an excellent primer on Irish dance. The extras alone make this one easy to recommend for rental or purchase.
It's not foot perfect, but Jig is not guilty.
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