Jig (2011): Sue Bourne’s Docu about Irish Dance

By Jeff Farr

Do you think you are immune to Irish dance contests for kids?

Sue Bourne’s energetic documentary “Jig” works hard to pull us into the world of Irish dance and without a question succeeds.

The prime reason this film works so well is the human element. Bourne carefully introduces us to a large and wild cast of characters—young dancers, their parents, their coaches—so that by the time we get to the 40th Irish Dancing World Championships, which take up the film’s second half, we are more invested in the outcomes than we might want to admit.

Many of these characters are scary, including, truth be told, some of the fierce preteen and teenage competitors. But their parents naturally tend to be scarier still and their coaches the scariest of all.

“Jig” is at some points a more disturbing dance film than Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” (2010). The girls—with their Shirley Temple wigs, expensive dresses, heavy makeup, and forced smiles that border on grimaces—can seem like Stepford jig dancers.

There are plenty of boys as well, although they come off as decidedly less intense than their female counterparts. Perhaps this comes from often being persecuted at school for devoting so much time to a “sissy sport.”

The question hanging over the whole movie is “Can this really be healthy for these kids?” A sequence on the injuries many of the dancers experience suggests not. It becomes quite painful to watch the dancers relentlessly practice, sometimes while injured. But Bourne does not flinch, placing us right there with them.

The director is thankfully not out to judge: Bourne always lets her subjects be scary in a lovable way. We are happy to see some of them win in the end, even though we might not want to spend time anywhere near them in real life.

The final competitions toward the end of the film become super suspenseful because, as in Steve James’s “Hoop Dreams” (1994), we have gained a keen sense of how hard each athlete has worked to get there and the far-reaching ramifications of victory or defeat. The heartbreak and the elation hit hard here.

Bourne and cinematographer Joe Russell are also successful at capturing the hypnotic mystery of the dance itself. What at first seems just plain odd gradually becomes strangely beautiful, and we start to understand why one of the dancers likens Irish dancing to flying and another likens it to a drug. There is definitely something to it.

A short competition sequence featuring Joe Bitter—a Californian whose family transplanted itself to England to further his budding career—rightly finds the action in his mind-blowing footwork with an extended shot of just his frenetic feet. This is the kind of smart decision on Bourne’s part that makes her film stand out from the crowd.

She also does an excellent job of studying the faces of her subjects. We see the dancers go through the gamut of emotions, from debilitating terror to naked joy. What remains with us—more than, in fact, the dancing—is each of these faces. Many documentaries somehow miss out on the kind of humanism that Bourne’s movie exudes.

A couple of things are, however, missing in “Jig.” It would have been compelling for Bourne to cover at least once dancer who had completely burned out and dropped out, who had been personally damaged by the dance culture. It is clear from the film that there must be many such young people: what we are seeing are only the survivors. Getting to know a casualty would have added more depth. It is also never made clear how Irish dancing became such a worldwide phenomenon, with even New Yorkers and Muscovites giving their lives to this art. A history, even brief, of how the dance developed to this point would have added some helpful context. Finally, many documentaries these days are using subtitles for English speakers with strong accents. Sometimes said subtitles are unnecessary, but this is one film without subtitles that could have benefited from them with some of the key interviewees.

Credits

A Screen Media release.

Directed and produced by Sue Bourne.

Cinematography, Joe Russell.

Editing, Colin Monie.

Original music, Patrick Doyle.

Running time: 93 minutes.