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An account of the 40th Irish Dancing World Championships in Glasgow in 2010, Jig is just one step up from reality TV show contests in terms of what it offers the viewer dramatically. Very nicely shot and scored, Sue Bourne‘s documentary confines itself to the predictable format of introducing a large array of contestants, generating a measure of rooting interest in them, then seeing how it all plays out in the tense competition, where the fruits of years of dedicated effort are decided in a brief moment in the spotlight. Fans of Celtic dance constitute a modest target audience, but the film’s inability to illuminate the finer points of the rigid form, to define what separates the great from the good, proves frustrating for the outsider.
Out of the roughly three thousand aspirants who congregated in Scotland a year ago with hopes of winning a trophy — no cash awards are offered — Bourne picks a deliberately diverse cross-section of young dancers with an eye to indicating how Irish dance has now won converts of many different stripes. In addition to the cute little Irish and British kids one would expect to see, there’s a Dutch boy of African ethnicity, Polish and Russian women who caught the bug in Moscow and, most intriguingly, a California lad, Joe Bitter, whose parents, struck by their son’s passion and evident talent, packed up their lives and moved to the U.K. so he could get training that would maximize his gifts.
With the exception of Joe’s, the narrative strands are simply dedicated to developing human interest stories designed to pay off suspensefully at the climax, an easy strategy that is on virtually nightly display on world television screens. There are the intense little girls who at age 10 drive themselves maniacally to excel, admissions of how everyone watches their competitors on YouTube to see what they’re up against, talk of the financial sacrifices required of the mostly working class families to give their kids a shot and, shades of Billy Elliot, the English boy who is bothered by bullies and accused of being gay (“But Michael Flatley isn’t gay,” one of the mothers helpfully offers, in the only mention of the Irish dance popularizer).
Interest surges, however, whenever Joe dances into the frame. A black-haired teen who’s not terribly demonstrative and applies select British affectations to his otherwise flat American speech, Joe trains with eight-time world champion John Carey, an engaged and engaging teacher able to push his star pupil to the obvious edge of greatness. But even if Joe’s talent and the extra speed of his foot movements are evident, no explanations are offered to provide insight into what the judges will be looking for at the competition. On the face of it, Irish dancing, which mixes the maintenance of a stiff upper body and arms kept absolutely straight alongside the torso with fast tapping and high kicks, seems to demand strict adherence to a set of highly formalized requirements. Personal expression and emotion are kept tightly wrapped, so some discussion of where the passion lies, and how it’s ideally fused into technique, would have been welcome from the experts.
What’s worse, the judging process at the competition is so arcane — indeed, even Carey can’t seem to properly follow it as scores are slowly announced — that the climactic revelations of who won and by how much prove more frustrating than riveting. Of course, the results eventually become clear from the elation on the winners’ faces, but the suspense is dissipated by the droning recitals of scores that can’t be assessed.
Opens: June 17 (Screen Media)
Production: Wellpark Scotland
Cast: Brogan McKay, Julia O’Rourke, John Whitehurst, Joe Bitter, Sandun Verschoor, Ana Kondratyeva, Simona Mauriello, Claire Greaney, Suzanne Coyle, John Carey
Director: Sue Bourne
Producer: Sue Bourne
Executive producer: Grant McKee, Ewan Angus, Sam Anthony, Carole Sheridan, Leslie Finlay, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross
Director of photography: Joe Russell
Editor: Colin Monie
Music: Patrick Doyle
PG rating, 93 minutes
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