Frankly, I don't care much about Irish dancing, but Sue Bourne's Jig, which consists of 93 minutes of Irish dancers, completely enthralled me. By focusing on young dancers entered in a world championship competition, rather than on the mechanics or history of the dance itself, the documentary gradually envelops the viewer in a heady spirit of intense competition and pure love.
The young people, all under the age of 21, hail from various locales in Europe and the United States, but what they hold in common is the mysterious lure of Irish dancing. They're hard pressed to explain exactly why they love Irish dancing; it's as though it's stitched into their DNA from birth.
For the uninitiated, Irish dancing "is notable for its rapid leg and foot movements, body and arms being kept largely stationary." That quotation is from Wikipedia, by the way, not from the film, which is typical of Bourne's approach to the subject. As implied above, no time is spent exploring the history of the dance, or how it ties into Irish cultural tradition, or even that there is more than one world championship conducted annually (each major Irish dance organization holds its own). In the U.S., Irish dancing became familiar through the theatrical show Riverdance, but we don't hear anything about that or its star, Michael Flatley, other than in a couple of glancing references, either.
Having now provided much more background information than the documentary itself provides, let me hasten to add that it's what is actually featured in the film that makes it compelling. The dancers are infected with earnest devotion, more so than outright enthusiasm, and it's that devotion that carries them through the physical pains and emotional trials they must endure in order to compete at the highest levels.
At the upper end of the age range, the 19-21 category, Simona (from England, pictured), Suzanne (from Scotland), and Claire (from Ireland) have been competing against one another for years. They always place in the top 5 in competitions, but keep trading places as far as the order is concerned. Lately, however, Suzanne has emerged, winning championships, while Simona and Claire stand by, discontent and eager to take the crown for themselves.
Brogan, from Derry, Ireland, and Julie, from New York City, are 10-year-old girls who have already been competing against one another for years. Brogan is bright, outgoing, and confident; she's won the world championship before and has the forceful support of her mother and instructor. Julie is a little less sure of herself; she has a burning desire to win, but knows she must topple Brogan from her perch; she too enjoys the support of her parents, though her father expresses a degree of bewilderment at the financial investment required.
Male competitors are fewer and farther between. Joe, from California, moved to England to receive instruction from a dance master who won multiple world titles; Joe's father, a successful medical doctor, gave up his practice to support his son. Young John, from Birmingham, England, would rather dance than play football, to the puzzlement of his father, who nonetheless encourages him. Sandrine, from Rotterdam, is a Sri Lankan adopted by a Dutch couple; like most of the other parents, they don't understand their son's attraction to Irish dancing, but they are there for him.
Bourne has considerable experience as a documentary filmmaker, and it shows. Jig moves at a steady pace, and the ongoing flow of interview snippets and behind the scenes footage gains momentum as the championship approaches. Jig may not convert you into an Irish dancing aficionado, but the competitors themselves are entirely winning.
Jig opens tomorrow in New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Toronto. Check the official site for theater listings.