Director: Sue Bourne
Featuring: Joe Bitter, Claire Greaney, Suzanne Coyle, Simona Mauriello, John Whitehurst, Brogan McKay, Julia O’Rourke and others
The word “Riverdance” isn’t really used, but that’s what the documentary ‘Jig’ puts under the microscope — the story of the 40th Irish Dancing World Championships, and specifically the leg-splaying competitions between certain youth subsets. To that end, there’s some absolutely fantastic talent on display in this ambling but only passably inquisitive nonfiction film, meaning that those inclined to like this sort of thing (those who might have a TiVo season pass for TLC’s ‘Toddlers & Tiaras’, say) will find in this plenty to like. General audiences, however, may feel a bit danced out.
Unfolding in the final months leading up to the aforementioned March, 2010, competition in Glasgow, ‘Jig’ charts a number of highly skilled young folk dancers — precious few of whom have any connection to the rapid step-dancing genre’s link to Irish culture — and loosely pairs off some of them who will eventually be competing against one another. Brogan McKay is an expressive young Scottish lass, while little New Yorker Julia O’Rourke is the preternaturally composed offspring of parents with two different ethnicities. Ten-year-old John Whitehurst has amazing raw talent, but not the means to practice as frequently as some of his competitors. In the oldest teen category, three-time defending champion Suzanne Coyle squares off against Claire Greaney and Simona Mauriello, both of whom have beaten her in other, lesser competitions. Joe Bitter, meanwhile, has parents who uprooted his family from California and made a move across the Atlantic Ocean — all to study with a famous teacher, the same instructor for young Whitehurst.
‘Jig’ is comparable to but not quite as engaging as the recent documentary ‘Make Believe: The Battle To Become the World’s Best Teen Magician‘. The subjects all put in an equal amount of hard work and dedication, but the latter movie has significantly better guides, if you will, and a sharper focus. It succeeds in eliciting information and perspectives from its young would-be magicians, whereas most of ‘Jig’ director Sue Bourne’s interview chats, while perfectly amiable, are less revelatory. They do less to connect the kids’ passion for dance to the different ways it makes them feel, and how they see it eventually integrated into their adult lives.
Watching excellence in almost any field, and the pursuit of the same, can be a fortifying and rewarding experience. And it’s certainly interesting to see the wide variety of personalities (a group of Russians, an adopted Sri Lankan teen living in Holland) drawn to this extremely difficult and competitive discipline. But ‘Jig’ doesn’t spend a whole lot of time elucidating the steps of Irish dance (perhaps by design, as one judge later says it’s a highly subjective art form), and the movie unfurls as a haze of practice and performance footage — again, frequently impressive — with neither much contextual mooring nor ambition in staging. It’s just kids dancing, and competing. Some eventually win, and some will lose — as often happens in life.
Written by: Brent Simon