Film Review: Jig

Irish-dancing documentary holds your interest with its range of characters and competitive edge, despite serious directorial missteps.

Sue Borne’s documentary Jig focuses on 40th Irish World Dancing Championship, held, for some reason, in Glasgow, Scotland. Especially for those of us mainly familiar with the genre through Michael Flatley’s mega-successful, oft-maligned Riverdance, it’s a decidedly insular, strange world of bizarrely costumed performers executing intricacies with legs and feet while arms remain resolutely stationary, often to the din of what sounds like simple hurdy-gurdy Muzak. But here, you are pulled in nonetheless by the obsessive passion of the participants.

Borne has trained her camera on an appealingly diverse range of contestants from all over the globe. Ten-year-old John Whitehurst, cornily referred to in the press notes as the “Billy Elliot of Irish Dancing,” is a fiendishly gifted little stepper, overcoming incessant bullying by high-school peers, but sometimes going mentally blank to the frustration of his highly accomplished teacher, former top dancer John Carey. Carey also coaches the gifted American teen Joe Bitter, Whitehurst’s idol, whose passion for the dance led him and his parents to move from a cushy California life to the grey wetness of Ireland, (“You move to Florida if your kid excels at tennis,” opines his oh-so-forbearing father.)

There’s a troupe of girls from Russia who, while dedicated workers, often forget to relax and smile in their routines; Sandun Verschoor, a Sri Lankan from Holland, who’s one of maybe five people of color in the entire competition, and Suzanne Coyle, four-time winner of the Championship, now determined to win back her title from longtime rival Claire Greaney. To top it off, there’s a killer kid competition between ten-year-old Brogan McCay from Northern Ireland and Julia O’Rourke, a Eurasian from New York.

Jig might have been benefited from more context and information about the origins of the dance itself, which becomes ever more complex and fascinating as you watch it. Questions remain unanswered, like why the straight arms and the risible Shirley Temple ringlet wigs on the girls? The film is handsomely photographed, but Borne largely blows it in the final competition by truncating and chopping up the performances with intrusive editing (when she’s not merely focusing on the feet). You yearn to see the spectacular, challenging routine Carey devised for Bitter, which won him first place, in its entirety. The brogues are often quite thick and indecipherable without subtitles, especially that of McCay, whom Borne obviously dotes upon; McCay speaks very rapid-fire and rather terrifyingly comes across like a Gaelic version of The Bad Seed in her near-demonic ambition and professional slickness.

There is no gainsaying the emotional payoff with the fraught announcement of winners, the culmination of so much sacrifice for no money and a mere title, with ever-growing tots’ costumes costing $2,500. But Borne muffles it with the use of sappy, synthetic music which nearly makes you yearn to hear another jig.