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Swan Lake / Loch na hEala, Luminato Festival, Toronto
“ Swan Lake is beautiful, brilliant and utterly gripping”
Martha Schabas, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), June 7, 2018

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s production of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake/Loch na hEala is as much a work of theatre as it is of movement.

What state of mind does a man need to be in to a) want to shoot himself, and b) fall in love with a winged apparition? There are so many layers of brilliance in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s slaying production of Swan Lake/Loch na hEala that it’s hard to peel back any single one and not find others loosened. Yet, part of the power of this beautiful deconstruction of Tchaikovsky’s ballet comes from its determination to take the fairy tale’s absurdity seriously. The insight we get isn’t just about individual suffering; we’re given a vivid portrait of an aching, modern Ireland – one that grazes deep-seated pain.

Keegan-Dolan is an associate artist at Sadler’s Wells in London and has built an international reputation for his inventive choreography. But you don’t need to be any kind of dance expert or lover to be utterly gripped by this show − part of Toronto’s Luminato festival − which is as much a work of theatre as it is of movement. Told non-chronologically, the story’s catalyzing event occurs when a Catholic priest (Mikel Murfi) attempts to rape a beautiful teenaged girl named Finola (Rachel Poirier). When he’s interrupted by her three sisters, silent witnesses of his crime, he transforms all four girls into swans to keep them eternally quiet.

The stage brings to mind images from Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, a damaged landscape of ladders and cinder blocks suddenly illuminated by the imposing expanse of white wings overhead. The ballet’s Manichaean undertones of light and dark are poetically evoked; the swans perform trance-like dances in crisp schoolgirl frocks, while the bog is created by an ungainly black tarpaulin, a Garda police car depicted by an amplifier on wheels. Meanwhile, the prince is no melancholy aristocrat; he’s Jimmy O’Reilly (Alex Leonhartsberger), an unemployed 36-year-old in a tracksuit who’s been diagnosed with clinical depression. He lives with his disabled mother and ends up camping out on the roof of their home with his dead father’s shotgun.

The story is relayed like an Irish folk tale, set to haunting and melodic traditional music played by the Slow Moving Clouds trio, who are poised above the action upstage. But the writing is distinctly contemporary, full of bleak humour and wry characterizations. The narrative structure also feels of the here-and-now in the way it engages so clearly with the theme of reconciliation. The play begins with Murfi tethered to a cement brick that he circles in his underwear, bleating like a goat. He is freed, washed, slapped to his senses and dressed only so he can tell the tale of his own horrible transgressions, transforming into the priest who abuses Finola, then the policeman who chases Jimmy to his death.

When Jimmy meets Finola, she materializes like a guardian angel, swooping down from her perch to stop him from shooting himself in the mouth. But she’s also a traumatized victim of sexual abuse; again, Keegan-Dolan is taking the fairy-tale and holding it to genuine psychological scrutiny. The lovers occupy the real and fabular simultaneously and this adds to the richness of their flickering, tentative steps. In both realms, they are damaged and ostracized people, wondering whether they deserve to find love or, perhaps, are even capable of it.

Keegan-Dolan’s choreography has a bracing naturalness; it seems to draw its impulse from deep within the dancers’ bodies and evolve inside each person a bit differently. When the swans dance in unison, they are all uniquely themselves, their simple movements sentient and reactive and infused with subtle folk tones. The final pas de deux between Jimmy and Finola is both radiant and tragic. He clings to her with a desperation that will stay burned in my mind for ages.

Is there a timelier moment to watch an Irish production take on the tyranny of church and state? Although this stunning Swan Lake is full of darkness, it ends on a note of intense rapture. By manipulating all of the plastic and the tarpaulin onstage, the cast create a gyre of feathers that descend on the audience in an ecstatic snowfall. It can’t help but bring to mind another unforgettable Irish ending in which snow symbolizes the overlap of history, beauty and pain, and falls in equal measure on the living and the dead.

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Swan Lake / Loch na hEala, The Abbey Theatre
“Taibhealaín a fhágann muid corraithe, ceisteach, daonna ”
Eoin P. Ó Murchú, nós.ie, 13 February 2018

Sa scéal traidisiúnta Clann Lir athraítear páistí Lir ina n-ealaí áille, baintear an chaint uathu is fágtar glórtha áille acu. An bua a fhágtar acu sa dráma seo ná an damhsa agus nach draíochtúil an damhsa é. Michael Keegan-Dolan is cúis leis an léiriú éachtach seo atá lonnaithe sa Longfort.

Bhí caint thar a bheith dearfach cloiste agam faoi Swan Lake/Loch na hEala le cúpla bliain anuas agus bhí an-díomá orm nach bhfuair mé deis freastal air anuraidh.

Is léiriú ar leith é seo a bhuaileann buille mothúchánach i mbealach máistriúil ealaíonta nach bhfeictear rómhinic. D’fhág giotaí áirithe den dráma mé le mo bhéal ar leathadh, mé faoi dhraíocht ag físiúlacht neamhghnách neartmhar an phíosa. Ní bréag is ní beag a rá go ndeachaigh sé i bhfeidhm go mór orm.

Thosaigh an dráma go mall. Seit bhunúsach, leathsceirdiúil, putóga na hamharclainne léirithe agus Mikel Murfi, ainmhí, inár láthair ina fhobhríste. Fágadh soilse an tí ar siúl is ghlac sé tamaillín orm sleamhnú isteach i ndomhan buile Teach Damhsa ach nuair a shleamhnaigh, chuas faoi go baithis.

Is minic againn drámaí Éireannacha a chuireann mí-úsáid ghnéis, sagairt olca agus gardaí tuatacha ar ardán. Táid sa dráma seo leis ach pléitear leo i mbealach a bhraitheann úr agus fuinniúil agus scanrúil. Measctar iad agus scéalta na n-ealaí, Swan Lake agus Clann Lir, agus scéal fírinneach Mhainistir Leathrátha, áit ar mharaigh na Gardaí fear óg i mbliain an dá mhíle.

 

Tá macallaí scéal an fhir óig le clos mar shnáth tríd an dráma agus nasctar a scéal le scéal na n-ealaí. Gránghunna aige agus dúlagar ag cur as dó. Caitear go cáiréiseach lena charachtar, ach cuirfidh radhairc áirithe sa dráma seo sceon ar an duine is mó miotal amuigh.

Tugtar dóchas dúinn agus grá agus léirítear caoine lách. Bímid sna tríthi gáirí mar gheall ar charachtacht Murfi. Baintear pléisiúr as an rud is lú: an raidió a athrú ó stáisiúin go chéile. Cuireann an bheirt phríomhcharachtar faoi gheasa muid. Is minic go maítear gur féidir scéal a insint trí dhamhsa. Níor ghéilleas dá leithéid go hiomlán go bhfaca an léiriú seo. Gluaiseacht agus cóiréagrafaíocht gan a macasamhail, na mílte focal ráite agus na colainneacha ag lúbadh os ár gcomhair amach.

Is annamh ceol beo a chlos ag drámaí na laethanta seo, agus léiríodh dúinn an chailliúint a tharlaíonn dá bharr. Banna ceoil Slow Moving Clouds, atá lonnaithe i mBaile Átha Cliath ach a bhfuil tionchar Nordach le sonrú go mór orthu, a sheinneann agus a chanann anseo, glórtha ríbhinne agus amhráin eicléictiúla, ‘Seinn Alleluia’ le clos istigh ina lár.

Mar sheoid fhísiúil is mó a chuimhneofar ar an léiriú seo. Tá an rince ar fheabhas ó thús deireadh; buile na cóisire, fiántas na mban, fraoch agus anbhá na n-ealaí, brúidiúlacht an olcais. Arís is arís téann sé i bhfeidhm ort ach is é radharc uathúil an deiridh a chuireann an dlaoi mhullaigh ar chúrsaí. Mír eisceachtúil, a d’fhág i mo staic mé, dáiríre. Ba ar éigean a chreideas go bhféadfadh rud a bheith chomh corraitheach, spraíúil, simplí, físiúil.

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Ag breathnú dúinn ar an gcliar agus ar na compántais éagsúla a chruthaigh Loch na hEala, tuigtear gur iarracht idirnáisiúnta cheart í seo. Michael Keegan-Dolan, Sadler’s Wells London, Colours International Dance Festival, Theaterhaus Stuttgart, Féile Amharclannaíochta Bhaile Átha Cliath agus Theatre de la Ville Lucsamburg. Is léir lámha cumasacha na ndreamanna sin ar fad ar an eispéireas deiridh a bhronntar.

Dráma ar leith is ea Swan Lake/Loch na hEala. Buaic na drámaíochta agus an damhsa. Taibhealaín a úsáideann gach foirm atá ar fáil di is a fhágann muid corraithe, ceisteach, daonna.

Tá sé díolta amach in Amharclann na Mainistreach cheana. Má tá deis agat é a fheiceáil timpeall na tíre déan cinnte sin a dhéanamh.

 

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Swan Lake / Loch na hEala, Sydney Opera House
“Swan Lake / Loch na hEala: soaring retelling of a traditional paean to the power of love”
Deborah Jones, The Australian , September 1, 2017

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake is unsparingly black in so many ways, starting with its indelible image of a near-naked, bleating man tethered to a block of concrete. The people in this midlands Irish community are damaged, the humour plentiful but grim, and the prospects grimmer.

“Nature is stronger than will,” says the inappropriately named Holy Man (Mikel Murfi), describing the appalling event that led to the disappearance of four young women and their transformation into swans. Murfi, our narrator, will also morph into a despotic politician and the local law. They’re all called McLoughlin, petty tyrants each one.

The bare surroundings — some scaffolding, a few ladders — speak of the town’s poverty, not just in material things but in spirit. The ghastly birthday party (funny, though) sums things up. It’s thrown by Nancy for her son Jimmy so he might meet a local girl, shake off his depression and get married. Things don’t look promising.

Amid the wreckage, though, there is astonishing beauty and freedom. Keegan-Dolan’s depiction of abuse and debilitating grief doesn’t deny the harshness of life but he mitigates it with the consolation of optimism. The abiding memories of Loch na hEala are a love duet of exquisite tenderness and white feathers banishing the darkness as music plays, and the ensemble dances joyously.

The story of a woman turned into a bird or sea creature is found in many mythologies, including Irish legend. Keegan-Dolan takes from that and is also strikingly faithful to the essentials of the familiar 19th-century ballet version while making them utterly contemporary.

His emotionally frozen antihero, Jimmy (Alexander Leonhartsberger), finds release when he meets swan-woman Fionnuala (Rachel Poirier) by the lake. Jimmy’s flinching tentativeness when he first sees Fionnuala is deeply touching and so right. Keegan-Dolan has a splendid eye for detail.

Jimmy and Fionnuala can’t escape their fate but they are part of a much larger and longer history of endurance and resilience. Their sublime second pas de deux is an unforgettable paean to the power of love over malignity even as Keegan-Dolan doesn’t shy away from showing the pain that surrounds them.

Keegan-Dolan, who wrote the brilliant text as well as choreographed and directed, blends folk-inspired dance, spoken word and music into a seamless whole. The marvellous trio Slow Moving Clouds plays and sings Celtic and Nordic melodies live and the nine-member dance ensemble makes the heart sing. It’s a pity the season is so brief.

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala. Teac Damsa. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, August 30. Tickets: $59.90-$74.90. Bookings: (02) 9250 7777. Duration: 75min, no interval. Ends tomorrow.

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Swan Lake / Loch na hEala, Sadler’s Wells, London
“Michael Keegan-Dolan has moved Swan Lake to the middle of Ireland and made it a thing of wonder”
Luke Jennings, The Observer, Sunday 4 December 2016

There are so many new versions of Swan Lake, and almost all of them are unendurable; it’s a work that strongly resists reinvention. But Michael Keegan- Dolan, who has a rare gift for transforming old ballets into new, has taken the 19th-century story and hammered it into a thing of wonder. Like much of his back-catalogue – Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, The Bull, The Rite of Spring – this Swan Lake is set in Keegan-Dolan’s own native Irish Midlands, a place where the mystical and the banal are in constant collision.

Jimmy (Alexander Leonhartsberger), a country fellow with a crazed, wheelchair-bound mother (Elizabeth Cameron Dalman), has retreated into a black night of depression. Uncaring of his state, Jimmy’s mother has invited “every eligible woman within a 10-mile radius” to his 36th birthday party. The local priest (Mikel Murfi), meanwhile, has sexually abused Fionnula (Rachel Poirier), a teenager “touched by God”, and told her and her three terrified sisters that if they talk, they will be transformed into wild beasts. Swans, whom Jimmy encounters when he takes his shotgun down to the lake, intending to end it all.

All of this is conveyed by means of Murfi’s confessional commentary – when the piece opens we see him tethered by the neck to a rock, wearing only stained underpants and bleating like a goat – and by Keegan-Dolan’s wild and expressive choreography, which is impelled by the skirl of an onstage fiddle band.

The birthday party is a ghastly affair. As Jimmy crouches on a breeze block in his tracksuit, sucking on a roll-up and downing cans of lager, his mother howls with baleful laughter, and the guests caper with drunken lust. At the height of the festivities, Fionnula emerges from a box. She and her sisters have been turned into swans. Not the downy princesses of the traditional ballet, but feral, rough-feathered creatures who hurl themselves about with clumping abandon. Fionnula and Jimmy dance a duet – a lovely thing, wheeling and curvetting and kissing – but neither Jimmy nor his happiness are long for this earth. This is a supremely artful production, earthed by the excoriating darkness of Murfi’s performance, and carried on the wings of vivid dance. Leonhartsberger’s Jimmy is exceptional, eloquent even when motionless, and Poirier and her sister swans are thrillingly wild and free.

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Swan Lake / Loch na hEala, Sadler’s Wells, London
“Michael Keegan-Dolan’s version of the classic ballet, told with Irish-Nordic folk music, builds to an unexpected moment of rapture”
Judith Mackrell, The Guardian, Mon 28 Nov 2016

Michael Keegan-Dolan has deep choreographic roots in the Irish Midlands – a world where ancient stories are ingrained in mist, bog and stone but where the politics and stridency of modern Ireland beget their own wild dramas. He’s used this world to superb effect in works such as Giselle and The Bull, but with this new reimagining of Swan Lake he elevates it to a place of bleak, funny and astoundingly poetic beauty.

Initially, there are no obvious traces of the original ballet in Loch na hEala. Tchaikovsky’s score has been replaced with Irish-Nordic folk music, played live on stage by the trio Slow Moving Clouds. The set is a brutalist assemblage of steel scaffolding and black plastic; and the work opens to the image of middle-aged actor Mikel Murfi, naked but for a pair of pants, tethered to a concrete block around which he bleats like a miserable old goat.

But over the course of this beautifully paced work, Keegan-Dolan fuses dance, music and text to bring his Swan Lake into indelible focus. His prince is Jimmy, an unemployed 36-year-old, who’s been left clinically depressed by the death of his father and by the decision of his mother, Nancy – an arthritic crone with a gaunt, grim sense of humour – to replace the family home with a council house. When Jimmy goes to the lake, it’s not to hunt swans but to kill himself.

The flock he encounters are four young women who’ve been cursed to take the form of birds. Their story is taken from the Irish legend the Children of Lir as well as from the original ballet, but their nemesis is now a Catholic priest who, having sexually abused the eldest, Fionnuala, transforms the quartet into birds to prevent them telling his secret. As played by the excellent Murfi, the priest also morphs into a shady local councillor and a bent police chief, two demons of modern Ireland who hound Jimmy to his death.

These characters are dovetailed into the story through blackly brilliant comic vignettes, but the essential greatness of this Swan Lake lies in the dreamlike plotting of Jimmy’s imaginative world and its atavistic, psychic resonances.

The four swans, wearing white convent frocks and hefting huge, bedraggled wings, are haunting presences, perched high above the stage or flocking in wary formation. Jimmy’s first duet with Fionnuala is both exquisite and raw, as these fugitive, damaged creatures discover each other in a choreography of flickering, frightened touch. The birthday party where Nancy tries to pair Jimmy off with a local girl is an oppressively vulgar carnival of gluttony and dance.

But if this Swan Lake seems to end with Jimmy’s death, it rises to an apotheosis of pure, visceral joy. Past yields to present and darkness gives way to light, as a snowstorm of feathers covers the stage and all 10 dancers and musicians unite in a larky Latin groove, which builds to a moment of rapture as unexpected as it is cathartic.

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