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.