Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, Sadler’s Wells, London
“Agony meets ecstasy in radical Irish take on the ballet ”
, The Arts Review, 29 November 2016
This is a shining example of what contemporary dance should be doing, turning its face from the pressure to be beautiful in order to find something new.
Unwrapped: the swans ’emerge from the lake’ in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s reimagined ‘Swan Lake’photo: Laurie Lewis
Booking a ticket for a show devised by Michael Keegan-Dolan has always required an act of faith, and this is no exception. ‘If I say this is a house, it’s a house,” says the evening’s laconic compere, Mikel Murfi, gesturing with his cigarette to three breeze blocks on the floor. And if Keegan-Dolan says this is Swan Lake you’d better believe it and brace yourself for wrenching tragedy.
Keegan-Dolan has form. He brought London audiences the most striking take on The Rite of Spring in living memory as well as a compelling revision of Giselle which cast the title character as an Irish line-dancing teacher. What linked them was their mix of primitive, ritualistic choreography, rough-edged stage design and a willingness to connect old stories with current, often humdrum, lives.
The first surprise of this Swan Lake is that it echoes the plot points of its 19th-century forbear almost to the letter. There is a birthday party, oppressive obligation, a curse, a lake, transformative love and suicide. This story likewise hinges on a mother-son relationship that’s gone wrong before the story opens. In place of a prince, though, we get Jimmy (Alexander Leonhartsberger), a skulking depressive in a beanie hat who hasn’t got over the death of his dad and stays in bed a lot. His indomitable mother (Elizabeth Cameron Dalman) is more interested in getting the priest in to bless her new bungalow than in trying to understand the root of her son’s withdrawal. Thinking a birthday party might cheer him up, she makes him a present of his father’s old shotgun, buys in some beers and invites all the eligible local girls.
This might suggest a purely linear narrative, but we’re dealing with a free-range imagination here. Things happen that appear to have nothing to do with the story, vibrating at its edges like a constant hum. An early scene shows a man stripped to his underpants tethered by a rope and bleating like a sheep. We don’t see the sheep again, but the image, and the pathetic sound of it, create for us the empty rural landscape in which the story unfolds.
Some of it is chaotic, but even its messiness is thrilling
The narrator, seated at a microphone as if doing a comedy turn in a pub, leads us through some less familiar sub-themes – sexual abuse, superstition, religious sleaze – sometimes taking on key roles in the story: Catholic priest, politician, policeman. He even sings a verse or two of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, its plague-doom lyrics adding another layer of desolation to the story. So where, in all this, does the dance come in?
Roughly as in the original ballet: in groups dances, and in two pas de deux. The equivalent of the White Swan duet is particularly touching as Jimmy emerges from his depressed state to engage with the lovely but damaged Finola (Rachel Poirier), their duet almost entirely built on holding and cradling. A group dance for Finola and her sisters, dressed in white frocks as if for first communion, is another high point. Keegan-Dolan’s vocabulary is earthbound, ritualistic, a dance of stamping, shaking and reaching, but the effect of its repetitions is transporting.
Live musical support comes from the band Slow Moving Clouds, merging Celtic with Nordic traditions to create a plangent string sound that is predominantly dark until it bursts into a lighter mode for the show’s curiously optimistic, trippy finale. Not every moment of this extraordinary Swan Lake works. Some of it is chaotic, but even its messiness is thrilling, the imagery spawning multiple meanings, some of which prey on your mind hours afterwards.
Dance theatre as imaginative and risk-taking as this very rarely makes it on to big stages. But this is surely a shining example of what contemporary dance should be doing, turning its face from the pressure to be beautiful in order to find something new. If only as an antidote to the safe and the saccharine, this Swan Lake deserves another, longer visit to Sadler’s Wells.