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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.

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Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, Sadler’s Wells, London
“ ‘Dazzling’ Michael Keegan-Dolan’s ballet is a stunning exercise in theatrical sleight of hand”
Clement Crisp, The Financial Times, November 28, 2016

Now here’s an astonishment, a heart-stirrer. The Irish choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan has shown us amazing theatrical things in the past — his The Rite of Spring an unabashed masterpiece; such stagings as The Bull and his deconstructed Giselle of marvellous verve and insights into Irish life. Now he has taken on ballet’s most popular text. Yes: Swan Lake. Abused in theme, choreographically maltreated and mindlessly danced by ballet troupes worldwide, it is here turned inside out, given a new score, new text, new dramatic implications, new urgency, new life, in a ferocious, heart-rending and beautiful recension.

A bare stage with ladders and a vast swan’s wing hoisted above; three musicians; lurking accessories; a woman in a wheelchair; a man in middle-life, roped to a heavy block, gabbling in despair; another — isolated — man. Three men and four young women emerge, as — so subtly, so deviously — does an eventual narrative which old Swan Lake hands will recognise as a skeletal relic of the ballet’s themes. Keegan-Dolan introduces his own concerns: about Irish country life, about a priest’s infatuation with and abuse of a girl (the Odette/von Rothbart theme in the ballet), about political manipulation of situations, and then contrives to give us a manic display of vile social manners, which is the ballet’s third-act ball. And poor hero-victim Jimmy — inert with depression, frustration, and armed with a shotgun (the ballet’s hapless Prince Siegfried and his crossbow) — must ever suffer. There is much more to echo in our understanding of Dolan’s skeletal text, his hallucinatory staging, his reverberant and dazzling dramatic effects. This is a stunning exercise in theatrical sleight of hand, in deconstruction as creation, and it is superbly made and superbly performed with, at its centre, Mikel Murfi as a dazzlingly cussed von Rothbart figure. In everything, the splendid musicians and actor-dancers command our admiration. The final theatrical trick — and this is a staging where austerity is the cleverest trick of all — is a tremendous storm of white feathers thrown by the cast. A snowfall, and the last surrender of the old ballet’s identity.

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Swan Lake / Loch na hEala, O’Reilly Theatre
“ raw, raucous, redemptive, majestic, vital and empowering”
Sara Keating, The Irish Times, Mon, Oct 3, 2016

“If I say this is a house, it’s a house,” says Mikel Murfi, gesturing to two concrete blocks that fall with shocking weight upon the stage, making a noise that cracks like gunfire. Murfi plays the role of Seanchai in this new production by director and choreographer Michael Keegan Dolan.

If he says it is a version of the story-ballet Swan Lake, so it is, but there is little classical romance in the choreography and even less in the dark fairy tale the company create on stage.

Loch na hEala is not a reflective pool but a midlands mire, a giant black plastic sheet that is summoned before us by four dancers with tattered wings. In this bleak and practical landscape, Murfi, moving between characters (the priest, the politician, the policeman; all hilariously called O’Loughlin) introduces us to a scattershot narrative that involves incest, corruption, violence, depression, property – all the favourite Irish themes – but their iteration here is entirely original. Crucially, there is a lot of humour to leaven the darkness, and a lot of beauty to counter the ruin.

Keegan Dolan’s generous choreography grabs gestures from both a traditional and a modern register. The traditional elements are primitive, ritualistic, a contrast between low earthbound squats and a skyward reach.

There is so much going on on stage that it can be difficult to know where to direct your gaze, but, as the story strands develop, the lack of focus becomes less important than the concrete moments that the audience can take hold of: Slow Moving Cloud’s grounding Gothic score, which extends the Celtic flavour with Nordic inspiration; Hyemi Shin’s artfully simple costumes; the fluidity of Rachel Poirier and Alexander Leonhartsberger’s pas-de-deux; the joyous crescendo of the astonishing finale.

Swan Lake/Lough na hEala is raw, raucous, redemptive, majestic, vital and empowering. It is not always coherent but even then it is an extraordinary, beautiful mess.

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Swan Lake/ Loch na hEala, O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin Theatre Festival
“Utterly original, utterly brilliant”
Sophie Gorman, Irish Independent, October 3 2016

A man in white underpants with a noose around his neck is tethered to a block of cement in the middle of an almost empty stage

He is circling in distress and bleating like an anguished goat. Three men in black suits arrive wearing wide-brimmed hats. They wash and dress the man. And then he starts to speak. He is our narrator, the Holy Man.

He tells us the story of Jimmy O’Reilly, a 36 year-old-man who lives alone with his wheelchair-bound mother Nancy since the death of his father. His mother wants him to marry, but Jimmy is suffering from extreme depression. It is his birthday and his mother tries to cheer him up with a party, inviting all the local single ladies. But all Jimmy is interested in is the shotgun, a birthday present from his mother. He escapes and goes to the nearby swan lake intending never to return.

But Jimmy suddenly feels alive with the swans and he falls in love so deeply and truly that it consumes him. The subject of his love is Finola, a girl made into swan by the sinister Holy Man when he too fell in love with her and realised it was a love that could never be. These two broken people, Jimmy and Finola, come together and are made whole.

This is a violent retelling of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, both emotionally and physically. Our hearts are with Jimmy and Finola and they shatter with their conclusion, only to rise again impossibly exuberantly in the joyous afterlife.

Michael Keegan-Dolan has radically reinvented classics before and here too he uses the skeleton of the original story and builds innovatively upon it. He has bravely done away with the familiar score and replaced it with original compositions by the trio Slow Moving Clouds. Their often heart-wrenching songs marry Irish and Scandinavian sensibilities, we go from the liveliness of a ceili to the bleak solitude of a Bergman film.

Keegan-Dolan requires much of his versatile cast too, they must not only dance, they must act and clown and sing. And they all rise to the challenge. Mikel Murfi as the Holy Man has possibly never been better, he is as charming as he is revolting.

This Swan Lake is utterly rooted in Ireland, it is utterly original, it is utterly brilliant.

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