‘Swan Lake’ Irish-style leaves one both breathless and enchanted

by Sean Hillen

Such is the stinging satire – cloaked in elegance – of Michael-Keegan-Dolan’s ‘Swan Lake’ (Loch na hEala) about his native country, this contemporary dance-drama production at An Grianan Theatre in Donegal could quite easily be re-named ‘Swansong for Ireland.’

While corruption has been a murky element of Irish life for generations, the excesses, especially those involved in the rise of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy, revealed just how engrained sleaze has become within a once-trusted cadre of leaders including police, politicians and priests.

Inspired partly by swans gathering near his home in Longford, Ireland, Keegan-Dolan uses the physical besmirching of innocence and beauty allegorically to show how such social ugliness has permeated the very fabric of Ireland today, sullying institutions Irish people once held in high esteem.

Swan Lake at An Grianan Theatre, Irish ballet

Photos used with permission from An Grianan Theater

The innovative manner in which ‘Swan Lake’ opens presages dark forces at work. As people enter the theatre, the grim scene that greets them is of a middle-aged man (actor Mikel Murfi), clad only in white underpants, a rope tied around his neck and anchored to a concrete block, bleating like a goat as he paces miserably around. Nearby sits a somber, gray-haired woman, barefoot in a black dress, sitting in a wheelchair, staring wide-eyed, lost in her own world. A third character, a young bearded man in plain tracksuit, enters and sits down. He, too, stares vacantly into space. All, as viewers find out soon enough, are tragic, flawed characters.

In this innovative production featuring flowing plastic sheets replicating forest and lake, musicians seated on steel-scaffolding and white-cloaked angels with impressive wings perched on step-ladders, Keegan-Dolan targets the guilty – the pedophile priest, the shifty councilor and the crooked policeman. In doing so, he also highlights the banes of modern Ireland – growing insensitivity toward the homeless and the mentally ill and the slow destruction of rural life.

Mikel Murfi in Swan Lake, Slow Moving Clouds music

Don’t expect a 19th century Tchaikovsky performance with orchestral niceties, cou-de-pieds, demi-plies and tutus. While storyline elements of the classic ballet remain, this version also borrows from the ancient Irish legend, ‘Children of Lir,’ about swans turned to stone who eventually perish. The prince in ‘Loch na hEala’ is Jimmy O’Reilly, an unemployed 36-year-old, played by Alex Leonhartsberger, left depressed by his father’s death and his mother’s decision to replace their family home with a council house. Unlike Siegfried in the ballet, when Jimmy goes to the lake, he’s not there looking for swans, he’s looking to kill himself.

The swans, played by Rachel Poirier, Carys Staton, Molly Walker and Anna Kaszuba from Teaċ Daṁsa, haunt the stage, perched on ladders or flocking together in tantalizing formations.

One of the highlights of the performance is the ‘love dance’ between Jimmy and Finola (Poirier), an intricate, delicate duet, their every movement filled with raw expressive emotion. In contrast, a birthday party hosted by the mother (queen in the ballet), a desperate attempt to find Jimmy a wife, is a scene of excess, binge drinking and crude sexuality.

Integral to the overall atmosphere of the performance, is the musicianship of ‘Slow Moving Clouds,’ a talented trio of Danny Diamond, Mary Barnecutt and and Aki, who have created a mood-inducing fusion of Nordic and Irish folk, both earthy and ethereal.

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake

Kudos go to Murfi, a fine narrator who also plays policeman, priest and politician with panache and no lack of vitriol, as well as to Australian dancer and director Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, now in her 80s, as the manipulative mother.

As for the ‘watchers’ played exceptionally by Saku Koistinen, Zen Jefferson and Erik Nevin, their role is both intriguing and somewhat elusive, their treatment of the Holy Man highly symbolic.

Such is the spirit and verve of the finale, it would be a spoiler to describe it here. Suffice to say, it could be described as a ‘soft snowstorm of catharsis,’ one I hasten to admit left me somewhat bewildered as to its true meaning.

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