The point of a festival is seeing performing arts that are different or unique to showings in your own town – or why have a festival at all? With this statement as a dictum, let’s look at one of the opening shows of Luminato 2018 – Swan Lake/Loch na hEala. As it happens, the production is perfect festival fare.
The dancetheatre piece is the brainchild of writer, director, choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan, artistic director of the Irish-based company Teac Damsa (Gaelic for House of the Dance). Keegan-Dolan’s mandate, according to the program notes, is to forge a deeper connection to Ireland’s cultural roots, native traditions, language and rich musical heritage. In Swan Lake, he manages to do just that and more.
The best way to describe Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake is a fusion of dark contemporary reality, Irish story-telling and mythology, and the plot of Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet (the latter providing the sub-structure of the piece). The locale has been moved to the Irish midlands from a dark Germanic forest. Instead of the restless Prince Siegfried, we have the deeply depressed, suicidal 36-year-old Jimmy O’Reilly (Austrian Alex Leonhartsberger). Everyone thinks Jimmy is “mental” because he’s being treated with opioids. The swan queen Odette (French Rachel Poirier) is now a young girl, Finola, who has been sexually abused by the local priest, and transformed by him, along with her three younger sisters, into mute swans to ensure their silence. The evil sorcerer von Rothbart is incarnated into the perverted priest, a shifty, opportunistic county councillor, and a trigger-happy policeman.
Charismatic actor Mikel Murfi who plays all three roles is listed in the program as The Holy Man, an ironic label if ever there was one. He is also the narrator who describes the events throughout, and his compelling performance anchors the production. He also has a fourth role. As the audience enters the theatre, Murfi, garbed only in loincloth underpants, has a rope around his neck attached to a concrete block. He is baa-ing (like a sheep) or bleating (like a goat) – he sounds and moves like both – but whichever you believe he is, his symbolism dictates man as animal which can be read in many ways, from sacrificial lamb or Judas goat, to unbridled male bestiality.
The only other speaking role is Jimmy’s wheelchair-bound, arthritic mother Nancy O’Reilly played by Australian dance icon Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, who is apparently 83-years-old. Nancy, in a way, causes Jimmy’s acute depression. He still hasn’t got over his father’s death a year ago, when she announces she wants to tear down the old homestead, which Jimmy loves, and replace it with a modern, but characterless council house. Like the Queen Mother in the original Swan Lake, Nancy organizes Jimmy’s birthday party, which includes eligible young women because she wants to see him married. Instead of a bow and arrows, Jimmy gets his father’s shotgun as a present.
The Dublin-based Nordic/Irish folk band, with the wonderful name of Slow Moving Clouds, provides the haunting original score which is one of the glories of the work. Kudos to violinist Danny Diamond, cellist Mary Barnecutt and Finnish-born Aki, who plays the nyckelharpa, an ancient Swedish traditional folk instrument, which produces a mournful sound much like a hurdy-gurdy. These three musicians together produce the saddest music imaginable.
The dance component is a constant under The Holy Man’s storytelling. Keegan-Dolan has fashioned choreography that is more folk and ritual than it is recognizable contemporary dance or ballet. Besides Jimmy and Finola, the cast contains three female and three male dancers who help augment the story line through dance. Traditional is a good way to describe the movement with its circles and synchronization.
Sabine Dargent’s set design is suitably stark – just four ladders of varying heights holding the bedraggled wings of the swans, and a back riser for the musicians. Hyemi Shin’s black and white costume design carries on the bleakness of the mood. It should be mentioned that there is humour in the piece, although it is of the noir type, such as Keegan-Dolan’s choreography for three possible brides at the party who are grotesquely portrayed by men.
The show abounds in clever symbolic imagery. Jimmy’s beloved homestead is represented by several concrete blocks and Keegan-Dolan has given his character startling movement patterns over, on and around these blocks. The four swans’ enchantment is shown by their being cocooned within a sheet of white plastic. Whether Jimmy sees Finola for real, or as part of his opioid-induced vision, their two pas de deux are heart-wrenching, even traumatic. Their solace is fleeting. Finola may have stopped Jimmy from killing himself, but, needless to say, their story ends badly with Jimmy shot to death by the Garda.
As for the work’s contemporary themes – clinical depression, the opioid crisis, and clergy abuse are ripped out of today’s headlines. In fact, Keegan-Dolan has included a rather poetic program note about depression, and moving past it, and to prove that there is light beyond the darkness – just as the original Swan Lake ends with the apotheosis of Siegfried and his Swan Queen ascending to heaven, Keegan-Dolan has created an apotheosis of his own. The entire cast of actors, dancers and musicians swirl around the stage in a frenzy, hurling a deluge of white feathers every which way until they are barely visible in the whiteout.
Luminato 2018, Swan Lake/Loch na hEala (Teac Damsa), written, directed and choreographed by Michael Keegan-Dolan, Bluma Appel Theatre, Jun. 6 to 10.