Luminato 2018 Dancetheatre Review: Swan Lake/Loch na hEala (Teac Damsa

Alex Leonhartsberger and Rachel Poirier
Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou

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.

Mikel Murfi
Photo: Marie-Laure Briane

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.

Elizabeth Cameron Dalman
Photo: Marie-Laure Briane

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.

Photo: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

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.






(5 Star Rating System)

LondonRoadCanadian Stage. LONDON ROAD (4 ½ stars). Run don’t walk to see one of the most unusual shows in town that is soon to close. The serial killer of five prostitutes in Ipswich, England, had a flat on London Road. Verbatim playwright Alecky Blythe interviewed residents of the street to capture what they went through during the investigation, arrest and trial. These conversations were then set to music by composer Adam Cork. The resulting sung monologues/dialogues are astonishing in their reality. The cast is unbelievable (all kinds of Stratford/Shaw types), gilded by director Jackie Maxwell and her Shaw Festival music director Reza Jacobs. The costumes and the set are terrific. I’m deducting marks for some impenetrable accents. Nonetheless, once again, CanStage scores big with a North American premiere. (Written by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork, directed by Jackie Maxwell, Closes Feb. 9, Bluma Appel Theatre,

Tarragon Theatre. FLESH AND OTHER FRAGMENTS OF LOVE (3 stars). Evelyne de la Chenelière is one of Quebec’s foremost playwrights, but she falters on this latest offering. The play is inspired by a novel by French writer Marie Cardinal, and dabbles in magic realism. A troubled French couple (Blair Williams and Maria del Mar) is on vacation in a remote part of Ireland, when the husband finds a dead body washed ashore on the beach. The corpse is Mary (Nicole Underhay), a medical student and single mother. Pierre and Simone begin to make up a back story for Mary influenced by their own negative experiences, while Mary herself speaks about her own life and that of Pierre and Simone. Karyn McCallum’s set and costumes are arresting, but the text itself runs out of steam. Richard Rose’s direction seems a tad on the slow side. (Written by Evelyne de la Chenelière, directed by Richard Rose, Tarragon Theatre, Jan. 7 to Feb. 16, 2014,

Soulpepper. IDIOT’S DELIGHT (2 ½ stars). This is another one of Soulpepper’s irritating productions – good intentions that fizzle out. The very successful play, written in 1936, by Robert Sherwood, actually anticipated World War 2, and which side various countries would end up on. Sherwood also adapted his play for the MGM all-star movie featuring Clark Gable and Norma Schearer, directed by Clarence Brown. Director Albert Schultz’s version doesn’t come even close. The Soulpepper production is beset by uneven acting and insipid direction. More to the point, Raquel Duffy, in the key role of Irene cannot be heard. Doesn’t anyone at Soulpepper actually do a voice check in the theatre? Some like Dan Chameroy, and particularly Evan Buliung, rise above the fray, but there is no sense of an ensemble. The play is one where a group of people end up being marooned together (in this case, an alpine resort on the northern Italian border), and collisions of ideas happen. The recipe is here for intense interaction, but this whole production is paint by numbers. And then there is Lorenzo Savoini’s set that looks like a giant tiled washroom. Soulpepper gets a plus mark for putting this rarity on the stage, but not for the production. (Written by Robert E. Sherwood, directed by Albert Schultz, Jan. 30 to Mar. 1, 2014,

Tarragon/Theatre Smash. THE UGLY ONE (4 stars). This revival from 2011 retains the original cast and creative team, all to good advantage. German playwright Marius von Mayenburg has written a fable that deals with important issues like image, identity and perception. The plot begins with an inventor who works for a large corporation. His boss will not let him present his discovery at a convention because he’s too ugly. And so begins von Mayenburg’s twists and turns which also take on the whole obsession with plastic surgery. The acting is superb, while Ashlie Corcoran directs with both passion and humour. The play is short, sweet, and packs a wallop. (Written by Marius von Mayenburg, directed by Ashlie Corcoran, Jan. 7 to Feb. 16, 2014,

Nightwood Theatre. FREE OUTGOING (3 ½ stars). The over the top melodrama of Bollywood movies carries over into this play whose premise is that a teenage girl’s sexual encounter ends up on youtube. Indian writer Anupama Chandrasekher has set the play in the conservative city of Chennai (where she is based), and the action is relentless as the fallout spirals out of control. From the neighbours who want the family kicked out of the apartment building, to the hungry media and their feeding frenzy, the consequences are extreme for everyone involved. Anusree Roy as the mother gives another of her sterling performances. (Written by Anupama Chandrasekhar, directed by Kelly Thornton, Factory Theatre, Jan. 28 to Feb. 16, 2014,