THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Swan Lake/Loch na hEala
The Irish company Fabulous Beast Theatre led by Michael Keegan-Dolan was hailed as one of the most daring and original dance theatre companies in the world, with productions which blended narrative and physical theatre, dance, speech and song. Three of their productions seen in London – Giselle (2003), The Bull (2005) and The Rite of Spring (2009) – were Olivier nominated and Keegan-Dolan is now an Associate Artist at Sadlers Wells. The legacy of Pina Bausch looms large in his work but with added splashes of dark melancholy, leavened by a wry Irish humour. The company has toured extensively all over the world and is a wondrous, polyglot, mix.
Phoenix-like he has re-invented Fabulous Beast as a new company called Teac Damsa (variation on Gaelic for "dance house") where he aims to deepen his connection between his dancing and his rural Irish roots. This move is very evident in his latest work which is a re-interpretation of Swan Lake, blending it with another fable about swans taking human form, the Irish legend of the Children of Lir and setting it in remote, rural Longford, where the company is based.
With its stripped-down rehearsal room aesthetic it may look like standard issue avant-garde but the piece is fully grounded in the original story. Instead of a lonely Prince Siegfried and his doomed Odette, we are deep in remote, rural, Longford. Jimmy O'Reilly (Alexander Leonhartsberger) is a lonely and depressed young man and on his birthday his mother tries to cheer him up with a party, inviting all the local single girls. But his only interest is the gift bestowed by her, his late father's shotgun. He escapes to a nearby lake, intending to end it all. There he encounters his Odette. Finola (Rachel Poirier), is a wraith of a girl, made into swan by the sinister local priest who also fell in love with her, until he was caught out and sought his revenge.
Dominating the piece is Mikel Murfi, one of Ireland's great actors, who not only narrates but covers a range of roles from the priest, to a local policemen, to a crooked local councillor (amusingly all called O'Loughlin), and even a tethered goat. It's a gloriously full blooded performance and it perfectly knits together the various strands here.
The script ingenuously integrates into this classic tale many themes of contemporary Ireland – clerical sexual abuse, young male depression, crony politics, ravaged rural communities – and it manages to do all this with wit. Fusing the local and the universal like this is a true hallmark of excellence.
Keegan-Dolan too has sensibly dispensed with Tchaikovsky and replaced it with a vibrant score of original compositions by the trio Slow Moving Clouds. The style is traditional Irish but as one of the musicians is Finnish there are strong Scandinavian influences, so we move from the liveliness of the céili to an achingly beautiful Nordic air.
In the company of the swans Jimmy feels alive for the first time and falls so deeply in love that it consumes him. The pas de deux to a Finnish song is ripe with romantic longing. Up till this the choreography seemed constrained by the sheer force of the narrative, commanded as it is by Murfi, but here it is given full flow. Earlier group dances share a primitive, ritualistic, style akin to Mark Morris in his full pantheistic mode.
At the end these two casualties of a corrupt, introspective, small town, come together in the afterlife in a joyous crescendo and the finale has a simple beauty that will linger long.