Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake/Loch na hEala Fails to Transcend or Redeem

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake/Loch na hEala: Sadler’s Wells, London, 30.11.2017. (J.O’D)

Austrian dancer Alexander Leonhartsberger (L) and Canadian dancer Rachael Poirier perform a scene from Michael Keegan-Dolan's adaptation of Swan Lake (Loch na hEala), during a press preview at Sadler's Wells theatre in London on November 25, 2016. / AFP / Justin TALLIS / EDITORIAL USE ONLY        (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Alexander Leonhartsberger & Rachael Poirier in Swan Lake (Loch na hEala)
(c) JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

Cast: Mikel Murfi, Rachel Poirier, Alexander Leonhartsberger, Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, Anna Kaszuba, Carys Staton, Molly Walker, Saku Koistinen, Zen Jefferson, Erik Nevin

Musicians: Aki (nyckelharpa), Mary Barnecutt (cello), Danny Diamond (fiddle)


Writer, Director and Choreographer – Michael Keegan-Dolan
Set Design – Sabine Dargent
Costume Design – Hyemi Shin
Lighting Design – Adam Silverman
Music – Slow Moving Clouds

‘I’m not saying anything until I get a cup of tea,’ declares Mikel Murfi towards the start of this reworking of Swan Lake, set in Ireland’s County Longford. When supplied with one by a fellow performer, Murfi barely stops talking for the next seventy-five minutes. As the child-abusing ‘Holy Man’, as a local councillor, as voices coming out of the radio, his amplified brogue is almost ever-present. After using movement so eloquently with his own, defunct, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre company in The Rite of Spring & Petrushka (2009), and with the National Youth Dance Company in In-Nocentes (2016), choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan decides, here, not to let dance speak for itself.

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala was performed to much acclaim at Sadler’s Wells a year ago. The audience, this year, greeted it with standing ovations. For this reviewer, Murfi’s role overwhelms the work, making its focus unclear. No single piece of music, such as the Stravinsky scores for The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, or Max Richter’s ‘The Four Seasons’ for In-Nocentes, provides a unifying framework. Only when Rachel Poirier, as the sexually abused Finola (Odile/Odette) encounters Alexander Leonhartsberger, as the depressed Jimmy O’Reilly (Siegfried), does the dance become poetic. In their ‘white’ and ‘black’ pas de deux by the lake, these veteran Keegan-Dolan performers embody the sweep and depth of the choreographer’s movement style.

The programme notes refer to awards for Best Production and Best Costume Design. In its use of black and white the piece is striking. Pairs of white wings hang from metal step ladders as the cast gathers on the stage. Velvety black curtains rise up at the sides and back to indicate that the action, proper, is about to start. Finola and her sisters (the Swans) wear First Holy Communion dresses. The white wings they put on at the start will be exchanged for black wings later on. The ‘lake’ is a sheet of black plastic.

Much of what happens, though, seems extraneous. Keegan-Dolan borrows from his own The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, but the tea and cigarettes and men changing into women’s clothes onstage have less effect, here, than in the earlier work. ‘Brr-Brr’ noises by three dancers, to indicate the sound of the local councillor’s car, are simply childish. The piece works best in references to Swan Lake. Jimmy’s widowed mother gives him a shotgun for his birthday, just as the Queen gives Siegfried a crossbow. A potential bride is to be looked for in the cleaning woman, rather than in a visiting princess.

The Holy Man’s confession of his abuse of Finola, and threats to her sisters who witness it, is harrowing. At the end of the piece, Jimmy lies dead. For reasons of his own, Keegan-Dolan rushes everyone off to a lengthy coda, redolent again of The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, which sees them throwing what looks like white feathers about the stage and out into the auditorium. The feathers are beautiful. The coda is wordless. But the transcendence or redemption it seems to suggest has not, for this reviewer, been earned.

John O’Dwyer

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