Swan Lake/Loch na hEala
Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
30th August 2017
In the field of dance theatre, Teac Damsa’s production of Swan Lake/Loch na hEala is up there with the best. Writer, director and choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan interweaves three narratives from different eras and cultures in a way that draws their commonalities to your attention. This is no Swan Lake in the traditional sense. There are no tutus, no Tchaikovsky and no pointed toes. The movement is light, but grounded, and the mimetic possibilities of storytelling through movement take precedence over physical virtuosity.
The key protagonist in this narrative is Jimmy O’Reilly, a young man in contemporary Ireland who is depressed following the death of his father, and pressured by his mother Nancy to find himself a woman. Nancy O’Reilly holds a party for her son at which a number of potential partners are invited (shades of Siegfried anyone….?) but this is a tragedy; and as the story unfolds Jimmy’s misfortunes play out through a series of encounters with other characters. He finds solace briefly in the winged arms of Finola, a sexually abused young woman rendered mute and transformed into a swan by a Rothbart-like figure known as the Holy Man. (As in Irish legend the Children of Lir, Finola and her three siblings are children robbed of their human lives by the machinations of a malevolent figure.)
Actor Mikel Murfi plays a key role in the narration of this story. He plays the Holy Man as well as a number of other subsidiary characters (the councillor, doctor and sergeant) and his ability to switch between clearly defined characters in an instant is astonishing. In the roles of Jimmy O’Reilly and Finola, Alexander Leonhartsberger and Rachel Poirier are both expressive and eloquent. Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, a pioneer of contemporary dance in Australia, plays Jimmy’s mother, Nancy O’Reilly (who spends most of the work in a wheelchair) with a mixture of apprehension and protectiveness. With a relatively small cast of 10 performers and three musicians, dancers do take on different characters, singing, speaking and changing costume onstage as the narrative requires. There is also an element of gender bending as the three male Watchers take on the role of Jimmy’s eager female suitors at two separate points in the show.
The music is a percussive, folk-dance piece, composed and performed specifically for this work by Dublin based trio Slow Moving Clouds; the musicians take their place on stage with the dancers, moving around at various points to become part of the narrative, eg. moving into the circle of guests at Jimmy’s party. The set design (by Sabine Dargent) is basic, with minimal attempt made to transform the stage space into another time or place. Items like storage boxes on wheels and hollowed out concrete blocks are used as key props, stimulating the audience’s imagination to view them not as they are, but in the context with which they are used. The costumes are a study of tonal contrasts, mainly black, white and grey with the occasional colourful item (a Hi-vis vest for example) used to emphasise a performer’s character change.
Although Swan Lake/Loch na hEala touches on themes including sexual abuse, depression and suicide, these darker elements are well balanced by moments of humour and sheer beauty. An example of this was the closing scene in which performers threw white feathers over the stage and danced amongst swirling eddies of movement made visible by the spiralling feathers drifting through the air.
- GERALDINE HIGGINSON