What state of mind does a man need to be in to a) want to shoot himself, and b) fall in love with a winged apparition? There are so many layers of brilliance in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s slaying production of Swan Lake/Loch na hEala that it’s hard to peel back any single one and not find others loosened. Yet, part of the power of this beautiful deconstruction of Tchaikovsky’s ballet comes from its determination to take the fairy tale’s absurdity seriously. The insight we get isn’t just about individual suffering; we’re given a vivid portrait of an aching, modern Ireland – one that grazes deep-seated pain.
Keegan-Dolan is an associate artist at Sadler’s Wells in London and has built an international reputation for his inventive choreography. But you don’t need to be any kind of dance expert or lover to be utterly gripped by this show − part of Toronto’s Luminato festival − which is as much a work of theatre as it is of movement. Told non-chronologically, the story’s catalyzing event occurs when a Catholic priest (Mikel Murfi) attempts to rape a beautiful teenaged girl named Finola (Rachel Poirier). When he’s interrupted by her three sisters, silent witnesses of his crime, he transforms all four girls into swans to keep them eternally quiet.
The stage brings to mind images from Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, a damaged landscape of ladders and cinder blocks suddenly illuminated by the imposing expanse of white wings overhead. The ballet’s Manichaean undertones of light and dark are poetically evoked; the swans perform trance-like dances in crisp schoolgirl frocks, while the bog is created by an ungainly black tarpaulin, a Garda police car depicted by an amplifier on wheels. Meanwhile, the prince is no melancholy aristocrat; he’s Jimmy O’Reilly (Alex Leonhartsberger), an unemployed 36-year-old in a tracksuit who’s been diagnosed with clinical depression. He lives with his disabled mother and ends up camping out on the roof of their home with his dead father’s shotgun.
The story is relayed like an Irish folk tale, set to haunting and melodic traditional music played by the Slow Moving Clouds trio, who are poised above the action upstage. But the writing is distinctly contemporary, full of bleak humour and wry characterizations. The narrative structure also feels of the here-and-now in the way it engages so clearly with the theme of reconciliation. The play begins with Murfi tethered to a cement brick that he circles in his underwear, bleating like a goat. He is freed, washed, slapped to his senses and dressed only so he can tell the tale of his own horrible transgressions, transforming into the priest who abuses Finola, then the policeman who chases Jimmy to his death.
When Jimmy meets Finola, she materializes like a guardian angel, swooping down from her perch to stop him from shooting himself in the mouth. But she’s also a traumatized victim of sexual abuse; again, Keegan-Dolan is taking the fairy-tale and holding it to genuine psychological scrutiny. The lovers occupy the real and fabular simultaneously and this adds to the richness of their flickering, tentative steps. In both realms, they are damaged and ostracized people, wondering whether they deserve to find love or, perhaps, are even capable of it.
Keegan-Dolan’s choreography has a bracing naturalness; it seems to draw its impulse from deep within the dancers’ bodies and evolve inside each person a bit differently. When the swans dance in unison, they are all uniquely themselves, their simple movements sentient and reactive and infused with subtle folk tones. The final pas de deux between Jimmy and Finola is both radiant and tragic. He clings to her with a desperation that will stay burned in my mind for ages.
Is there a timelier moment to watch an Irish production take on the tyranny of church and state? Although this stunning Swan Lake is full of darkness, it ends on a note of intense rapture. By manipulating all of the plastic and the tarpaulin onstage, the cast create a gyre of feathers that descend on the audience in an ecstatic snowfall. It can’t help but bring to mind another unforgettable Irish ending in which snow symbolizes the overlap of history, beauty and pain, and falls in equal measure on the living and the dead.
Swan Lake/Loch na hEala continues at the Bluma Appel Theatre until June 10.