Michael Keegan-Dolan put an Irish twist on Swan Lake to reclaim a story that existed long before the famous ballet. It comes to Cork for the Safe Harbour festival, writes Alan O’Riordan.
Lochna hEala, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s reinvention of Swan Lake, which strips away all classical ballet associations,and plants it firmly in Irish mythic soil, has surfed a wave of international acclaim for the past three years.
This month, it plays at the Cork Opera House, before touring in the US and Canada for six weeks, just as its creator puts the finishing touches on his latest work, MÁM, for the Dublin Theatre Festival.
Keegan-Dolan laughs when I suggest Loch na hEala is a damn good show, as it continues to clock up the miles. “I wouldn’t even use that word,” he says over the phone from Corca Dhuibhne, Co Kerry.
“It’s a pretty strange thing, but what I could say is that I’ve seen people being moved by it, inspired to talk about stuff they wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable to talk about.
Keegan-Dolan cites Hong Kong as an example of a place where the work chimed.
“That was pretty charged, as you can see now. It was just before all that kicked off. So there were a lot of interesting conversations aroundissues that resonated with people:police corruption, suicide, some upsetting and challenging subjects.”
Another byproduct of the show’s success, he says, is prestige opening nights at international festivals, where the uncompromising nature of the work has taken some by surprise.
“What happens on the first night,” he says, is “all these well-provided-for people will turn up and enter and are confronted by Mikel Murfi in his underpants, tied to a concrete block, bleeding like a goat for about 15 minutes.
"So we’ve had people leave even before we start! I’ve considered changing that, but in some ways it’s good that people who don’t want to be there get out.”
Murfi has been a stalwart of the show, but Keegan-Dolan is excited to see a new addition to the cast in Cork: Rosaleen Linehan. “I can’t wait to see it,” he says.
That high-profile addition aside, Keegan-Dolan says keeping Loch na hEala going is largely a work of continuity. Murfi, for instance, hasn’t missed a show. “We couldn’t do it without him,” he says.
“We wouldn’t. The dancers have others slip into their roles occasionally. But generally, it’s contingent on the people who made it.”
The original making of the piece brought dancers and musicians together in Keegan-Dolan’s former base in Longford, and the piece is tangibly of that place.
“I wanted to reclaim Swan Lake as a story,” he says.
“It existed a long time before Tchaikovsky and Reisinger got their hands on it. I don’t think the way it is told in the form of classical ballet does justice to the story. It has more power than that.
“That seems odd to me. I wanted to take it out of that world and place it more in the world I live in, to personalise it, in the hope that you make it more universal. It’s really important to ground the work somewhere.
"The more you ground it, the more potential it has to grow in numerous directions. Rooting it in one place made perfect sense to me.”
It’s interesting, then, with all this talk of rootedness, that Keegan-Dolan has recently uprooted himself and his company, Teac Damsa, and relocated to west Kerry, in the shadow of Mount Brandon.
As he prepares his new work, he’s repeating the same method honed in the Midlands: bringing a host of international dancers and musicians to the wild Atlantic shore, where they’re joining him and local concertina player Cormac Begley.
“It’s complex,” Keegan-Dolan says of the move.
“I inherited that house in Longford from my father. I fell in love with it as a child. Then I went to live there with my partner Rachel and we had two children there. Were stored the house and the land as best we could.
“There were always challenges, but I loved it. I did so much work there. Swan Lake was probably the final expression of that place, and I was happy with that.”
Keegan-Dolan has been engaging more with his sense of Irishness, he says, since working on the Rian piece with Liam O Maonlai back in 2011. “An obvious part of that process,” he says, “was to move to the Gaelteacht, so I explored that. I looked around and eventually found this house up Mount Brandon and bought it. I didn’t find it easy, but I’m not going back now. Through this new piece, I’m finding my place here.”
Keegan-Dolan is reluctant to say too much about the still-nebulous MÁM, premiering in Dublin at the end of the month.
“I’m a control freak by nature,” he says. “That’s probably why I became a choreographer. But as I get older, I’m getting better and the idea of letting go. I’ve been working on it for a while but to talk about it is challenging. I might get it wrong! But what is it about essentially?
“These are literally heightened places, but because they are high they are elemental, and also very beautiful and wild.
"There are superstitious and stories connected to them. They’d be places where two tribes might meet or where the puka would hang around to scare the shite out of you. I’m interested in that idea of meeting.”
Though he’s welcoming collaborators from all over the world, the new piece, Keegan-Dolan says, is deeply connected with his move.
“West Kerry has this great potential to remind you of your insignificance,” he says.
🔸Offering a 3-course dinner at 6pm followed by the show for just €55, Wed 12 Sept, book today by calling: 021 427 7939 pic.twitter.com/mRaZScrEt6— Sounds from a Safe Harbour (@SafeHarbourFest) August 28, 2019
“I’m looking out now, the North Atlantic is just fucking huge. It can provoke a kind of fear of annihilation in one, quite strongly. But that is a good thing. It makes you awake, it makes you want to live.”
It’s likely that people in Cork will have the same reaction to Loch na hEala.
Loch na hEala is at Cork Opera House on Sept 10-12 as part of the Sounds From a Safe Harbour festival.MÁM is at the O’Reilly Theatre as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. It previews from September 25, with performances on September 27-29 and October 1-5.