A fine swan and dance: An Irish twist on Swan Lake

Michael Keegan-Dolan has put a very Irish twist on his contemporary take on Swan Lake. It’s been wowing audiences and critics alike, writes Alan O’Riordan.

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s uncompromising approach to dance theatre takes its latest form in Swan Lake/Loch na hEala. It debuted at the 2016 Dublin Theatre Festival and has been widely acclaimed in its travels since, including five-star reviews for its run at Sadlers Wells in London.

Now, it’s returning a little closer to the Irish midlands that inspired it, at Clonmel Junction Festival next week.

It might have its source in a famous ballet, but Keegan-Dolan’s work is far from tutus and arabesques. Its style is simple, its effect powerful.

It’s by turns bleak, funny and poetic as it deals with a wide range of material, from the Abbeylara shooting incident, to rural isolation, mental illness, political corruption and abuse.

“I never know what I’m doing,” Keegan-Dolan laughs when asked about approaching such a range of issues.

“I’m 48. I think if you pay attention, and are not attached to agendas like career or wanting to be rich and successful, the themes start to pick you.

“I didn’t think, oh, I’m ready to do this piece. I think I was ready and I did it. I think I’d lived long enough. I’d seen people die. I’d seen babies being born. I’d been through a lot. You feel like you’ve got nothing to lose then. And I felt very strongly about the issues in the show.”

Keegan-Dolan trained as a dancer and worked in that field from the very beginning of his career. Yet, for many years now, there has been much that is “writerly” in his work.

A fine swan and dance: An Irish twist on Swan Lake

Loch na hEala borrows from the Children of Lir, so that the contemporary-political is shadowed by a deep, mythic past, imperfectly buried. He did similar things with Giselle in 2003, and The Bull, a Celtic Tiger retelling of The Táin, in 2005.

Keegan-Dolan recalls working on a silent piece several years ago. “I remember feeling that the characters had this two-dimensional quality. If they were real characters they would have spoken to each other, they would have shouted and cursed.

"So, the next thing I did after that was Giselle, and I’d seen some really good Irish theatre. I’d just seen Bedbound (by Enda Walsh) and I remember thinking, why not just let them speak?

“I didn’t go to university. I worked in dance and music my whole career, so it’s amazing how you think, ‘I shouldn’t dare write, it’s for the intellectuals’. But I remember going to show Enda Walsh my script for Giselle and he told me, ‘Yeah, that’s f**king brilliant, just do it. Don’t think about it.’ And I did.”

Musically, Loch na hEala reaches out from Ireland to include Nordic influences, with a score by Cork musician Kevin Murphy’s group. Slow Moving Clouds.

Keegan-Dolan recalls a stint working in Denmark: “I couldn’t believe how brilliant Nordic folk music was. Like many Irish people, I assumed ours was the best in the world, but there are a lot of contenders.

I started looking for a fiddle player in Ireland and found Danny Diamond. And he just so happened to be in a band with this guy called Aki, from Finland, who plays the nyckelharpa, a medieval Swedish instrument, and it was just perfect.”

Rehearsals for Loch na hEala involved recruiting a troupe of dancers from several countries and having them live in Longford during as the company put the piece together. Perhaps as a result, the work simply oozes a sense of place. You can feel the earth underneath its fingernails.

“It’s a practical thing,” Keegan-Dolan says. “These are things we don’t maybe give a lot of thought to, but they are fundamental. Take a simple idea: I grow potatoes, carrots, that kind of thing. We eat that food. And the dancers and performers were fed that food too. We’re kind of eating Longford, that particular nature of the ground here. I think that really does influence the outcome, no more than the shape and acoustic of the room you’re in.”

The dancers used to live up at the top of the town and walk in in the mornings to the rehearsal room in the old army barracks.

“Their walks in affected the process that day — the people they met, the stories they came in what, what someone had said to them, how people spoke. I think you can slip into the mystical easily when you talk about that, but it is really tangible, actually.”

The long gestation of Loch na hEala saw it take on a number of potential forms. “In the end I went for a more direct, austere, simple production,” Keegan-Dolan says.

“Some of the company had fallen in love with a wild, looser version, but I wanted to keep it simple. It’s amazing how little is there when you think of all the process and work that went into it. What holds it together is the intensity of the performances. Simple things are incredibly challenging and often very beautiful. To do something simple well is quite humbling. So I find that very interesting — to try and go and realise it.”

  • Swan Lake/Loch na hEala is at Kickham Barracks for Clonal Junction Festival, July 5-7. junctionfestival.com

Clonmel Junction: Other highlights

  • Crash Ensemble Ireland’s leading contemporary-music ensemble are the artists in residence for CJ17. They’ll be putting soundscapes into the Black Sheep cafe, duets by cellist Kate Ellis and guest violinist Yuki Numata, and a free sunrise concert at St Patrick’s Well as part of their Crashlands series.
  • The Cave: Peter Broderick and Loah Mitchelstown Cave, July 7. Trek half a mile underground at Mitchelstown cave to find Sallay Matu Garnett, aka Loah, a Sierra Leonean/Irish singer, and the American multi-instrumentalist Peter Broderick. It’ll be chilly down there, but worth it for such a lineup.
  • Changeling The White Memorial July 7-8, Midnight: Stephanie Dufresne and Laura Sheeran return with this show for a second year. It’s an immersive exploration of the supernatural, the occult and the feminine, inspired by the story of Bridget Cleary, a Tipperary woman killed by her husband, who believed she was a changeling, in 1895.
  • The Humours of Bandon, July 4-7, Hickey’s Bakery, Fishamble present Margaret McCauliffe’s coming-of-age story, set in the world of children’s Irish dancing competitions.
  • Martin Hayes and David Power, Bakers Bar, July 6: Gloaming founder member Hayes is joined by uillean piper Power in what’s sure to be an evening of great trad music.
  • The Adventurous Life of an Iceland Sheep, LIT, July 7-9 A children’s show about Iceland seen through the eyes of its sheep. They travel around the country with children from the audience as part of the flock.

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