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Reviews/Dance/Perth Festival

Stark, dark and utterly compelling

15 February 2019

Perth Festival review: Michael Keegan-Dolan and Teac Damsa, Swan Lake/Loch na hEala ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, 14 February ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

Anyone who saw Michael Keegan-Dolan’s dance theatre work Giselle at Perth Festival, back in 2009, will know that the Irish choreographer has the capacity to show us that the dark and often gruesome side of 19th century Gothic fairy-tale narratives lies just below the surface of contemporary life.

So it’s no surprise that his Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, created for his Ireland-based dance theatre company Teac Damsa, is laced with loneliness and grief, punctuated by violence. Instead of a castle we see an Irish housing estate. In place of a prince we have Jimmy O’Reilly (Alex Leonhartsberger), a 36-year old man emotionally paralysed by unemployment and the loss of his father.

The evil sorcerer is The Holy Man (Mikel Murfi); the story is his confession. In a flash-back scene we learn that he has sexually abused Finola (Rachel Poirier), a teenaged girl in his parish. When he realises that the crime has been witnessed by her three sisters he silences them with a curse that transforms all four girls into swans.

Years later, when Jimmy seeks solace at the local lake,  he is transfixed by the swan-woman Finola. And so the story unfolds but this is no escapist Romantic tragedy. Instead it’s a tale of the insidious nature of depression, of prejudice, and of corrupt power.

It would feel unrelentingly dark, but Keegan-Dolan tells this modern-day fable with a light touch. For starters, there’s a liberal sprinkling of humour. Then there’s the sparkling live music, composed by Dublin-based band Slow Moving Clouds and performed with zest by Aki (nyckelharpa, vocals), Mary Barnecutt (cello, vocals) and Danny Diamond (fiddle). The folk resonances of the tumbling score, with its yearning wordless calls and minor key melodies, are soothing as the story takes increasingly disturbing turns.

And, of course, there’s the dance, which interweaves the spoken narrative with curlicuing limbs and spiralling paths. It’s beautifully executed by the cast. As The First, Second and Third Watchers, Saku Koistinen, Zen Jefferson and Erik Nevin are lithe and nimble, while the swan sisters Kim Ceysens, Anna Kaszuba and Carys Staton, and Poirier are at once weighted and expansive, their arms extending with an airiness that belies their firmly grounded steps. With their broad-spanned swan wings (designed by Hyemi Shin) they are almost angelic.

Poirier and Leonhartsberger’s two duets are highlights, the first flinching and stuttering; the second softer and more supple, a moment of comfort before parting. Both dancers portray their vulnerable, damaged characters with poignancy and sensitivity.

As The Holy Man (and various other minor roles) Mikel Murfi is outstanding. This is no fantasy villain; chilling yet comical, his Holy Man is both repellent and believable. And Murfi is versatile; so swiftly and deftly does he switch between two conversing characters that we almost see two men on stage.

It’s a pleasure to see Australia’s own Elizabeth Cameron Dalman playing Jimmy’s widowed mother Nancy. At 84, this doyenne of contemporary dance inhabits the role with stoic grace. Her wonderfully expressive face speaks volumes and it’s a privilege to see her dance in the final scene, albeit briefly.

Though the feather-filled finale feels disconnected from the story’s tragic conclusion, it also allows viewers time to gather their thoughts and spirits. By curtain call on opening night, the audience was, justly, ecstatic.

Stark, dark and disturbing, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake is utterly compelling.

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala plays the State Theatre Centre of WA until February 17.

Pictured are Alex Leonhartsberger (Jimmy) and Rachel Poirier (Finola). Photo: Matt Grace.

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked for over a decade as an arts writer and critic. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. Since July 2016 Nina has also been co-editor of Dance Australia magazine. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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