Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A Wing and a Prayer: Ireland's Swan Lake

Alexander Leonhartsberger, Rachel Poirier, and Mikel Murfi in Swan Lake. (Photo: Marie Laure Brian)

An Irish Swan Lake floated into Toronto’s Luminato arts festival for five packed shows only, June 6-10, attracting both awestruck and baffled stares. An evocative piece of dance theatre created by choreographer and director Michael Keegan-Dolan (formerly of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre) and performed by the 13 dancers, actors and musicians in his Teac Damsa (House of Dance) company, the 75-minute production traversed a nonlinear path (hence the bafflement) and hypnotized with its dream-like sequences of stark, emotionally jarring imagery and performances both precise and raw.

Swan Lake / Loch na hEala remakes Tchaikovsky’s 1875 ballet not as a classical dance with pointe shoes but more as a multidisciplinary creation borrowing from the original to (likewise) explore the struggle between light and dark forces. Merging powerfully poignant contemporary dance with visceral storytelling and an original minimalist score created and performed live on stage by the Dublin trio, Slow Moving Clouds, this extraordinary work appeared as esoteric and stringently crafted as a Yeats poem: “A sudden blow: the great wings beating still / Above the staggering girl . . . ”


A Sadler’s Wells Theatre co-production, it offered an escape from pain (represented by a bleating half-naked man chained to a stone) as its universal theme and Ireland (magical and brutish) as the fertile ground for launching a journey into a fairy land of the imagination where mythology, Catholic guilt and the promise of redemption commingle. In this repressive but ultimately liberating Swan Lake, hope was a thing transmogrified. It flew like this:

A lascivious priest (actor Mikel Murfi) touches a girl (dancer Rachel Poirier) he should not, her little sisters watching amazed from the doorway of their shared bedroom as he does. He curses them, along with the object of his desire (he calls her his beloved), raging that he’ll see them turned into “dirty beasts” if they dare tell. Well, they must have told, for in the next scene all the girls are transformed into swans with large feathered wings and frightened, darting eyes.

The resurrection and transformation of Swan Lake. (Photo: Colm Hogan)

In a parallel world resides Jimmy O’Reilly (dancer Alex Leonhartsberger), the 36-year-old son of a man not a year dead, whose deep and dark depression his arthritic mother (Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, the 84-year-old founder of Australian Dance Theatre) hopes to dispel with a birthday party in his honour. As in the original ballet, the expressed expectation is that he should find a mate among the invited revellers, and settle down into normalcy. But  and again like the ballet – he is too distracted by grief to indulge his mother’s desire. Despondent Jimmy wanders into the forest with his birthday gift – his late father’s hand-oiled rifle (in the 19th century ballet the gift is a cross-bow) – and would kill himself save for the half-woman, half-bird creatures who flutter around him and intervene.

The winged girl – the priest’s sin and shame – becomes his fantasy lover. They dance a duet, smiles breaking across their faces as they together find respite from their respective oppression. Elsewhere, the priest sits grim-faced while a conniving politician who wants Jimmy’s father’s ancestral home finds an excuse to call the Garda. Jimmy is crazy. He’s got a gun. The story kerplunks from here – no surprise for those familiar with the ballet.

But the difference – a significant one – is that death here gives way to resurrection, and it is a glorious, uplifting thing, bathed in soft white feathers which the superb cast of players tosses by the armfuls into the air. Now it is the darkness that has been transformed. Innocence blinds like a blizzard.The atmosphere is bright, light, downy pure. Full of promise.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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