Michael Keegan-Dolan’s haunting Swan Lake set in the bleak Irish Midlands has a short season at the Opera House.

Irish director and choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan has established an international reputation for transforming old ballets into something new. In his reimagining of Giselle, which played at the 2010 Sydney Festival, Giselle was an Irish line-dancing teacher, for instance. His contemporary Romeo and Juliet featured suburban neighbours from hell.

So, anyone familiar with his work will know not to expect white tutus and Tchaikovsky in his reimagining of Swan Lake – Loch na hEala, which has four performances at the Sydney Opera House from August 30 after a critically acclaimed season at London’s Sadler’s Wells in December 2016 and sold out performances around Europe.

Reviews from the UK were wildly enthusiastic, many awarding it five stars. The Financial Times said that it “rolls drama, dance and music together to create a haunted and haunting piece.” The Irish Times called it “raw, raucous, redemptive, majestic, vital and empowering”, The Independent thought it “utterly original, utterly beautiful”, while The Observer called it “a thing of wonder”.

Like many of his productions, Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake/Loch na hEala is set in the Irish Midlands. Though wildly different to the traditional 19th-century ballet in many respects, it retains the key plot points: a birthday party for a young man, a curse, women transformed into swans, and a suicide at a lake.

“I googled Swan Lake and there’s so much great information about it, so I looked at all the different versions of the story and most of the versions are the same up until the ending [which] got changed into a happy ending once it came out of Russia into North America. But initially, the ending was pretty sad,” says Keegan-Dolan over the phone from Ireland.

 “I approached it as if it were a tragedy. All the characters are there [though] I’ve given them different names. Classical ballet, in my view, has many weaknesses and failings, but one of them is how they do theatre and how they handle character. The inner life of the characters is neglected, and so it can be very unsatisfactory.”

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala. Photograph: supplied

In Keegan-Dolan’s retelling, instead of Prince Siegfried we have Jimmy, a depressed young bloke in a beanie who hasn’t got over his father’s death. His domineering, wheel-chair bound mother organises a birthday party to try and cheer him up, stocks up on beer and invites all the local girls. She also gives him his father’s shotgun as a present. The local priest, meanwhile, has sexually abused young Fionnuala. To stop her revealing the terrible secret, he has transformed her and her sisters into swans. When Jimmy goes to the lake intending to end it all, he encounters the feral creatures and falls for Fionnuala.

Keegan-Dolan was born in Dublin in 1969. At age 17, he won a scholarship to the Central School of Ballet. Emerging three years later with no interest in classical ballet, he worked with other choreographers but found much of the work frustrating so in 1997 he formed his own Irish-based company Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre – described by The Times as “one of the most daring and highly original dance companies in the world” – which he ran until 2015. In 2016, the company was renamed Teaċ Daṁsa.

For the past decade, he has lived in County Longford in the Irish Midlands, where Swan Lake/Loch na hEala is set, with his dancer wife Rachel Poirier and their two children. “I used to think it was very important not to set things in specific places, because it gave too many people targets for their criticisms or their rejection of the work. But I thought it was important now to have the confidence to go ‘it’s here’, and I suppose it’s significant that I’m actually leaving the place I spent the last 12 years living, which is where my ancestors lived. I’ve been living in the cottage my great, great grandfather built, around 1770,” he says.

“I’m going to the coast, I’m going away from civilisation to Dingle in the southwest of Ireland. [There’s a] different kind of energy there, mountain and ocean energy, and quite an influx of tourism in the summer, so it’s quite a different chemistry. In the Midlands, it’s very flat and wet and there’s very little movement in and out. Most people are leaving, so it has a bleaker, sadder feel.”

For Swan Lake/Loch na hEala Keegan-Dolan has looked to Irish mythology as well as the story of the original ballet. “There are several Irish myths that involve swans and, looking back to my own childhood, and just thinking about how I saw the world, I for sure saw swans as important and beautiful. Certain animals you would never think about eating. I think that’s significant. I would never in a million years think of harming or going near a swan,” he says.

“I guess that’s passed on, that wisdom. The story that I used in my work was The Children of Lir – and every child in Ireland learns it before they’re seven. It’s about a woman who marries a king whose wife has died, and she’s jealous of his relationship with his four children. She’s going to kill the children, but she loses her confidence and changes them into swans for 900 years. All those myths have been Christianised since Ireland became a Christian country, so at the end of that myth now the swans are found by a saint, probably St Patrick, and they’re brought back into human bodies and then they die and ascend into heaven,” says Keegan-Dolan.

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala. Photograph supplied

His own version ends with an ascent into heaven that Bachtrack described as “unexpected, unashamedly silly and one of the most gloriously beautiful and life-enhancing sequences I have ever seen”, while The Guardian called it “an apotheosis of pure, visceral joy… a moment of rapture as unexpected as it is cathartic.”

“That ending was challenging because I’m not religious in that way, and I think some people have interpreted it as the Catholic or Christian idea that there’s heavenly existence waiting for you in spite of everything you’ve done in this reality,” says Keegan-Dolan.

“I don’t subscribe to that idea at all, but I think [that an exploration of] mental illness was very much part of this process, specifically depression. I had this idea that if you somehow could find your way through depression, then at the end there is great hope. Hope is the wrong word, but when you come through a very difficult transition in your life, often life is much richer, and much less challenging and frightening.”

“People who have seen a lot of pain in their lives and have somehow moved on from it are often very nice people to be around. They’re wise and compassionate, and I think I was trying to communicate that through all pain and suffering, if you can kind of hang in there, peace can be found, within life. Although both characters die or get killed, there’s resolution in the end,” he says.

Asked why he is attracted by the idea of reimagining iconic works from the classical ballet repertoire, he says that he doesn’t really know. “Anything big and important and sacred has got to attract one’s attention, I guess. It just presented itself as an idea, which initially I thought was a crazy idea. I spent many years putting it off, finding ways not to do it, but it just wouldn’t go away, and the momentum just kept accumulating. One of the interesting tests I use for myself now, before I embark on a project, if the co-production money hasn’t appeared, I can’t do the work.”

“For Swan Lake, everything just fell into place, it was almost like it wanted to come to life, so I just kept going and now I find myself in a situation of being asked that question. I can give you a clever answer, like ‘ooh, I’m an iconoclast and I want to reinvent the canon of the classical ballet world because I find its superficial nature deeply dissatisfying’, but really, it just wanted to be done, and thankfully it turned out really well,” he says.

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala. Photograph supplied

Instead of Tchaikovsky’s iconic score, he uses Irish-Nordic folk music played by Dublin-based trio Slow Moving Clouds. He also uses some text. “The performers do speak, but, oddly, I’m really suspicious of dialogue so they generally speak in monologue. There’s a few dialogues but they’re very stylised,” says Keegan-Dolan.

“I don’t like naturalism in theatre, and I think that’s a fine Irish tradition, like William Butler Yeats. I would consider myself in that line. My grand uncle actually worked for Yeats as an actor in his plays, and he didn’t like naturalism either, so no one ever talks directly to another person. But I think that comes from our inability to communicate, and how it creates suffering in domestic situations and in global situations ­­– we’re talking, but nobody’s listening and no one’s looking at each other.”

When Teac Damsa performs Swan Lake/Loch na hEala in Sydney, the cast will include Keegan-Dolan’s wife Rachel Poirier who plays Fionnuala, while 82-year old Australian dancer Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, the founder of Australian Dance Theatre, plays Jimmy’s mother. “When I was casting Swan Lake, I put a call out, for an older woman dancer, and I was fishing with my son at like eight in the morning, and I got an email from Elizabeth expressing interest and I straightaway knew she was the one,” says Keegan-Dolan. “It’s great to have a woman her age onstage with us, because she represents what I believe: dancing is her life, it’s not something for young people, it’s for everyone. As long as you want to, you should dance.”

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala plays in the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, August 30 – September 2