If anyone were under the illusion that they were going to see a traditional Swan Lake – as a few people were at the Sydney opening – Michael Keegan-Dolan’s production set them straight right from the get-go.

When the audience enters the theatre, there is a middle-aged man in white underpants on stage, tethered by a large rope around his neck to a concrete block. He paces around, bleating like an angry goat; later we will discover he is a man who has lost his humanity, a priest rendered beast-like by his abusive behaviour and a curse he has put on others.

Rachel Poirier in Swan Lake/Loch na hEala. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Also on the open stage – which has been stripped back to the theatre’s bare brick walls – is an elderly woman in a wheelchair and a few props including four step-ladders of various sizes, each with a large pair of feathered wings. A traditional Swan Lake this is clearly not – but it is strangely beautiful, haunting work; a tough yet poetic retelling of the story that slowly draws you in emotionally, leaving you deeply moved.

Written, directed and choreographed by Keegan-Dolan for his company Teaċ Daṁsa (which follows in the wake of his former company Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre), Swan Lake/Loch na hEala is set in the Irish midlands in County Longford.

Though it may be wildly different to the beloved ballet, it retains key plot elements. Keegan-Dolan has also drawn on an Irish myth called The Children of Lir about a woman who marries a king whose wife has died. Jealous of his relationship with his four children, she plans to kill them but gets cold feet and instead changes them into swans for 900 years. The swans are found by a saint, who returns them to their human form, then they die and ascend to heaven.

In Keegan-Dolan’s version, the Prince of the original ballet is Jimmy (Alexander Leonhartsberger), a depressed young man in daggy tracky dacks and a beanie who hasn’t got over his father’s death a year ago. To make matters worse, his wheelchair bound mother Nancy (Australian dancer Elizabeth Cameron Dalman) has sold the family home to move into a new public housing bungalow, much to Jimmy’s chagrin. To try and jolly him up, she organises a party for his 36th birthday, having given him his father’s shotgun as a present. It’s a ghastly affair and Jimmy heads to the lake where he encounters Finola (Rachel Poirier) and her three sisters who were turned into swans by an abusive priest – the man we first encountered on stage.

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Keegan-Dolan combines music, movement and words to tell the story with renowned Irish actor Mikel Murfi as a kind of narrator in the guise of several characters – the priest, a manipulative politician and a police sergeant. Murfi is a powerful, mordant presence and brings a dark, deadpan humour to the narration.

Instead of Tchaikovsky’s iconic score, the haunting music blends Irish and Nordic folk tunes and includes a Swedish song and a Finnish lullaby. It is played by a Dublin-based trio called Slow Moving Clouds, made up of an Irish fiddle player (Danny Diamond), a cellist (Mary Barnecutt), and a Finnish musician called Aki who plays a rather extraordinary looking string instrument called a nyckelharpa.

The stark staging reverberates with beautiful images, including the use of plastic sheets for the lake and a particularly striking effect when the sisters are turned into swans. There is also a surprising amount of dark humour in Keegan-Dolan’s evocation of a world that seamlessly combines the mythical and prosaic.

Rachel Poirier and Alexander Leonhartsberger. Photograph © Prudence Upton

The choreography has a folk feel, with open arms and plenty of light, circular movement, performed by an ensemble of nine. Highlights include two gorgeous pas de deux for Jimmy and Finola, danced with heartfelt expressiveness by Leonhartsberger and Poirier. The first has them hardly daring to touch, starting nervously as one reaches for the other, until they are finally able to make tentative contact. The second is sublime as Leonhartsberger lifts Poirier so slowly, so gently in a tender, lyrical dance of love. Earlier in the piece, Leonhartsberger also makes physical poetry from a series of balances as the emotionally numbed Jimmy.

After all the darkness and culminating tragedy, Swan Lake/Loch na hEala ends with an unexpected, joyous, feathery catharsis that has the heart soaring. Beautiful.

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala plays at the Sydney Opera House until September 2. Tickets are sold out.


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