Culture Shock: Sparks fly in ‘Swan Lake/Loch na hEala’ and ‘These Rooms’

Dublin Theatre Festival is staging thrilling blends of dance and drama by Michael Keegan-Dolan, Anu and CoisCéim

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala: fuses drama and dance, exquisite aesthetic refinement and knockabout satire, simple storytelling and dazzlingly complex physical imagery

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala: fuses drama and dance, exquisite aesthetic refinement and knockabout satire, simple storytelling and dazzlingly complex physical imagery

 

As it happens there is another centenary this year. It was in 1916 that WB Yeats launched his experiment in what he would call “Plays for Dancers” and attempt to integrate dance into Irish drama. Even then it was an ambivalent project. Yeats unveiled his great dance play At the Hawk’s Well not at his own Abbey Theatre, in Dublin, but in an aristocratic drawing room in London. Plays for dancers were emphatically not plays for Irish plebs. Only the refined elite could be expected to appreciate such esoteric and exquisite movement. And thus we have had a split: refined choreography on the one side, rough theatre on the other. Dance might have its place, but it is nowhere near the dirty business of history and society.

 By far the most thrilling thing about this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival is the evidence that, after a century, this split is healed. The two most exciting shows I’ve seen in the festival so far differ enormously from each other. But they share something of great significance. Both produce a heady electricity by crossing two wires. One is rough, dark social commentary. The other is highly wrought abstract movement. Choreography meets politics, and the sparks fly. It is hard to know whether Yeats would have applauded or been appalled – probably both – but he would have recognised that something of real moment is happening here.

 It can be argued with some justice that Michael Keegan-Dolan has been doing exactly this for a long time, with brilliant shows like Giselle, in 2003, and The Bull, in 2005. But his stupendous new production, Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, fuses drama and dance, exquisite aesthetic refinement and knockabout satire, simple storytelling and dazzlingly complex physical imagery with a confidence that now seems absolute. This is not an experiment, a provocation or a testing of ideas. It is a fully achieved form and one that seems entirely of Keegan-Dolan’s making.

 If you were told about Swan Lake/Loch na hEala in the abstract you would expect a mere burlesque of Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Prince Siegfried as a depressed Longford thirtysomething still living with his mother? The queen as a wheelchair-bound old lady looking to get a new house through the local wheeler-dealer county councillor? The evil sorcerer as an abusive priest? The grand ball as a desperate birthday party with cans of lager and funny hats? The postmodern touch of making the white swan and the black swan one and the same? A mix of Irish and Nordic folk tunes replacing Tchaikovsky? It sounds like a piss-take – lots of fun, maybe, but no magic.

 The great achievement of Keegan-Dolan’s take on the ballet is that it is all of the above except that the magic is not merely intact but enhanced. The dramatic setting does downsize all the fairy-tale elements of the original, rubbing their noses in the mud of mental illness, social isolation, creepy politicians and corrupted religion.

But all of this is superbly orchestrated by the admirable Mikel Murfi, who switches from ritual victim to narrator to player of the authority figures with such authority that the satire retains the grip of genuine terror. And this darkness in turn does not undercut the magic: it makes it more vivid.

The music by the Nordic-Irish trio Slow Moving Clouds has a perfect mix of the earthy and the ethereal – the same balance that makes Keegan-Dolan’s choreography so enthralling. The fusion of classical, modern and folk idioms has a fluidity and a freedom that are at once delightful and in powerful tension with the sense of entrapment in the drama.

It all makes for a stunning piece of theatre, simultaneously compelling, disturbing and breathtakingly beautiful.

Choreographed movement has long been one of the primary colours in the palette of Louise Lowe’s outstanding site-specific theatre company, Anu. But These Rooms, occupying a former bank building on Dorset Street, is much more ambitious in its use of dance: it is codirected by Lowe and David Bolger and coproduced by Anu and Bolger’s CoisCéim dance company.

The collaboration raises the question that Keegan-Dolan has long explored: is it possible to combine the abstraction of dance with in-your-face social engagement without diluting both? The answer here is a resounding yes.

These Rooms is all about layers, historical and spatial. It sets up a notion of three time frames: 2016, the 50th anniversary of the Rising, in 1966, and 1916 itself, in particular the killing by British soldiers of 15 civilians on North King Street. And it takes the audience through physical layers: a ground floor wonderfully set up as a pub in 1966; upstairs rooms where the terror of the past seeps in; and the cellar. As usual with Anu, these rooms create an uncomfortable intimacy between performer and audience. Dance might seem to break that intimacy, but Lowe and Bolger use it to create transitions between the layers.

Dance, at once utterly physical and strangely abstract, allows us to move between different kinds of reality. After a century, Irish theatre seems ready to make full use of that capacity.

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