There’s a man (Mikel Murfi) or a man acting an animal tethered by the neck to a cement block, circling around in agony now this way, now that. He wears only flesh colored skivvies and, oddly, glasses. Shoulders caved, head twitching, tongue out, the prisoner bleats. A woman to my left guesses ox, to my right, a goat is conjectured. I presume retribution.
The stage is raw but for three musicians sitting on a rough platform. Four tall, A-frame ladders, each with large white wings draped at the top, attend. Female dancers in simple white dresses, a dour young man and an (actually) 84 year-old women with wild grey hair take their places.
Exchanging Tchaikovsky for original, Irish, and Nordic folk music (marvelous) and tutus for country-plain apparel, creator Michael Keegan-Dolan presents a topical saga of magical realism. According to the choreographer, the piece “gives voice to those who don’t have a voice” (women) illuminating “our Irish postcolonial condition.” Experientially, swans and impossible love (rescue) provide a touchstone axis which is visceral rather than intellectual.
Men in Amish-looking garb and wide-brimmed hats dance around the captive, never taking eyes off him. Kick right, arm extends, turn, dip, both arms out, knee up, turn, bend, spin… Movement is round-edged, fluid. The hostage is released, hand bathed, and dressed. Thwacking of red towels between ministrations is ritualistic. Provided with a microphone (cup of tea and cigarette), he’s positioned center stage becoming the teller of his own tale, stepping in and out of additional characters.
Part I (my distinction): Narration introduces Jimmy O’Reilly (Alexander Leonhartsberger) and his wheelchair bound ma, Nancy (Elizabeth Cameron Dalman), both mourning the death of Jimmy’s father. The young man is depressed/reclusive, crying “like a child.” Lying across cinder blocks that form his room, he dreams of hovering swans/dancers with wings. The creatures are pulled and pushed by unseen forces, pushing and pulling back.
Nancy is at her wits end. She throws a party inviting eligible women (half played by men) who lasciviously dance to impress with uniquely jagged choreography somewhere between fit and jig. Jimmy is gifted his father’s shotgun which becomes a talisman, the secure presence of choice (to die). Couples end up in violent pairings. Nancy’s laughter slowly abates. Jimmy is barely aware.
Overcome by despair, at night roaming fields abutting Swan Lake, he puts the gun to his throat. It’s knocked away by a swan (Rachel Poirier) who sheds her wings approaching him tenuously. He advances, she trembles. He reaches, she backs up. They begin a pas de deux without touching, eventually folding around one another with immense grace and tenderness. A fiddle tune rises. Other swans join.
Part II (My distinction): “When I was a little boy,” the storyteller continues rising to assume the role, “I had a vision of Mary, Mother of Christ…By 24, I was a Holy Man in charge of religious education at a girls’ school…Finola (Rachel Poirier) was 17 and beautiful…” The priest finds excuses to visit her. One night, as her sisters unwittingly look on, he rapes the girl. (We see only implication.) “If any of you speak of this, you’ll be turned into a filthy animal till the end of time,” he threatens.
Editorial material declares them turned into swans to keep the secret. White wings are traded for black ones. These thrash as the girls wail under a sheet of plastic (water), then each climbs a ladder. Denied forgiveness from petrified Finola, the priest forcefully drags and throws her into a box he immediately lids. Brutality is so real, gasps can be heard from the audience.
Local interference and folk myth deftly combine to bring Jimmy once more into contact with Finola/the swan girl. Tragedy ensues. Just when we feel undone, the company leads us out of darkness to one of the most gloriously imagined epilogues you’ll ever see.
Many, many pounds of white feathers are tossed, scattered, scraped (by plastic), kicked up, swirled, and dumped on front audience as the cast, sometimes in personal orbits, at others in unison, dance in seeming affirmation of life/survival- akin to an Irish Wake. The parenthesis may be partly ad-libbed – one intuits a great sense of freedom – but choreography is cohesive in style. It’s joyous. Multiple curtain calls follow. No one wants to leave.
Keegan-Dolan has said his iconoclastic Swan Lake was inspired by legend and personal history. The process, like something out of the late sixties theater scene, involves gathering musicians and dancers (from all over Europe and the U.S.) in rural Ireland. A thespian to whom I spoke told me they lived together in a one street village, eating three meals a day with vegetables prepared by Dolan’s wife from the couple’s garden.
After the originator’s ideas coalesce, the rest of the piece is collaborative. The company gathers offering verbal and physical input. Symbiosis is organic. Birthing took a mere 1 ½ months. When I inquire of the dancer whether song we heard was a made-up language or perhaps Gaelic, I was told one sung through is “The Troll Sing” in Swedish!
Choreography is an eminently distinctive mélange of ballet and folk with emphasis on the latter. Until the epilogue, unless fearful or in pain, facial expression is without a single errant smile. Humor appears in small moments – a local thug gets into (on to) a “car” propelled by men going “baroom, baroom…” My single caveat is the inclusion of an overly familiar Bob Dylan song which yanks one into the relative present.
The mercurial Mikel Murfi morphs into every represented character physically and/or vocally. His priest is wonderfully horrifying.
The Men: Zen Jefferson-Watcher/Winnie, Saku Koistinen Watcher/ Lyudmilla, Erik Nevin-Watcher/ Margaret
The Women: Anna Kaszuba, Latisha Sparks, Carys Staton
The Musicians: Aki, Mary Barnecutt, Danny Diamond= Slow Moving Clouds
Sabine Dargent’s minimal set, Hyemi Shin’s evocative costumes, Adam Silverman’s excellent Lighting amply contribute. Music is as integral to the story as a physical limb.
Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake/Loch na hEala recalls only Peter Brook’s groundbreaking 1971 Midsummer Night’s Dream in that both are extraordinarily creative, affecting/memorable productions. Cancel a date, hock something, get yourself to BAM. This is sensational.
The production begins BAM’s 37th Next Wave Festival as helmed by new Artistic Director David Binder. If it’s any indication of what’s to come, I’d recommend joining immediately.
Photos by Stephanie Berger
Next Wave 2019 presents
Swan Lake/Loch na hEala
Written Directed and Choreographed by Michael Keegan-Dolan
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
Through October 19, 2019