Swan Lake/Loch na hEala - Teac Damsa
14-17 March 2018, St James Theatre, Wellington
Reviewed by Deirdre Tarrant
We enter a deconstructed stage with a hunchbacked figure walking eternal circles, noosed and bringing Stygian images of purgatory and gloom to mind. Clearly we are not going to inhabit a world of peasants, princes, palaces and pointe shoes.... something darker is in these bodies and anguished crying.
The stage set curtain raises the walls of this contained and community story - the noose is removed by an athletic and loose limbed ‘chorus’ of three men who have the most fluid weight transference and soft hands ever. They provide a constant range of roles and social comment from hitmen to cross-dressing party girls and lanky limbed police as the story unfolds. This tethered and tormented, lone, circling man (a shaman? holy leader?) is brilliantly played by Mikel Murfi. He is both story-teller and the core of the story and he hits hard in his role of rapist priest, county Mayor and bigoted taunter of those he can destroy. Narrator, story teller, catholic cultural commentator, village squire, Irish to the core and the counterpart in this story of the evil von Rothbart, Murfi holds us in thrall as the twists of the plot unfold.
Set in an Irish village, Jimmy and his mother deal with their grief at the death of their father and husband respectively. The subsequent shift away from their childhood home to a bigger, better council house is at the heart of Jimmy’s slide into depression. We are onlookers but held captive by our own feelings and responses as we witness the cruelty of mankind to its own.
Women in white dresses descend rapidly from high farmhouse ladders and deceive us with their lissom lightness and rhythmic fluttering movements. These are very different and yet eerily familiar ‘swan’ maidens. The lakeside meeting and pas de deux between Jimmy and Finola (heart-breakingly danced by Rachel Poirier) is tentative, beautiful, emotionally charged and a gradual discovery as two ‘damaged’ people reach out and find a brief magic together. Alex Leonhartsberger is outstanding in the role of Jimmy and Elizabeth Cameron Dolman is riveting as his mother, both caught up in and causing this tragedy. The party she sets up to force her son to find a wife is grotesque in every way but strikes universal chords of recognition.
Live music, composed, sung and played onstage by Slow Moving Clouds was an integral and utterly Irish part of the production with foot tapping rhythms that underpinned and politicised the dance. The design team , Sabine Dargent (set), Hyeni Shin (costume) and Adam Silverman (lighting) created a theatrically stunning palette of hard and soft surfaces that perfectly mirrored the emotional journey. Soaring aluminium ladders and glorious black and white feathered wings for the swan maidens furled into and swooped out to fill the space. The ageless story of evil vs good was there - blindsiding in its clarity. Redemption (which came a little too quickly for me to wipe away the tears) was a billowing stage and auditorium of white feathers. The stage set fell again and the feathers forced us to take this experience to our homes and hearts.
Writer/ Director/ Choreographer extraordinaire, Michael Keegan-Dolan wants us to wake ourselves to change and our own internal worlds. He calls this his finest work and certainly challenges us to think in his dark story of sadness. What a privilege to have seen it and to see Alex Leonhartsberger, who has such a strong kiwi-dance identity, in this festival production.
Thank you to Shelagh Magadza, Meg Williams, Nick Kyle and all those at the New Zealand Festival who put the last three weeks together for the city. Wellington is all the richer and Wellingtonians came out to see and to be transported by so many performers in the best summer on record. Swan Lake/ Loch na hEala did everything contemporary work does best - tore us apart - asked social, cultural and personal questions - put us back together and on our feet for a fabulous standing ovation! Bravo.