There is an inherent ebb and flow of life. When you are not being pushed or pulled, you are stagnant. Apathetically waiting as the world yawns by. It is within art that we can fulfill our craving for the thrill of life’s ebbs and flows. Whether they are joyful or sorrowful, there is no doubt that experiencing them is far more exciting than standing still.
Irish company Teac Damsa’s “Swan Lake/Loch na hEala” exemplifies an extreme push and pull in performance. Choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan’s masterfully reimagines Tchaikovsky’s ballet — directly contrasting childlike elation with terrified isolation, his iteration of “Swan Lake” is a uniquely aesthetic dance and theatrical performance rich with Irish history and folklore.
The only similarity between Keegan-Dolan’s and Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” is the presence of the titular animal. In Keegan-Dolan’s iteration, a chronically depressed man walks to a lake with a shotgun that his mother bought him for his birthday. The man appears ready to commit suicide when he encounters and falls madly in love with a wild swan that is equally as broken as he is.
The piece opens with the narrator of the story, naked except for a pair of white underwear, tied to a cement block. As the actor begins to bleat in an animalistic nature, it becomes clear that the man is not a man but a goat. The goat begrudgingly circles the cement block and, as the lights go down, is surrounded by three dancing men. He bleats in fear until, under the pressure of the men, he takes human form and begins to tell the saddening tale. The actor who plays the narrator also plays a corrupt politician, a priest and, at one point, a radio.
The theme of humans embodying animals does not end in the overture. It is soon revealed that a priest has turned four dancing women into swans as a form of punishment, since they were vocal about his raping of one of them. When this was revealed, the overture made more sense to me. Perhaps this man turned himself into a goat as punishment for raping the swan woman. Perhaps all of these dancers are viciously fighting to be free from a hellish world they either brought upon themselves or had thrust upon them.
Throughout the performance, I discovered that witnessing humans embody animals on stage is oddly satisfying. At their core humans are animalistic, yet we must suppress these instincts in order to be functioning members of society. It is through physical movement that these instincts are best released, and Keegan-Dolan seemed to have a firm grasp of that concept.
Because of the saddening nature of the piece, the performance could have remained one-note. However, Keegan-Dolan found childlike joy just as well as he encapsulated the evil in this story. In a moment of brilliant choreography at the end of the show, the dancers begin to toss light feathers around like snow.
Their feet moving among the mass of feathers on the ground served for an aesthetically pleasing end. Each dancer simultaneously kicked up a puff of feathers with one swift motion, seeming to wake from the hellscape that they had lived in during the show. In the last fifteen minutes, they were granted the freedom to live in pure ecstasy.
Skillfully using the white feathers as a way to shed light onto the darkness, the audience themselves were brought into the enjoyment of the moment. The feathers were tossed onto the front row and audience and performers alike relaxed into a state of what can simply be described as joy. The joyful metaphor continued on even into the bows. As the audience applauded the performers for their work, the dancers took their time soaking it all in, coming out for not just a second round of bows but a third.
I was completely elated in this last 15 minutes, although I struggled to justify its connection to the rest of the piece. Eventually, I decided it was about finding joy in the terrible, yet this is widely open for interpretation. In fact, the entire performance could have been a different story for each viewer. What was a goat to me may have been just a man on a rope to another. I had trouble labeling this piece as either dance or theatre because, to me, it was both. The endless possibilities this work provides the audience make it special. It does not give its audience answers. Instead, it poses questions.