Tchaikovsky does not own Swan Lake, says dancer and choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan. Indeed, the folklore on which the popular ballet was based is older than the ballet tradition itself. Furthermore, Loch na hEala, Keegan-Dolan’s modern Irish plunge into Swan Lake, is not a ballet per se; it’s dance theater taken to stunning, thought-provoking, soul-searching extremes. “Swan Lake isn’t about beautiful swans,” he reminds us. “It’s about women turned into swans by a man.”
Keegan-Dolan’s company Teac Damsa (House of the Dance, formerly known as Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre) has earned a reputation for its unconventional handling of established operas and ballets. Following the trail blazed by notoriously provocative theater director Peter Sellars, they have navigated the contemporary revisionist riptide with bold postmodern stagings of Handel’s Julius Caesar and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. During their surprisingly violent reinterpretation of the classic ballet staple Giselle, the dancers wore cowboy boots.
Keegan-Dolan freely voices his dissatisfaction with what he considers the ballet establishment’s pretentious superficiality. He is appalled by its inherent misogyny, which he points out has led generations of ballerinas to starve themselves and deform their feet by dancing on pointe in satin-covered toe-box shoes.
Loch na hEala’s potent blend of heartbreaking realism and surreal grace is Keegan-Dolan’s response to an increasingly irrational civilization and what he bitterly describes as “the lies that we get peddled, the bullshit we get forced to accept.” Teac Damsa summons the misunderstood challenges faced by socially marginalized individuals, the abject loneliness of full-fathom depression, the silent despair and suppressed rage carried by survivors of abuse. It’s an unflinching embodiment of the old adage: I paint what I see. Ironically, perhaps, that places Loch na hEala fully in line with what Soviet composer and spokesman Boris Asafiev wrote in his program notes for the 1933 Leningrad revival of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake: “This is not a fairy-tale utopian world, but a psychologically real one.”
Beautifully choreographed and starkly staged, Keegan-Dolan’s theater of madness transforms itself into a ritual of life and liberation. Tchaikovsky’s ballet score has vanished altogether. What fills the air and carries the dancers through the stations of their metamorphosis is a richly textured weave of new music by Slow Moving Clouds, a Dublin-based trio of fiddle, cello, and Swedish nyckelharpa. Their Celtic-Nordic magic imbues Loch na hEala with a grainy, pungent resonance that I find soothing and reassuring. One gets the impression the musicians are hovering in the mists high above Ireland’s North Channel, gradually drifting out to sea.
UMS presents Teac Damsa’s Loch na hEala (Swan Lake) November 15 and 16 at the Power Center.