Swan Lake @ Heath Ledger Theatre
Friday, February 15, 2019
This raw and gritty contemporary dance and theatre adaptation created by writer, director and choreographer, Michael Keegan-Dolan, was relevant, subversive and horrifying; the standing ovation at the end of the performance, an indication of just how phenomenal the show was.
Set in the lower socioeconomic area of The Midlands in Ireland, this performance was bleak and disconcerting, full of dark, sardonic humour exploring the darkest parts of the human condition: abuse, suicide and the descent and rise from mental illness. However, it was also a fable of love, hope and transformation; about the light that is only made possible because of the dark.
The story was being told as we arrived at the theatre. The house lights were up, stage lights full; a man was wearing worn white underwear and was tied to a breeze block by a thick white rope around his neck, walking around the stage in circles bleating like a goat. As the audience found their seats, two more characters took to the stage, a young man in an old dirty tracksuit and a plain black beanie and an old frail lady, with long grey hair who was sitting in a wheelchair (the frail old lady just happened to be Australian dance legend Elizabeth Cameron Dalman). Once the house lights went down, three ‘watchers’ joined the stage, and the terrifying beauty began.
The dancing was ritualistic and loose but so perfectly timed and fluid. There was an element of the grotesque in the way the dancers moved at points; the swan sisters were reminiscent of crushed little birds flapping around on the ground clinging to life with ferocity. At other times the dancing was light and ethereal, the rhythms of their bodies perfectly in unison to the music being played live on stage. The balance of contemporary and traditional folk dancing, with elements of ballet, suited the dramatic elements on stage and the narrative was engaging and enthralling.
The action slipped from the farcical and nonsensical to the seriously technical and emotionally confronting. It moved through moments where the cast was acting like children playing on a stage to times of raw human emotion. It would turn dark and violent, the cast screaming and writhing to the sounds of high-pitched violins, the actors physically beating their bodies on the sets, on each other, into the dance. The angel/bird wings were thrown and thrashed around the stage until they were left wilted and plucked – handled so delicately by the dancers at the start, then tossed with reckless abandon towards the end. This was not just a deconstruction of a classic tale, they ripped the feathers out of Swan Lake and left them, literally, scattered around the theatre.
The music was incredibly evocative, switching from the upbeat rhythms of traditional Irish folk to the dark and sinister tones of Nordic traditional music. When the dancing was frantic and violent, the music worked harmoniously to create the sense of madness, the violin screeching out of tune, the bow dragging across the strings as the dancers were pulled across the stage. The four musicians, members of the Dublin band Slow Moving Clouds which consisted of the violin, double bass, guitar and nyckelharpa (Swedish key harp), sat upstage for the beginning part of the performance and then joined the action towards the end. The band was more than just music accompaniment, each member was a part of the action, singing with the cast and entering the stage when the narrative required it and providing an exhilarating aural experience to the amazing visuals that the cast was creating.
Truly a spectacular, strange and poignant piece of theatre and dance, this performance left the audience unnerved, invigorated and desperate for more.