Elissa Blake talks to director
Michael Keegan-Dolan on the sonic intensity of Swan Lake
01 Sep 2017
“Music is everything to me,” says the Irish choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan.
“It is the most magical thing and to work in the theatre, I always have to start with music.”
Speaking from his home in Dingle, a picturesque port town in Ireland’s far west, Keegan-Dolan is preparing to send his production of Swan Lake to Sydney. It won’t be arriving with an orchestra ready to play Tchaikovsky, he explains. Instead, his radical retelling of the story, Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, which is inspired by Irish folktale and set in the midlands of modern-day Ireland, will be danced to a live score played by the Dublin trio Slow Moving Clouds.
“When I knew I was going to do Swan Lake I got very busy finding the right people to do the music and Slow Moving Clouds are a very interesting combination of players and instruments,” Keegan-Dolan explains. “You’ve got a traditional Irish fiddle player in Danny Diamond, a cellist [Mary Barnecutt] and this Finnish guy just called Aki who plays a thing called a nyckelharpa, which is this brilliant Medieval-sounding instrument. So we have this incredible combination of energies on stage. The Scandinavians do sad very well, while the Irish musicians are great at joy.
"We have this incredible combination of energies on stage."
“The music is very intense, highly technical and very precise,” Keegan-Dolan adds. “They certainly don’t need the rest of the show around them, in my humble opinion. You can easily sit and listen to them play the score from beginning to end without looking at anything else going on around them.”
The music for Swan Lake, which premiered at Dublin Theatre Festival in 2016, is a blend of Irish and Nordic folk styles. Keegan-Dolan grew up on the former but became familiar with the latter only in 2013 when he was working with the Goteborg Opera on The Big Noise, a production inspired by an infamous series of “witch trials” that took place in 1675.
“I worked with a Swedish folk musician and it was mind-blowing,” Keegan-Dolan says. “They don’t have drums in their traditional music. Apparently, some king in the 16th century banned all percussion in folk music. He thought it was too dangerous or inciting and should only be allowed in military bands. But what happened was that the Swedish fiddle players developed this amazing percussive style. That was really fascinating for me.”
“He thought it was too dangerous or inciting and should only be allowed in military bands.”
The relationship between the musicians, the rhythms they play, and the nine dancers of Swan Lake/Loch na hEala is central to the work. “There is something really deep there,” Keegan-Dolan says. “It’s like the performers enter a trance, a very energetic trance, and they follow it through to the end.”
Storytelling is no less important than music to Keegan-Dolan, who writes dialogue for his performers as well as choreography. “I choose my dancers very carefully and they are people I’ve worked with a lot,” he says. “They are all good actors, good storytellers and have a very strong physical presence on stage.”
“People are always drawn to stories about people like them.”
Swan Lake/Loch na hEala also features a full-blown acting role, that of Rothbart, the sorcerer of the original Swan Lake who casts a spell on Odette and whom Keegan-Dolan has reconfigured into an abusive Catholic priest. The acclaimed Irish actor Mikel Murfi plays the role.
“He’s one of the finest actors in Ireland,” Keegan-Dolan says. “I met him a few times in the years leading up to the actual rehearsal process. His character is really complicated. He plays Rothbart – who we call the Holy Man in this case – and he also plays all these other characters: a doctor, priest, a councilor and a sergeant of the guards. He shape-shifts through the piece which is a lot of fun, as you can imagine.”
Challenging though it is, Swan Lake/Loch na hEala has struck a chord with its audiences. “Wherever we go, it sells out,” Keegan-Dolan says. “I think people are always drawn to stories about people like them and the theatre is the place – the finest place – to celebrate the connection between one human and another. Whatever happens technologically for us in the next 20, 50, 100 years, we’ll always have an appetite for that.”