Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019

UNC’s Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill

The man is orbiting a cinder block at center stage, tethered to it by a long, thick rope around his neck. He’s almost naked, and he’s bleating like a goat. 

Behind him, where white wings surmount tall ladders, a seated man lights a cigarette. A woman in a wheelchair looks on.

Three male dancers in old-fashioned hats emerge from the audience. They dance and sing around the yoked man in a ring, as if casting a spell. He screams in goatish terror as they free him, hold him down, and pour bottled water on him. They dry him with red towels and dress him in black clothes. They give him a microphone and a cigarette.

At last, he begins to speak.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Swan Lake? No fucking clue! None! But this indelible opening scene established several things about Loch na hEala, the Irish dance-theater company Teaċ Daṁsa’s debut. After breaking out at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2016 and earning international praise, the piece descended on Memorial Hall for Carolina Performing Arts like a beautiful nightmare for two nights last week.

One, it would have very little to do with the Tchaikovsky ballet, which choreographer, writer, and director Michael Keegan-Dolan uses as a pretext to throw up astonishing stage pictures, one after another, that tremble between delightful and disturbing, bonkers and beautiful, until the difference smears away. 

Two, it would be unusually tactile, full of crashing blocks and great ripped skeins of plastic that swirled up dust motes in the stage lights, of spraying beer cans and smoking cigarettes. (I haven’t seen so much smoke in Memorial Hall since Juliette Binoche burned frankincense in Antigone.) And of course, the feathers. So many feathers.

And three, it would be more like theater with some dance in it than dance theater, revolving around the protean performance of Mikel Murfi.

“I won’t say one word ‘til I get a cup of tea,” he says after his transformation from caprine form. “And another cigarette.” He gets both, served by the dancers, and goes on to say a great many words, at various times as a priest, a politician, and a police officer, each with his own charm and menace, his own cadence of guilt and persuasion. 

There is no trace of Tchaikovsky in the music by Slow Moving Clouds, a Dublin band that both preserves and modernizes Irish and Nordic folk music, who play and sing on a riser at the back of the stage. With fiddle, cello, and a nyckelharpa, which is like a viol crossed with a hurdy-gurdy and looks awesome, the amplified acoustic trio adds richly to the show’s immediacy. 

But Swan Lake‘s story leaves ample traces on Keegan-Dolan’s almost-Lynchian vision of Irish sin, salvation, and troubled transcendence. For example, the birthday party where local maidens are trotted out for Prince Siegfried is here, but instead of a prince, Siegfried is an unemployed Irish man named Jimmy who is depressed about his father’s death and the loss of his family home as he moves into public housing.

Oh, and at this party, male dancers in dresses pretending to be dogs crack beer cans that spray almost to the front row. Then they join the female dancers to pull horrible faces while Jimmy’s mother cackles and eats handfuls of pink cake. Instead of a crossbow, she’s given him his dead father’s shotgun for a birthday present. When he takes it to Swan Lake, it isn’t swans he’ll be aiming at. You can see where this is going, but you’d never guess where it goes. 

The swans, portrayed by four female dancers, are patterned more on Irish myth than on Swan Lake, but spiked with contemporary specters of monstrosity and guilt. Their transformation is wrought by a Catholic priest who sexually assaulted one of them. This is the most troubling aspect of a show that usually tugs the hem of horror and then flits back. Keegan-Dolan supplies no pedantic comforts with the charged material. Instead, he offers spooky beauty and twisted catharsis, mounting toward a sublime ending I want to write about so bad but shouldn’t.

The dancing is the least part it, but its pastoral simplicity seems essential to blend off the sharp edges of the anarchy around it. Like that cinder block at the outset, it’s something essential to pivot around, a sort of physical fact to orient a world of fiction and fantasy.

The dancer-actors create acute character moments, some incisively harrowing, others hilariously mischievous or puerile. The show is stuffed with details in nooks and crannies; when I noticed a performer inconspicuously eating his hat during someone else’s big speech, I wondered what else I had missed. If I had seen it the first night, I’d have gone back the second.

Loch na hEala definitely teems with deep things about Ireland’s economy and cultural memory that I get only in an I-read-something-in-The-Guardian kind of way. But the sense of trauma and tragedy in a pas de deux with life’s wonder and verve—this, I got. This is a show that gets all over you. I think you should sit close enough to see the performers’ faces, but the old cirque warning more or less applies: The first few rows get wet.