Irish Times Theatre Awards for Best Production & Costume Design
Stumbling in desperation
Finding wings for the soul to fly at Swan Lake
“Swan Lake is all about power!” Inverting the hierarchical realm of classical ballet, acclaimed Irish choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan draws attention to the afflictions of modern society through a hauntingly imaginative dance theatre reincarnation of Tchaikovsky’s classic work. In 2000, there was public outcry in Ireland after John Carthy, a young man suffering from depression, was shot dead in a stand-off with police. Deeply touched by this case and other stories of people on the margins of society, Keegan-Dolan propels together Irish myths, magical realism and dark desolation turning Swan Lake traditions into a story for our times. A Carthy-like character replaces the prince while the cursed swans are silent victims of sexual abuse. Alongside such weighty themes and a searing original score, flashes of light and life shine through, taking viewers on a roller-coaster quest to transcend fate and find the redemption made possible through love.
Meet-the-artist session after 16 November performance
Photo: Colm Hogan, Marie-Laure Briane
Text: Zou Xin-ning
(Freelance writer from Taiwan)
Contemporary dance is inextricably linked with the word “body”, which confronts both the choreographer and audience with the following question: What do you think of the body which is both creative tool and source material? If you try to use language to analyse this “body”, our close companion from birth, you can easily go off on a tangent or into speculative ambiguity. There are many reasons why the body is difficult to explain. Chinese culture does not regard body perception as an important part of education, ultimately teaching generations to become civilised people with a mind/body split.
Therefore, one is almost grateful for the dance works that come with text. It is as if one was about to climb a desolate mountain of which only the name is known, and is suddenly gifted with a GPS―even if it is a mere red line from which it is impossible to trace details of landscape and ecology; still, it is a map with which one can go deep into the mountain forests.
The two European productions invited by the New Vision Arts Festival both include text, which makes them more accessible than dance works of purely physical exploration. Teac Damsa from Ireland presents Swan Lake / Loch na hEala, which brings two famous swan stories, the classic ballet Swan Lake and the Irish legend The Children of Lir, into conversation. The swans in both stories are victims: the former a girl cursed by an evil magician to be a swan by day and revert to human form by night, where she dances and laments her fate by the lakeside; the latter the four children of King Lir, transformed into swans by their evil step-mother, and who have found protection by the monks over the years. Whereas Wayne McGregor, darling of the English dance scene, together with other star artists, creates Tree of Codes, based on the American writer Jonathan Safran Foer’s book of the same name. The wonderful thing is that this book also has an “ur-text”―Polish writer Bruno Schulz’s short story collection Street of Crocodiles. Foer cut out words on each page―even the title Tree of Codes is the result of this cutting out from the Street of Crocodiles. The publication of such a book became the talk of the town. Rather than calling it a literary work, perhaps it is more appropriate to call it a work of art.
Since both dance works fall under the rubric of “contemporary dance”, how do these two choreographers learn from their predecessors and create a contemporary new look through dance and other theatrical elements? In fact, the two works adopt opposing strategies of adaptation and reinterpretation. However, they are united in musical taste, which inclines to the contemporary: The music of Tree of Codes is compiled by Jamie xx, a member of the popular independent band The xx, resulting in a light, mesmerising, minimalist electronic style which many foreign dance critics have described as “nightclub- like”. In the face of Tchaikovsky’s majestic original music for Swan Lake, choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan broke with tradition and engaged Slow Moving Clouds, a musical group with strong Irish and Nordic folk elements, to perform live for Swan Lake / Loch na hEala. This Irish atmosphere gives the swan stories a different inflection from Tchaikovsky’s romantic beauty. Gloom occasionally breaks through the light, repetitive folk melodies, which collide with the inevitable tragedy, finally intertwining into a bittersweet finale.
Though the trend towards electronic music and Nordic traditional music with experimental influences forms the contemporary background for the youthful energy fermenting in these two works, the interpretative angles of the two core creatives, McGregor and Keegan-Dolan, represent two ends of the choreographic spectrum and reflect each other.
In an interview, Keegan-Dolan admitted that “classical ballet is not my cup of tea”. Dissatisfied with the power structures of traditional ballet, and also deeply sympathetic to the tortured dancers (he mentioned that when he visited the Moscow City Ballet classes, the exhausted countenance of dancers and piano teachers and students brought tears to his eyes), it was impossible for him to embrace the world of Swan Lake as created by the “father of classical ballet” Marius Petipa, which “enshrined hierarchy and order, refinement and elegance” (Note 1). Keegan-Dolan, who believes that everyone should occasionally enter the realm of depression and explore the dark side of the soul, rips apart the beautiful old wallpaper of Swan Lake, and constructs a distinctly non-aristocratic, poverty- stricken Irish realm through rough piles of plastic sheets, scaffolding, and feathers from torn pillows. Instead of the heroic Prince Siegfried, we have 36-year-old Jimmy who suffers from serious depression. He goes to the lake alone with a gun, not to hunt, but to commit suicide. He meets Finola and her three sisters who were turned into swans, and who come to the lake to dance and temporarily forget their suffering and their nemesis―the priest who was rebuffed by Finola, raped her, and then forced her to forgive.
However, how can a society where the weak devour the weak contain a fairy tale? The priest is guilty, but he is a victim of the system of religious education. The policeman persecuting Jimmy is also wicked, but you will not have forgotten that the middle-aged man who plays both the policeman and the priest, was seen at the beginning of the piece, chained and naked, a weak old goat about to be slaughtered. No one is thoroughly evil, and everything is the result of systemic damage. Keegan- Dolan, who is deeply conscious of Irish national issues and identity, has given a contemporary frame to the swan legend. As for how we should continue to regard sin? The responsibility is left to the audience who will ultimately leave the theatre and return to reality.
The world of Tree of Codes is much brighter. Even though the Street of Crocodiles is always shadowed by the tragedy of Schulz―unknown during his lifetime, shot dead by the Nazis in the street, Foer’s cutting and pasting of Schulz’s words for his Tree of Codes reduces the weight of grief and re-endows the book with materiality―or, a more romantic way of putting it: It returns the body to the book. Presumably, the concept of “the page as body” attracted McGregor, which allowed this darling of contemporary ballet, described as someone who “can easily collaborate with the international community”, to join forces with Jamie xx and sculptor and large-scale installation artist Olafur Eliasson, to produce the stage version of Tree of Codes.
Although there is no tree on the stage, there is a sense of “the body as Bodhi tree”. At first only point-like lights, attached to the costumes of unseen dancers, can be seen in the darkness, floating in the electronic sound of Jamie xx, like twinkling stars, or perhaps more like cursors on a digital screen. Later, a few refractive mirrors appear. The images inside the mirrors, like ecological kaleidoscopes, are actually flowers formed by the body shapes of the dancers. Then, a dozen dancers appear and dance frenetically. Although each dancer dances in a different way, they are united by McGregor’s signature style of short rapid bursts, dynamic and disruptive of inertia. Due to the large spherical mirrors in the background, the audience seems to see dozens of dancers performing cascading dance movements, just like the visual experience of reading the Tree of Codes, where seemingly random chiselling allows the words on the pages to overlap with the gaps, pressing in on our vision. We cannot help but ask: Are these reflections and images there to remind us that the dancers’ bodies come between us and the illusion? Or are the reflections like the gaps in the text, subtracting meaning, and erasing the reality of the flesh?
“This is a book that remembers it has a body,” Foer declared (Note 2). The question comes back again to us: After watching a dance work, will we remember that we too have bodies?
(Translated by Amy Ng)
Homans, Jennifer. 2013. Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, translated by Sung Wei-hang, p. 329. New Taipei: Yeren Publishing House.