We’re a long way from the palaces and conventions of classical ballet. As we take our seats, the stage is empty except for a pale, middle aged man. He’s dressed only in underpants and tethered to a heavy block by a rope around his neck, shuffling around in a half-hearted attempt to escape, sometimes bleating like a sheep. Is he falling through water?  Suddenly, lights fall, drapes rise, music starts and black-hatted (clergy)men rescue and dress the man before settling him in a chair. We’re going to have a story, but he won’t say a word until he has a cup of tea.

© Colm Hogan
© Colm Hogan

The narrator (or more properly the Seanchaí or storyteller) starts to weave the tragic tale of Jimmy O'Reilly. It’s his 36th birthday and he is alone, except for his disabled Mother. They live in the old family house, lost in the dark countryside of the Irish Midlands. His Father died a year ago and Jimmy has become depressed, made much worse when his Mother obtains a council grant to replace the home he loves.  

Unwisely, she gives him his Father's shotgun as a birthday present and decides to find him a wife. She organises a combined house-warming and birthday party to which she invites the few eligible women in the district (all unattractive) and asks the Parish Priest along to bless the new house. Jimmy is in turmoil so wanders across the wild countryside until he finds swan lake, a muddy mere out in the bogs. He is about to turn the gun on himself when swans flash past and appear as lovely young women. They briefly lift him to exquisite joy, as he falls in love with their queen, giving him strength to go back and carry on.

© Colm Hogan
© Colm Hogan
The drunken party is a disaster which launches a desperate, inexorable series of events. What seem at first to be separate strands of the O’Reillys, the swans, the priest, a venal local politician and an incompetent police sergeant actually unfold one from another, interweaving dance, music and drama.

This is a deeply human story, told brilliantly. Mikel Murfi, the Seanchaí, is at the centre of everything, narrating, dancing and singing as well as playing the Priest, Politician and Policeman (all called McLoughlin and all wonderfully characterised), moving seamlessly and convincingly between them. It’s a tour de force: an astonishing performance that gives a reason and emotion to every step, event and plot twist, while allowing a profusion of images and ideas to spill in all directions.

Michael Keegan-Dolan (choreographer and director) provides a feast for the senses, feelings and mind. The interwoven stories are so strong that he does not need to explain or finish all the threads and leaves loose ends and some rough edges without doing harm. Clever, sharply observed humour is integral to the tragedy. Subtle layers of meaning are expressed in refreshing, creative contemporary dance which often borrows and subverts folk dance forms. The magic that makes swans out of four young sisters makes complete sense, utterly horrifying in this modern setting, while the lovers being united in death seems inevitable. The “ascent to heaven” afterwards is unexpected, unashamedly silly and one of the most gloriously beautiful and life-enhancing sequences I have ever seen.

All the dancers are excellent. Alexander Leonhartsberger as Jimmy spends most of the show paralysed by sadness, but in rare moments of release, dancing with his love (Rachel Poirier), he is sublime: responding delicately to her anger and hesitancy before the two sweep around the stage in ecstasy. You don’t foresee any of their moves, in two fabulous pas de deux, but they were entrancing, and I was thrilled. Like all four swans, she is breathtakingly powerful, lovely but heart-wrenching as a human victim. The men are great too: funny and menacing by turns. All the dance has joy. Apparently natural movement makes energy flow because it is so well performed by this talented cast.

© Colm Hogan
© Colm Hogan

They are admirably well supported by “Slow Moving Clouds”, a Dublin based trio who merge traditional Irish and Scandinavian music with minimalism and experimental influences. Live cello, violin, nyckelharpa and vocals created magic.

There are too many threads and too much momentum in this story to allow an interval but there is not a wasted moment in its hour and a half. As it ended, with smiles and laughter, the audience stood and roared with delight and recognition. As they say in Ireland, it was “mighty”: a feast of imagination and excellent performance. I felt privileged to have seen it.