The biggest Irish cultural event of the autumn will arrive next week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)
Director and choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan and his Irish dance company Teac Damsa (Dance House) are about to bring their critically acclaimed show Swan Lake/Loch na hEala to the New York.
Keegan-Dolan, 50, represents something of a departure for Irish theatre. A dancer, director and choreographer, for years he studied movement and its ability to tell stories in London and now his perspective is shaking up the Irish theatre world in productions that are as much about movement as speech.
If there's one thing the Irish are famous for it's telling stories, but when it comes to our theatre the truth is that most of our playwrights still prefer to say rather than show us what they mean. Historically that's made our theatre far more wordy than visual.
Next week Keegan-Dolan will push back against this perception with help from his Irish dance company Teac Damsa (Dance House) when his internationally acclaimed new show Swan Lake/Loch na hEala comes to Brooklyn.
A startling retelling of Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet, this production forgoes the princess being turned into a swan storyline in favor of a depressed young Irish woman grappling with the fallout of being sexually abused by her own priest (the priest is played by acclaimed actor Mikel Murfi, who strides the stage as he owns it).
Instead of Tchaikovsky’s famous score we also have Irish-Nordic folk performers who play live instruments on stage in a production that has won standing ovations from Stuttgart to Hong Kong.
But first a word about Keegan-Dolan himself. Born in County Longford (where he still lives) he rose to prominence as the artistic director of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, creating three Olivier Award-nominated productions.
Then his show Rian, created in 2011, won a Bessie Award for Best Production and toured internationally for three years. He's clearly on what you'd call a professional roll. But Swan Lake/Loch na hEala has taken his career to the next level and his company has become that rare thing, an Irish dance theatre performance troupe that tours the most prestigious theatre venues in the world.
So the themes that brought him to this story, which since it centers around the abuse crisis in the Church and the poor treatment of Irish women, could hardly be more timely.
“I don't generally progress from an intellectual basis,” he tells IrishCentral. “I just move from a more of the experiential, sensory and intuitive way you know. So like, the more I looked, the more I explored, the more discoveries I made. They led me here.”
Keegan-Dolan is about the same age as the Troubles, he's seen the marriage and divorce and abortion referendums, what has led him "here" has also led the country.
“Someone told me when I was younger, the role of a theater maker is to give a voice to those who don't have a voice,” he explains. “I'm very interested in women stories and I'm very interested in our Irish postcolonial condition. I'm fascinated too by the colonial device of indoctrinating the colonized with a sense of shame. Very often a post-colonial people adopt the worst kind of behaviors of their former masters.”
If Irish society has made a decades-long journey away from the suffocating near theocracy it was as late as the eighties to the changes we know now, isn't it time to look back at where we were and what we went through and give some voice to it?" he says (perhaps this is why the oldest member of his onstage cast is an 84-year-old woman).
Keegan-Dolan clearly draws a clear parallel between what happened to women, minorities and the unfavored under the conservative Republic of the last century with the long shadow of post-colonialism.
“I often think our history books have to show us our past, not the past that some people want us to remember but the one we actually lived through too, we have to remember what really happened to us. We have to keep on coming to terms with that. Even the worst of it. That's what happens to the woman in the show. A bad thing happens. It's okay. Like, it happened. There's nothing we can do about, but we should own it and survive it.”
Keegan-Dolan is also keenly aware that he's a man directing a show about the abuse of a woman and he's aware that some people have had an issue with that. “There hasn't been much criticism about that but there's been some. Some people want to know why the only person who gets to speak in the show is a man?”
His response is that suffering is universal. “If a woman suffers at some point so will the people around her. “If my mother is suffering, her sons will suffer. If my sister is suffering, I will too.”
Theatre takes us to places that we're often uncomfortable with, which is what theater should do in his opinion.
“I'm not a director,” he says simply. “I trained in dance. I think that's why my work takes the forms it takes. I've loved seeing how universal the effect of the show is and how it speaks to so many people from so many different cultures and backgrounds. Almost 50,000 people at home and abroad have seen the show to date - I'm excited to be introducing it to brand new audience in New York.”
Swan Lake/Loch na hEala will perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) from October 15-20, and in Los Angles in early November. For tickets visit bam.org.