Review: Swan Lake/Loch na hEala (Luminato/Teac Damsa)

“Dark and raw” dance and storytelling piece takes to the Toronto stage

Although billed as a contemporary adaptation of one of the most famous ballets, Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, performed by the Irish company Teac Damsa as part of the 2018 Luminato Festival, is a far cry from that classic.  There are no tutus, no Tchaikovsky score, no pointe shoes. Instead, we are given a powerful fusion of dance, Irish folk music, and storytelling which takes Swan Lake as its inspiration but reimagines it as a modern tale of depression, sexual violence, and, ultimately, redemption. It’s a powerful piece of theatre.Swan Lake/Loch na hEala tells two intertwining stories. In one, Jimmy O’Reilly (Alex Leonhartsberger), a lonely 36-year old man in rural Ireland, has sunk into a deep depression after his fathers’ death. To make things worse, his invalid mother, Nancy Elizabeth Cameron Dalman), has sold the house that has been in the family for over 300 years to move into a modern house funded by the local council.

In the second, The Holy Man (Mikel Murfi), who is also our narrator for the evening, confesses to falling in love with and assaulting Finola (Rachel Poirier), a beautiful young woman in his parish. When he is discovered by her three sisters, he turns them all into swans to keep them silent.  The two stories collide when Jimmy goes to the lake near his house and falls in love with Finola in swan form.

As you enter the theatre, the stage is already visible. There are three musicians with various stringed instruments in the back, several large ladders, an old woman in wheelchair, and a younger man in a tracksuit and beanie. Centre stage is an older man in his underwear with a rope around his neck who circles a post while bleating like a goat. Right away I knew this was not going to be a typical night at the ballet, but I wasn’t sure what was coming.

Soon the lights dimmed, the musicians began to play, and three men in black suits and hats entered and began dancing around the central man/goat.  Within a few minutes they had subdued him, dressed him in black and set him up with a microphone to tell the tale. I loved Murfi as the narrator.  He alternated between serious and funny with a rapid fire but poetic delivery.

The evening unfolds as a series of vignettes interspersed with moments of dance. I loved the dancing too. The sequences are often reminiscent of folk dance with the performers moving in unison and circling around a central figure. Jimmy and Finola have several achingly beautiful duets as they meet at the lake. They are both lonely, damaged and full of pain, tentatively reaching towards each other and then flinching at the shock of another’s touch. The music, performed live on stage by Dublin-based trio, Slow Moving Clouds, is haunting.  The score is influenced by Irish folk music but with a minimalist, mystical edge

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala is sad, dark and raw, but I didn’t find it depressing.  It has some very comical moments, and the audience often laughed out loud. The final scene is an ecstatic, ritualistic and even joyful explosion of dance and feathers.  And I left the theatre feeling hopeful about the possibility of finding beauty in the most despairing situations. My guest and I both highly recommend it.


  • Swan Lake/Loch na hEala is playing at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front Street East) as part of the 2018 Luminato Festival until June 10, 2018
  • Performances are at 8pm with a 2pm matinee on Sunday
  • Tickets range from $50.07 – $94.62 with $31.25 tickets available for Students/Youth/Arts Workers
  • Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 416-368-3100

Photo of the company by Colm Hogan