Irish-set Swan Lake and its Slow Moving Clouds soundtrack are things of beauty

Teach Damhsa's very Irish interpretation of Swan Lake and its accompanying soundtrack, by Irish-Scandinavian group Slow Moving Clouds, are stunningly beautiful. The ballet is heading Stateside but the band are bound for Belfast

Irish-Scandinavian group Slow Moving Clouds provide the soundtrack for Loch na hEala and perform in Belfast's Duncairn centre tomorrow night
Robert McMillen

ON A shelf in my office at home, I recently put a black saucer and on it I placed some white feathers. It is stunning in its simplicity but there is a story behind it.

The feathers came from Loch na hEala, a totally enthralling adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet Swan Lake at the Cork Opera House which I was privileged to witness last week.

Irish choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan’s dance company, Teach Damhsa, has reimagined the story of the love between a prince and a princess who has been turned into a swan by a sorcerer's curse into a contemporary, no-holds-barred look at Ireland today – although it is so much more than that.

And if it ever comes back to Ireland after next year’s tour of the United States – I hope it does – don’t be expecting Piotr Ilyich’s timeless music. The soundtrack for Loch na hEala is provided by the Irish-Scandinavian group Slow Moving Clouds.

A few weeks before I went to Cork I happened to bump into a former member of the trio, Danny Diamond, at Áras Mhic Reachtain where he was performing with another fantastic band of his, North, but I grabbed the chance to ask him about this amazing piece of theatre.

“It’s incredible,” he said, enthusiastically. “It’s contemporary dance rather than ballet although some of the dancers have a background in ballet, but in Loch na hEala the dance is much freer and Michael has his own particular perspective on that; it is his world which he recreates and that was a very inspirational setting for the music,” says Danny.

The Tchaikovsky original, based on a German folk tale, is a dark tale and so it is in this Irish reimagining. It skilfully weaves the story of John Carthy from Abbeylara in Co Longford who was shot dead by members of the Garda Emergency Response Unit in April 2000 after a 25-hour siege at his home.

John had fallen into a deep depression after the death of his father a few years before and had become the butt of jokes and practical jokes throughout the village and beyond.

In Loch na hEala, however, we see him dance with Fionnuala, a young woman who is turned into a swan along with three of her school friends after she is cursed by a priest who has sexually assaulted her. The narrative, of course, will remind of us the famous Irish legend of the Children of Lir.

This, you are probably thinking, might be a little too much to bear but, as Michael Keegan-Dolan writes in a blog: “The darkness in any story is there to teach us something. Don’t be afraid of the dark – it is your friend.”

The dancing and the music that accompanies it are stunningly beautiful.

“A lot of the music was done in improv with the dancers – the way they dragged creativity out of us was uncanny,” Danny told me.

Michael Keegan-Dolan was already a fan of Nordic music and asked Danny if he would write music for the production which would eventually make its debut at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2016 to rapturous acclaim.

“Michael was already talking about drones and Nordic strings and he wanted to give the show a dark, austere feel. He hadn’t heard Slow Moving Clouds before that and came to me individually at first so just by happenstance, I was able to say, 'well, I have a band whose music does exactly what you’re looking for,” says Danny.

And so, the band got involved in Loch na hEala/Swan Lake, providing 15 tracks for the show, from the love duets, to the depressing house party scene where all the eligible females in the town are invited on the off-chance that her son might pick up a wife.

Less comic is the sight of the swans entangled in a mesh of polythene.

The whole show is powerfully held together by actor Mikel Murfi as narrator, predator priest and parish pump local councillor, as ancient mythology and the modern world collide.

While a lot of the action and the imagery of Loch na hEala is very disturbing, at the end of the show there is created a blizzard of feathers which envelops the stage and then floats across the auditorium. It is a unexpectedly joyous moment of redemption.

I grabbed a pocketful and they are now the ones sitting in my study as a reminder of a wonderful show and of the idea that healing is possible.


Loch na hEala/Swan Lake is going to tour the US next month and Slow Moving Clouds are no slouches either. Danny Diamond left last year – he is going to live in America – and the band now consists of Aki, who plays a traditional Swedish instrument called the nyckelharpa; Ultan O’Brien from Ennis, Co Clare, on fiddle and cellist Kevin Murphy.

The unique combination of nyckelharpa, fiddle and cello produce a unique sound that has won the band fans all over the world.

As well an album of music from Loch na hEala/Swan Lake, the trio also have a new album out, Swansong/Starfall. (Some tracks are on both albums.)

The good news is that Slow Moving Clouds are heading back to the Duncairn Arts Centre in north Belfast. I was at the last show they did there and it was truly a spellbinding night of music. This time around the gig is a co-promotion between two visionary organisations, the Duncairn and Moving On Music.

In their words: “Creating a minimalist sound world that is rich, darkly atmospheric and brimming with ideas, the trio are willing to explore, while never straying too far from their roots.

"However, what sets Slow Moving Clouds apart is their ability to recreate the ethereal and atmospheric intricacies of their studio work in a live setting...”

:: Slow Moving Clouds play the Duncairn Arts Centre tomorrow night, (Saturday, September 21) at 7:30pm.

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