A Scottish ‘Swan Lake’: The Swan of Salen by Ballet Folk and The Willow Trio

Now touring but reviewed from film
May 31, 2023

The longest sea loch in the Scottish Highlands, Loch Sunart is startlingly beautiful. It’s a place of moorland, peat bog and woodland; a place where ancient oaks that once covered all the west coast cloak the hillsides. On a rocky knoll, the highest part of an island off the loch’s north shore, lies the Iron Age hill fort of Dun Ghallain, the setting for the romantic tragedy of Eala Shàilein. When you discover the Gaelic translates literally as ‘swan inlet,’ it doesn’t come as any surprise to find that the old tale has similarities with Swan Lake.

The legend tells how a local chieftain fell in love with a beautiful but low born maiden. Opposing the match, his mother used magic to transform the girl into a swan, which the chief, not recognising her, shot and killed while out hunting. Truth is revealed when she returns to human form at the moment of her death. Overcome with grief, he fell on his sword. It is said that the lovers still lie together beneath the fort.

Alex Mulcahy (Dómhnal) and Marina Fraser (Mairead) in The The Song of Salen
Still from film

It sounds ripe for a ballet telling. Thanks to Ballet Folk, a company dedicated to exploring traditional folklore through classical ballet in collaboration with artists from across the folk community, and Glasgow-based clarsach group The Willow Trio, that’s exactly what we now have.

The Swan of Salen is touring as a live music show with film of the dancers projected behind the musicians as they play. Music, dance and film are all well-crafted with folk and ballet coming together as equals.

The story may be relatively straightforward but it is told clearly. Ballet Folk artistic director and choreographer Debbie Norris spends time establishing the two main characters, here called Mairead (danced by Marina Fraser) and Dómhnal (Alex Mulcahy), and friends (Rosie Mackley and Amy Groves). As throughout, the contemporary ballet choreography comes with a solid classical base. It’s lyrical and easy on the eye. A fine solo for Mulcahy sees him turn and leap with ease. There’s also a rather neat ‘drinking dance’ with the foursome sat at a table.

Anna Smith in Song of Salen
Photo Jez Ward

Elsewhere, and indeed throughout, the way traditional Scottish dance steps sit so comfortably alongside the ballet, including references from the traditional Swan Lake, reminds us that the two actually have quite a lot in common.

It’s when Mairead gets transformed into swan by Dómhnal’s mother, presumably thinking she’s not good enough for a chief, that The Swan of Salen really takes off. Close-ups of the now swan Mairead, her eyes quite piercing, contrast starkly with what has gone before. But it gets better still as the film starts to incorporate scenes shot on the shores of Loch Sunart. Some of the lingering distance and aerial shots are outrageously beautiful. It makes you want to visit.

Marina Fraser in The Swan of Salen
Still from film

Even if it shifts outdoors for just a few seconds, past and present seem to merge as the film transports you to another time, as well as another place. Neat editing by Gary Heather of Thistle Ridge Films, the movement carrying through from one to the other, helps a lot.

The production bridges the gap between traditional and modern wherever you look. An old story told in a new way. Traditional swan costumes given a super, yet simple, modernist look by designer Poppy Camden. Old instruments playing new music.

And that music is a delight. A clarsach is a Scottish harp that was the primary instrument of the Gaelic courts until the arrival of the bagpipe in the 15th century, although it remained central to courtly music for another 300 years. The Willow Trio (Romy Wymer, Sophie Rocks and Sam MacAdam) use them to great conveying beautifully the feelings of love, tension and heartache in the story in a marvellously sympathetic, often delicate coming together of the Tchaikovsky with traditional Scottish tunes and themes. It is beautiful to listen to. Not once do joins jar. It’s hard to believe that The Swan of Salem is the group’s debut album.

The Willow Trio of Sophie Rocks, Romy Wymer and Sam MacAdam
Photo Jez Ward

I even found myself liking things I usually dislike. As much as it might be an audience favourite, I find the traditional Dance of the Cygnets a cute irrelevance to the story. Here, Norris works it in beautifully. As three swans dance around Dómhnal’s cross bow as if it somehow holds a spell over them, the sense of foreboding is plain.

There may only be two other swans (Mackley and Anna Smith) but some astute choreography and film editing means scenes never feel underpowered.

The shooting of Mairead comes as a shock. Cue a return to a rock by real loch. No suicide. Just a lot of remorse and sadness.

Alex Mulcahy (Dómhnal) and Marina Fraser (Mairead) in The The Song of Salen
Still from film

With its love, loss and heartache, The Swan of Salen is a beautiful story. It’s a production that sits very comfortably within ballet, Gaelic and folk traditions, bringing them together as equals. But as impressive as the film is, I can’t help thinking that those emotions would be enhanced greatly if the dance was live too, perhaps still mixed with loch-side shots on film. One day perhaps. It would be nice to see it venture to England sometime too. But, for now, The Willow Trio are doing a grand job touring the show to small venues around Scotland, often visiting places that have little access to touring art.

The Swan of Salen continues to tour in Scotland. Visit www.thewillowtrio.co.uk and watch their Facebook page for dates and venues.

The 15-track score for The Swan of Salen is available to stream and download on digital platforms including Bandcamp, Amazon, and Apple Music.

For live appearances by Ballet Folk this summer, including in The Tears of Jenny Greenteeth, visit www.balletfolk.com and keep an eye on their Facebook page.