Dance moves: making a ballet on a shoestring


Cork City Ballet's 'The Sleeping Beauty' opens tonight, and its artistic director Alan Foley has bet his house on its success

As dozens of dancers from around the world get ready a few doors away, Cork City Ballet artistic director Alan Foley is holding an impromptu production meeting in his office in the Firkin Crane dance centre in Cork. The company, one of only a handful of professional ballet companies in Ireland, has never exactly been flush with cash, but this year has been a real struggle.

The financial constraints and uncertainty are especially frustrating for all connected with the company, as 2012 marks the centenary of the birth of Joan Denise Moriarty, founder of the Irish Ballet Company (subsequently the Irish National Ballet), and a series of events are taking place in Cork to celebrate. Cork City Ballet adapted Moriarty’s best-known work, a production of The Playboy of the Western World, earlier in the year, and the company’s flagship event for the year is The Sleeping Beauty.

These plans nearly didn’t come to fruition, after the Arts Council decided not to fund The Sleeping Beauty. However, Foley – who was the first Irish dancer to study at the prestigious Kirov Ballet School and danced with a heart defect for much of his professional life – is not easily dissuaded. Using personal funds, borrowing costumes, recycling sets, pleading for Cork City Council support, getting dancers on reduced contracts, and calling in every favour he could from here to St Petersburg, the show will, after all, go on.

In the production meeting, choreographer Yury Demakov, who danced with the Bolshoi Ballet, is opening a large bag of costumes he has brought him and which will be remodelled for this production. Foley is consulting with Patricia Crosbie, the company’s ballet mistress, about how they will get their set transported from storage to stage. “Who do we know in a rental company?” Foley asks, as the rest of the team consult their phones.

Such are the financial constraints that the two lead dancers, Monica Fotescu Uta and Sergio Torrado (who was Natalie Portman’s partner in Black Swan), don’t arrive until the day before the production opens. In the meantime, the company will rehearse in the Firkin Crane dance centre (which Moriarty also founded) while Demakov and Foley will liaise with the two leads via Skype and using clips on YouTube to ensure they know what’s required of them.

Foley says that some dancers would get in the region of €15,000 per performance in New York. “Basically, what you’re talking about is the equivalent of Beckham coming to Cork,” he says. “The lead guys we get come for a fraction of what they get elsewhere. They do it because I know them and I ring them and say we have nothing. When we didn’t get funded this year, I said to myself, this is it, I am done. I already felt that it was a constant uphill struggle and this year especially I felt the legacy of Joan Denise was being overlooked greatly by the Arts Council. There comes a point when I had to say, who am I doing this for? You feel like no-one gives a sh*t, but then you get back on the treadmill and start calling around and bit by bit we got there.”

If the numbers don’t add up after all box-office receipts are counted and bills remain outstanding, Foley says he will be personally liable for the shortfall. “At the end of the day if it doesn’t work out, I will have to go to the bank and re-mortgage my home to meet the bills. We need about 90 per cent capacity, but the audience has always been very supportive towards us. That’s what keeps us going really.”

Rehearsal time

The production meeting has finished and it’s time for rehearsals with the main company. Alan sits on a chair in front of the dancers, while Demakov prowls the group, adjusting postures, repeating moves and offering encouragement when dancers are struggling. “You need to put her out of her misery,” one of the team says, as one dancer in particular struggles with a certain movement and the sequence is adjusted.

The group is rehearsing the opening scene of The Sleeping Beauty, where guests are arriving for the christening of Princess Aurora. “Shoulders down and open your chest,” Foley says, as a collection of taut limbs, stretched muscles, slender necks and pointed toes snap to attention. “Keep pushing those heels forward ladies,” he shouts. When dancers are not in a scene, they are at the side doing press-ups, stretching or checking their posture. Some of the dancers get a shoe allowance (each pair can cost €90) and they might go through three pairs during the run.

Behind us, students from the Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa dance class, which Foley teaches, are busy making flower props that will be used in a garden scene, pausing to applaud spontaneously when a dancer nails a solo spot. In this context, it’s easy to see why there was such a strong reaction when the film industry applauded Natalie Portman for becoming a “ballerina” for her role in Black Swan. She couldn’t possibly have – most of the dancers here have been at it since they were nine or 10 years old.

Rehearsals didn’t start until 10am, but most were here warming up for an hour or two before that. “It’s an insult to them to say you could achieve this level of performance in a year,” Foley says.

Someone arrives with Halloween masks – the makings of more costumes. Foley tells me about a visit to the Royal Opera House in Stockholm recently, where he was again calling in a favour and collecting some cheap costumes.

“I arrived at the stage door and they brought me up in a lift. The door opened and I looked and asked, ‘Is this really the wardrobe department?’ It was actually only the girls’ section and it had 33 staff. It is a country of nine million people and they have similar facilities in Malmö, Gothenburg and other cities, so it is possible to fund ballet well.”

He springs from his chair having spotted some inconsistencies in the movements. “It’s all in the music, girls. Listen and feel it,” he shouts.

As he flops back down on his seat a colleague shows him a message on her mobile phone. It’s a promising report on box-office sales. “We’ve done €4,000 advance sales in 24 hours,” he says.

His home may be safe for another while.

* Cork City Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty is at the Cork Opera House until Saturday, and Wexford Opera House on Sunday. An exhibition about Joan Denise Moriarty is at Firkin Crane, Cork until December 31st.

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