‘We cannot have an endless diet of Swan Lakes’
Ballet Ireland changes direction, after 20 years in business
Choreographer Emma Martin and Ballet Ireland dancer Ana Enriquez Gonzalez. Photograph: Rodolfo Saraiva
Wearing an oversized flannel shirt and endless layers of leg warmers, choreographer Emma Martin appears an unlikely poster-girl for ballet. Her unkempt ponytail falls into her eyes as she rehearses with dancers from Ballet Ireland.
The dozen or so men and women move as one unit, arms quivering and bodies collapsing to the floor, and while Martin’s layers of clothing may cloak her movements, they cannot hide her inherent grace.
As Ballet Ireland approaches its 20-year anniversary, the company’s collaborations with artists such as Martin may signal its coming of age. Previously tethered to stereotypical ballerinas in tutus and story ballets, Ballet Ireland has begun working with others who are less tied to ballet’s traditional forms.
In addition to collaborating with Martin, this month the company also unveils a new production of Giselle by French-born choreographer Ludovic Ondiviela. While onstage this represents another re-worked classic, behind the scenes Ballet Ireland’s changes may prove more significant.
Its evolving artistic vision, commitment to strategic planning and new board leadership may send the company stepping in a new direction.
“After intense strategic planning last year, we are all focused on the idea of what the company wants to be doing: creating resonant work,” says director Anne Maher.
“Yes, we want to do the story ballets, and with 17,000 people coming to see our Nutcracker, clearly there’s an appetite for that. But ballet needs to be growing in other ways and we cannot be left behind. We cannot continue to have an endless diet of Swan Lakes and Nutcrackers.”
This kind of talk will cause the most devoted ballet fans to leap in their seats, and hiring Ondiviela to create a more present-day Giselle illustrates a commitment by Maher and her team. Ondiviela trained at the Royal Ballet School, launched his career at the Royal Ballet and began making dances soon thereafter.
Giselle’s creative team also includes set designer Maree Kearns, known in the dance world for her work with Cois Céim Dance Theatre, and the resulting Giselle should be “a modern take, set not necessarily in the 1980s or 1990s but somewhere in the now”, according to Maher. This Giselle aligns more with audiences today than a straightforward reproduction of Giselle’s 1841 premiere.
Audiences might also notice the dancers onstage moving with a greater cohesion, the result of an intense rehearsal period with Martin, who most recently earned praise for her choreography in Enda Walsh’s play Arlington.
Ballet dancers don’t get to spend so much time discovering their individuality in movement terms, so I gave a lot of space for them to do that
“Ballet dancers are like cats with highly tuned bodies and super quick brains,” Martin says. “My work with the dancers from Ballet Ireland was focused on wanting them to reveal themselves to me as people through their movement. Contemporary dancers have little option but to work with their individual physicality, and I love using that in my own work. But ballet dancers don’t get to spend so much time discovering their individuality in movement terms, so I gave a lot of space for them to do that.”
Youtube Ballet Ireland
Maher commissioned Martin to spend weeks working with the company with no end product or performance in mind. It allowed the dancers discover themselves as artists on a deeper level while working in the studio, a process that will likely influence how they interpret ballets such as Giselle.
“They are teetering in that delicate phase of letting go of some of the ballet movement,” Martin says, “to the point where they may feel a little bit lost in some of the movements they are doing. It’s a vulnerable place to be but it’s also very exciting.”
Reinforcing this new way of working, Ballet Ireland announced last month Martin Lindinger as its new general manager. A former dancer with Hubbard Street Dance (Chicago), Rambert Dance Company and National Ballet of Canada, Lindinger also worked as rehearsal director for Ballet Ireland during the past year and a half.
Gerardine Connolly, the new chairwoman of Ballet Ireland’s board of directors, echoes Maher’s commitment to presenting contemporary work while striking a balance with the more well-known ballets.
“Our goals for the future are first to increase our number of performances annually. Then we will do that in tandem with presenting more contemporary work. I do understand that we must tread that fine line with what audiences are used to seeing, but we’ve had careful discussions on how to do so.”
We want to come at this innovation in a slow and gentle way, with a little innovation every day, every week
Connolly works as a barrister and has travelled abroad to see other companies, connecting with international choreographers and serving as a sounding board for Ballet Ireland’s artistic vision.
“Ballet is underdeveloped in Ireland,” Connolly says. “It needs to be refocused. How do we bring big ideas into play? By taking small steps towards a bigger vision. We want to come at this innovation in a slow and gentle way, with a little innovation every day, every week.”
Just as Emma Martin discovered the dancers’ vulnerability when working with them during this stage of the company’s development, Connolly recognises the delicate balance Ballet Ireland faces at this point.
“I’d say we are experiencing a sea change,” Connolly says, “and that the strategic plan has focused everyone 100 per cent. We’ve set down our values, and for me it’s about integrity, ambition, credibility and teamwork. I can’t say the changes ahead are easy, but if you feel passionate, that passion will resonate.”
Project Arts Centre, Dublin
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