Correcting a blind spot about Irish ballet


DANCE: MICHAEL SEAVERreviews A History of Irish Ballet from 1927 to 1963By Victoria O’Brien Peter Lang, 188pp. €38

IN 1963 THE ARTS COUNCIL made a decision that defined not only Irish ballet’s future but also its past. Faced with the prospect of funding two ballet companies, Joan Denise Moriarty’s Cork-based Irish Theatre Ballet and Patricia Ryan’s Dublin-based National Ballet School and Company, the council opted to amalgamate them into a new, Dublin-based company, with Ryan and Moriarty as joint artistic directors. A contemporary press report noted that the two companies’ policies were “poles apart” and that “it will be difficult to reconcile them in a unified set-up”.

Five months after its first performance, the new company was disbanded because of artistic differences, and Ryan, who had spent 10 years developing her company and school, emigrated to France, never to teach or choreograph again. Her story is unknown, largely because of what happened next.

According to Victoria O’Brien, Moriarty spent the rest of her career cultivating the misconception that she was a pioneer in establishing Irish ballet. The Cork City Ballet silver-jubilee programme from 1972 claims that Ireland had “no tradition in ballet” before Moriarty and that she staged Irish premieres of standard repertoire. O’Brien proves otherwise and argues that Moriarty was well aware of her predecessors, even restaging some of their works (“to a large extent . . . without crediting the original choreographers”). This helped contribute to a cultural blind spot, now corrected by this volume.

The author pieces together a 36-year history that shows that ballet was a valued part of the Irish cultural landscape and that production standards, particularly between 1927 and 1945, were comparable with those of British ballet. The list of collaborators and supporters reads like a who’s who of Irish cultural life: they include Mainie Jellett, Patrick Kavanagh, Louis le Brocquy, Brinsley MacNamara, Donagh MacDonagh, Elizabeth Maconchy, Micheál Mac Liammoir, Lennox Robinson, John F Larchet, AJ Potter and FR Higgins.

The genesis for ballet created in this period is the Abbey Theatre School of Ballet, established by Ninette de Valois and WB Yeats in 1927, which staged Irish-themed ballets and Yeats’s Plays for Dancers. Its closure, in 1933, didn’t spell the end for ballet in Dublin, in spite of previous accounts. Kathrine Sorley Walker, de Valois’s biographer, states that her work in Dublin was “a failure” because nothing was left in its wake. Apart from Jill Gregory and Tony Repetto (who both went to London), Walker claims, none of the students at the Abbey Theatre School of Ballet became dancers.

In fact, O’Brien found that seven of the 16 students continued dancing, most importantly Muriel Kelly, Cepta Cullen and Sara Payne. The former pair established the Abbey School of Ballet after de Valois’s school closed, although it was not associated with the Abbey, either financially or artistically.

Cullen, who went on to form the Irish Ballet Club, is probably the most important choreographic discovery of the group. Her Puck Fairis one of Ireland’s most significant ballets, with a scenario by FR Higgins (who died unexpectedly before the premiere), design by Mainie Jellet and music by Elizabeth Maconchy. Terence Gray, director of the Festival Theatre in Cambridge, writing in the Irish literary publication the Bell, lauded the work, claiming that it was an “astonishing achievement” and that he had “rarely seen a stage better used; her stage-craft is far in advance of anything to be seen in this country”.

Kelly, who continued to run the Abbey School of Ballet until the 1950s, standardised the teaching of ballet in this country.

Another significant choreographer to emerge is Payne, Patricia Ryan’s teacher, whose dances were the first to integrate not just traditional Irish dance steps but also step-dancers. Her company had a six-year association with the Gate Theatre, where she directed six ballet productions and was movement director for 11 plays before returning to England, where she worked with de Valois at the Royal Ballet School.

The backdrop to this history is a changing Ireland. Ballet appealed to the emerging Catholic middle class, and O’Brien notes the typically Catholic surnames of students at Kelly’s Abbey School of Ballet in 1934 compared with the typically Protestant surnames of those at de Valois’s classes just six years earlier.

Irish ballet has been poorly served by historians; this book is an important contribution to dance scholarship. (Although it is not without typographical and some factual errors, with sentences in the introduction reappearing almost verbatim in the conclusion.) It not only documents a lost period but also opens up other areas of scholarship and even the possibility of restaging forgotten works. Supplementing O’Brien’s painstaking research are the memories of key dancers, such as Ester Ó Brolcháin, who provide the valuable narrative behind posters and programmes.

Michael Seaver is dance critic with The Irish Times. He has contributed to journals and books, most recently Dance in a World of Change, published by Human Kinetics