Walking on water from the Playboy to the Táin with the Irish National Ballet

A weekend forum will celebrate the heady days of the dance company founded by Joan Denise Moriarty

'It won't be a nostalgia-fest," says Alan Foley at the Firkin Crane dance centre in Cork. Listening to him describe this weekend's reunion forum for former members of the Irish National Ballet, I find I can't believe him, not least because the programme indicates a movement from Charles Czarny's country and western Sunny Day, and I'm getting nostalgic myself.

The forum has been arranged as a 40-year celebration of the inaugural performance of the professional Irish Ballet Company (which was later elevated to national ballet status), which took place at the Cork Opera House in January 1974, and, in one of those coincidences lightly termed ironic, a 25-year commemoration of the company’s final production at the Grand Opera House in Belfast in March 1989.

Foley is in a typically rebarbative mood and not merely because of the stress of his Cork Ballet Company's production of The Nutcracker, which opens on Thursday at Cork Opera House. Instead, it's more to do with his company's relationship with the Arts Council, which has denied it any funding since 2011. Uncertain as to the success of his application for funding for 2014, Foley had hesitated to begin work on another production. The application was refused, with the result that, as he says, "I was so livid that I decided that, if I had to walk on water, I was going to make this production happen."

The Irish National Ballet's founder, Joan Denise Moriarty, may have been familiar with walking on water. Even when official recognition and guaranteed funding arrived in 1974, touring was still a tough business, and justifying grants meant sticking to the stringent touring schedules imposed by Moriarty, a personality with rigour in her bones.

Although a supportive partnership had been built up with the late Dr Aloys Fleischmann, conductor of the Cork Symphony Orchestra, this ensemble only played for the amateur Cork Ballet Company. There were a few exceptions, such as Moriarty's production of the The Playboy of the Western World, which toured to London and New York with The Chieftains on musical duties. But in the main, the company performed to taped music as it visited nearly 60 Irish venues, from Abbeyfeale to Gweedore and from Callan to Monaghan.

“Live music doubled the wages bill,” says Foley crisply. “Of course we’re always on about money, but Moriarty kept going through thick and thin. Not that there was much thick.”

Alan Foley was too young then to be a full-time member of the company, but he offers a catalogue of its 15-year existence: it employed 20 choreographers (including former artistic adviser Domy Reiter-Soffer who is revisiting Cork; and, from the early days, the late Anton Dolin); 21 guest teachers, one of whom is former Royal Ballet dancer Brenda Last, who will give a masterclass at the forum accompanied by her husband, pianist Stephen Lade; 11 set, costume and lighting designers; 120 dancers; 38 stage crew; four wardrobe staff; four rehearsal pianists; and 18 administrative staff. Long-term returning members include Anna Donovan, Kathleen Smith and Howard Epstein, home-grown Kay McLoughlin, Colm Seery, Eric Gibson and Cilian O'Callaghan.

"When the company disbanded in 1989 everyone was just scattered to the four winds," remembers Katherine Lewis. "Some of us always kept in touch, and when I realised the coincidence of the two anniversaries it seemed a good idea to try to get as many of us as possible to meet up again, and in Cork."

About 50 former employees are expected to come for the celebration. Originally, many of the dancers came from abroad, and had to be content with more local work, such as The Devil to Pay, with music by Seán Ó Riada, or a full-length version of The Táin, with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1981. Anyone who thought that ballet was all about Swan Lake or Giselle was brought up short by the company's performance of Diúltú, commissioned by the Irish government for the Padraic Pearse Centenary and danced to a score by John Buckley at the Abbey Theatre in 1979.

Katherine Lewis of Irish National Youth Ballet, former company manager Mike Blair and electrician Ray Casey are currently putting together an archive of the ballet's productions. The company recorded every production on film, and these tapes have now been transferred to disc, along with Casey's trove of rehearsal recordings. Dancer Joanna Banks kept every programme, touring schedule and hotel detail during her time with the company over eight years. "The whole archive is going to Catherine Foley at the University of Limerick, but the recordings will be screened at the Firkin Crane all day on Friday," says Lewis.

The Nutcracker opens at the Cork Opera House on Thursday