Sunday 18 November 2018

Joan Denise Moriarty: Mother of the dance

That she was devoted to dance is in no doubt. Joan Denise Moriarty, whose centenary is being celebrated this year, was a self-sacrificing dynamo who brought ballet to the masses with the Irish Ballet Company. Those who loved her -- especially generations of Cork schoolgirls -- remember the magic, but others recall a long-running affair with married collaborator, Aloys Fleischmann, that would have scandalised Ireland in the late Forties when it began. Sarah Caden remembers Miss Moriarty

ROOTS: Mystery surrounds the upbringing of Joan Denise Moriarty — some reports say she was born in Mallow and raised
there by her mother and father, others that she was born in Leeds, England, abandoned, and raised in care as a sickly child
ROOTS: Mystery surrounds the upbringing of Joan Denise Moriarty — some reports say she was born in Mallow and raised there by her mother and father, others that she was born in Leeds, England, abandoned, and raised in care as a sickly child

Sarah Caden

'I can still see her in the long tartan skirt, the black polo neck, the big stick and the red hair tied tightly back," says a former pupil of Joan Denise Moriarty.

"I can hear her voice, 56 years later. Demi-bras. Gateway. First. I still kind of tremble at the memory, of being in that class, under her gaze. She was a powerful influence, a powerful personality. Not just over me, either, but over Cork."

The story of Joan Denise Moriarty is one of which Cork is proud, not least because it proves that they had ballet and culture long before Dublin, but because the story -- that of the plucky and underappreciated underdog --is very much in keeping with the city's image of itself. And in the city's history, Moriarty is a little bit of magic, a mysterious character who brought magic and light to decades that were dreary all over Ireland, who allowed little girls to dream and adults to feel part of something special. And, to its credit, Cork has never forgotten her, or its gratitude to her.

In Cork, the celebrations of the life and work of Moriarty will run throughout 2012. It is, this year, the "probable" centenary of the birth of the founding mother of Irish ballet, though no one can be quite sure of when she was born, either day, month or year. It's possible that Miss Moriarty, as she was best known, didn't know precisely herself and, in many ways, the mystery of her birth -- date and location and parentage -- was the germ of the dramatic allure she developed. It is believed by some that, as a child, Moriarty might never have known exactly who she was, but as an adult, she ensured that everyone knew who she was and, in Cork, she was beloved, admired and adored.

And remains thus, with a tremendous desire among her former colleagues and friends to celebrate her supposed centenary. The date might well be slightly off, but the sentiment is solid.

In the 20 years since Moriarty's death, there have been various accounts of her life and times -- one of which threatened to blow apart her reputation irreparably. Most significantly, she has been remembered by those who worked with her in the Cork Ballet Company and the Irish Ballet Company as a self- sacrificing dynamo devoted to dance, to her students and to the bigger picture of bringing ballet to the masses.

Those who loved Moriarty remember the magic, but, elsewhere, an alternative account of her life tells of a decades-long affair with her married collaborator, Aloys Fleischmann, that would have scandalised Ireland in the late Forties when it began. The alternative view of Miss Moriarty also speaks of a fantasist who invented a history, concocted her classical ballet training and lived to be noticed -- which is a rather mean-spirited take on the woman.

Because, regardless of the alleged illicit affair and whatever sense of self-importance Moriarty derived from her work, she had a huge effect. Now grown-up students have publicly recalled the huge influence she was on their childhoods and now elderly women have remembered the energy she brought to Cork with her ballet week and the ahead-of-the-times keep-fit classes that made them feel marvellously modern through a bleak time in Ireland.

We know she died exactly 20 years ago and we can marvel at the high esteem in which she is still held in Cork, but of Moriarty's early years not a huge amount is known, or certain. Many accept that she was born in Mallow and raised there by her mother, Marion Moriarty, with her father and three much older brothers. Other accounts, however, have her born in Leeds, illegitimately, a fact of which apparently even Moriarty was unaware until later in life.

According to a 1995 biography by Sandra MacLiammoir -- which did not go down well in Cork -- she was born in Leeds, abandoned and fostered and raised in care as a crosspatch, sickly child. Then, when a bout of scarlet fever nearly killed her, she was dispatched to Mallow to Marion Moriarty, a possible relation of one of her parents, and raised as her daughter.

And it was there, apparently, that the first fudging of Joan Denise Moriarty's age occurred. Further, it was in the doldrums that followed her illness that she had her first experience of the depression that was to dog her -- often disguised -- for the rest of her life. According to Joan Denise Moriarty, when she was six years old, she was brought to London by her mother, Marion, and taken to the ballet. It was Swan Lake and the little girl with the golden-red hair was smitten. She pestered her mother to listen, she recounted as an adult, when she told her that she wanted to be a dancer. To any Irish mother in this dreary decade such an ambition would have seemed fanciful and, apparently, Marion brushed away young Joan's insistence with, "We'll see."

All through her adult life, Moriarty -- and the ever constant Fleischmann -- liked to regard her thus, as one battling against narrow-minded resistance to her romantic dreams. In their personal correspondence, he addresses her as the mythical and heroic Queen Maeve of Irish legend, doing battle in the name of ballet, constantly thwarted and dismissed but made ever more determined by the deniers.

Ballet was their baby in the correspondence and Miss Moriarty was a ferocious mother, albeit at the expense of her own health and well-being, according to his and her image of who she was.

Also according to Joan Denise Moriarty, she was classically trained in London, when she was apparently sent by her mother to live with relatives there and later attended the Rambert Ballet school. While there, as a young woman, she suffered another bout of illness and when she returned to class after a prolonged convalescence she had grown extremely tall.

There was, she was told, "too much of her" to be a ballerina and so, she never performed with the Rambert, but as Moriarty always put it, Rambert's loss was Ireland's gain. She returned to Ireland full of ability and ambition, with the self-confidence and cosmopolitan air that came from living in a big city -- and in a place such as Cork, she was an exotic creature.

Cork, it has been said, was particularly suited to Moriarty, for she and its inhabitants shared a tendency to personal secrecy and delusions of grandeur.

Certainly, artistically, she settled in a city well suited to her. Cork, with its love of opera and film, its festivals of culture that date well back into the early 20th Century, was a sponge for her new-fangled ideas about ballet, which was virtually unheard of in Ireland.

Starting in Mallow, this beautiful, statuesque vision began her classes for young girls, and cultivated a Miss Brodie-ish status for herself. Her girls were the creme de la creme and she was equipping them for a better life by finessing their manners, drilling them in deportment, allowing them to dream a little. And it was a fact that she had her own struggles.

A suicide attempt saw her hospitalised for a time, her health was never particularly good and she did not get to perform and shine as much as she might have wished, with many of her supporters remembering as if it was yesterday how she fell during a performance in Cobh and broke her leg, but forced the stagehands to drop the curtain after she fell, so that no one would see what had happened and be distracted from the dance.

When she moved to Cork, Moriarty ran her classes above a shop on Patrick's Street and drew her students from Cork's middle classes, with annual showcases of their daughters' talents and certain concessions made to talented girls whose families weren't quite able to meet the fees.

And it was during the early years of her school in Cork that Moriarty met Fleischmann, a Corkman born of German parents, both musicians, who had art and culture as his raison d'etre from an early age and who identified with the artistic drive in Moriarty.

He was also, allegedly, taken with her statuesque beauty and gorgeous flaming hair. And he was, of course, married.

According to Sandra MacLiammoir, however, the Fleischmann marriage was an unhappy one from its outset, lacking in artistic sympathy, wanting in warmth. His wife, Ann, bore him five children and while those children speak of a loving father, they have also described a man devoted to his music, to his job as professor of music in UCC, the Cork Symphony Orchestra, which he founded, and his work on the history of Irish traditional music. He was always working, rarely at home -- or if at home, ensconced in his study -- and he also had the ballet.

With Moriarty, Fleisch- mann founded the amateur Cork Ballet Company in 1947, which staged performances and recitals around the county and established an annual Ballet Week in Cork, an event unlike any other in the country and which won them the friendship and support of Taoiseach Jack Lynch, whose wife Mairin introduced him to ballet while they were courting.

Certainly, whatever the romantic relationship, Fleischmann and Miss Moriarty were soulmates and it was he who encouraged her to dream big. Their lives were utterly bound up in one another and in the work.

His arrangements for the ballet were key to its professional polish, and he and his family were stalwarts of the Cork arts scene. To this day, regardless of what might be the truth of the relationship between Moriarty and Fleischmann, both of whom are long dead, his family remain bound up with her. His daughters speak and write of her with great admiration and fondness for her as a family friend and it is Ruth Fleischmann, now a professor in her grandparents' native Germany, who is central to the Moriarty centenary celebrations.

Today, when we are so cosmopolitan and almost jaded, it is easy to underestimate how exotic ballet was in Forties Ireland. Even in the Seventies, when she founded the Irish National Ballet, it was unusual in Ireland, but through the Fifties and Sixties in Cork it was extraordinarily special.

Furthermore, it was something they didn't have up in Dublin. There was fierce second-city pride taken in the Cork Ballet Company and the fact that Cork also had a fine city hall in which to showcase the dance and a symphony orchestra of its own were finishing flourishes.

There was something wonderful, too, one former student recalled, in the fact that girls whom you saw working in Cash's by day were on stage by night, en pointe and exotic, like creatures from another world.

The classes Moriarty ran for adults have also become the stuff of legend. Long before Jane Fonda exorted anyone to feel the burn, Moriarty saw the value in building exercise into one's life, particularly as women became office girls and began to sit at desks all day, slouching and slowly letting their figures go.

Those who attended her keep-fit classes were encouraged to adopt her uniform of the ballerina's black polo neck, which they wore with thick black tights, and while the soft ballet shoes were not compulsory, they were a prized accessory of many of the women, bestowing a touch of glamour on their exertions. In a time starved of glitz and gaiety, Joan Denise Moriarty brought both to Cork in abundance, but it was the well-intentioned national ambitions she shared with Fleischmann that proved her undoing.

In Fleischmann's notes to Moriarty, often written the night before a show or at the start of ballet week, he referred constantly to her as a warrior, battling in the name of ballet, striving to give birth to the greatest ambition -- an Irish professional ballet company.

To some minds, however, this was too great a goal for Moriarty. In the most basic terms, she was a big fish in the small pond of Cork and that perhaps suited her. But also, by the time the Irish National Ballet was formed in the early Seventies -- born out of her Irish Theatre Ballet -- she was too old to push it along as it required.

Also, it was a complicated business financially, funded in part by the Arts Council, which required detailed reports on how the money was spent and on what it was spent. Through most of her career, close friendships with well-to-do Cork families and close political connections had funded and furthered the work, but with the professional national company, it was all much more official and overwhelming.

Increasingly, it seemed, Moriarty drew back from its rigours and focused more on the original amateur company in Cork. It was her comfort zone, perhaps, and by that time, in her 60s, she had earned comfort.

That said, the likes of Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains and Moriarty's many champions in the Irish arts had nothing but applause and serious admiration for her part-mime, part-movement adaptation of The Playboy of the Western World, which ultimately went beyond touring Ireland and visited London and New York.

Ultimately, however, a 1985 Arts Council report on the running of the Irish National Ballet resulted in Moriarty's resignation. The report had been personally critical of her running of the company and she was seriously personally wounded by it. Almost literally, she regarded it as her baby, a creation born of her sweat and blood and one that could never have been born without her. As with these things, however, it had grown away from her, out of her control and maybe even beyond her understanding.

Had it been formed when she was a younger woman, maybe Moriarty would have been able to adapt to its demands, but she was not. She was able and as amazing as ever within the confines of Cork and it was to Cork that she retreated. Where she was, right until the end, justifiably revered. Women who had attended her classes as young girls sent their daughters and while Miss Moriarty taught less, her arrival in a class would cause a stir and pupils always took note when she adjusted their arm or corrected their posture with just a tip of her hand.

Perhaps, in some ways, it is in keeping with the woman that this is a "probable" centenary, that there is about it a degree of mystery. Joan Denise Moriarty may herself never have known truly who she was, who her parents were, where exactly or when she had been born. And if she had known, did she in fact decide she was someone else, decide to create the Miss Moriarty that she became?

Whatever the truth and whatever truths she chose to conceal -- including whatever may have been the truth of her relationship with Aloys Fleischmann -- these were all elements in what made her exotic, exciting and adored. And adored still. There is a centenary because such is Cork's love for Moriarty that it wishes to celebrate her and it won't be deterred by anything as trivial as indefinite dates.

The Joan Denise Moriarty Centenary Gala opens on March 22 in association with Firkin Crane, at the Firkin Crane Theatre for three performances. Directed by Alan Foley, artistic director, Cork City Ballet, the gala will include a new adaptation of Moriarty's most famous ballet, 'The Playboy of the Western World'. For tickets go to Tel: (021) 450 7487

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