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Arts: Cork Ballet's 'Nutcracker to remember'

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Ballerina Erina Takahashi is in Cork to perform 'The Nutcracker'.

Ballerina Erina Takahashi is in Cork to perform 'The Nutcracker'.

Helen Maybanks

Beautiful Dreamers

Beautiful Dreamers

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Ballerina Erina Takahashi is in Cork to perform 'The Nutcracker'.

There is something inherently festive about The Nutcracker, not least because it is set on Christmas Eve and tells the story of a little girl called Clara given the present of a nutcracker shaped like a man, who gets broken and then comes to life at the turn of midnight on Christmas morning, and a battle between an army of gingerbread men and mice, before the action moves to the Land of Sweets, ruled by none other than the Sugar Plum Fairy.

This ballet by Tchaikovsky has been a perennial seasonal favourite since it first debuted in 1892. And it is on in Cork's Opera House (corkoperahouse.ie) today for two performances by the Cork City Ballet.

Cork City Ballet is now in its 22nd year and it is one of just three ballet companies in Ireland. And there is such a strong lasting tradition of ballet in Cork, Joan Denise Moriarty established the first ballet company Cork Ballet Company in 1945 and subsequently the Irish National Ballet.

However, with no funding from the Arts Council, Cork City Ballet was seriously considered not putting on a production this year. Thankfully, they were determined to forge ahead and are hoping that people will rally around to keep a tradition of over 60 years of ballet alive in Cork. "We are operating on a shoestring, so if this production does not break even it will probably be the last performance for the company after 22 years," says the ballet's artistic director Alan Foley.

But, despite funding setbacks, this is an impressively glittering production choreographed by Yury Demakov of the Bolshoi Ballet.

"I love the Russian approach to ballet: get in, get out, get the job done. No messing about," says Alan. "Sometimes tensions get high and there are histrionics and people can get melodramatic, whereas the Russians keep things pragmatic. It's a job, come and do it and park your hysterics outside the front door. "

Cork City Ballet are also not paring back on the scale of the production - it is enormous. "There are lots of kids in The Nutcracker, so the cast is quite huge," says Alan. "The total cast number who will be dancing on stage is 72. Out of that there are 36 professional dancers and the rest are children from ballet schools in Cork, including my own school. Twelve of the professionals are Irish dancers, both male and female, who make their career out of ballet."

Alan was himself a very successful ballet dancer until his career abruptly stopped seven years ago when he had major heart surgery at the age of 38.

"I was born with a heart murmur and knew that at some stage I would have to have a valve replaced and was being monitored all the time. We had a big gala coming up when I went in for one of my regular check ups and my surgeon told me that the time had come for me to have the surgery.

"I was devastated but asked him if I would be able to do one last performance, he said maybe, and so I made the gala my farewell performance. It wasn't my best ever, the day before we opened I collapsed in the studio, but the show did go on.

"I think I went through a kind of grieving period for it, for my life as a dancer, for about two years. But I'm kind of glad now that I stopped when I could still do everything, that I wasn't one of those dancers who kept dancing past his best. And I was happy to discover things like food and wine."

Knowing the physical pressures on dancers and the danger of starving themselves to stay extremely thin, does Alan keep a closer eye on his young corps de ballet? "Absolutely. I tell people to eat all the time. Everything in moderation is the key. Some people are lucky and have the metabolism that makes it easier for them to stay slim. But it is a very athletic art and you can't do it to a high level if you are half starved."

He adds: "Cork City Ballet has always had a tradition of attracting world-class international dancers. I think they like coming here because they come back time and time again.

"Our Sugar Plum Fairy is Erina Takahashi, one of the prima ballerinas from the English National Ballet and the Prince is Jan Erik Wikstrom, a principal dancer with the Royal Swedish Ballet and also one of four people on the planet with the title of Royal Court Dancer.

''This will be a Nutcracker to remember".

Sophie's choice

1 When dreaming about your city's future, what role will you play? This is one of the questions asked by a much-anticipated new interactive play Beautiful Dreamers. Running from next Thursday in a secret Limerick city location, this is directed by Louise Lowe and written by Tom Swift. beautiful-dreamers.com.

2 First Up is a brand new series of lunchtime talks at Dublin's Science Gallery that promises to show how ideas become realities, with some very special individuals. First up, so to speak, next Wednesday is James Morris, founder of Windmill Lane Post Production and former chairman of the Irish Film Board. sciencegallery.com

3 Pope John Paul II himself described the Harlem Gospel Choir as being "more than a show, it is a feeling". The group was founded by Allen Bailey on Martin Luther King Jr's birthday, January 15, 1986. And you can discover what the Pope meant next Wednesday when this gospel choir will lift the roof of the National Concert Hall. nch.ie

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