Thursday 17 October 2019

'Ballerina is a title you have to earn. The rest of us are dancers'

This winter, Ballet Ireland is celebrating 20 years with a nationwide tour of The Nutcracker. Here, director Anne Maher debunks the myths about ballet, and tells Katie Byrne how her company of international dancers fuse art with athleticism

Anne Maher, artistic director and CEO of Ballet Ireland, with dancers Niamh O'Flannagain and Christopher Furlong. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Anne Maher, artistic director and CEO of Ballet Ireland, with dancers Niamh O'Flannagain and Christopher Furlong. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Home-grown dancers Niamh O'Flannagain and Christopher Furlong. Photo: Steve Humphreys
The Nutcracker as performed by Ballet Ireland in 2016. Photo: Christine Burns Photography
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

It's one thing watching The Nutcracker's grand pas de deux dance from the comfort of a red velvet theatre seat. It's quite another thing seeing it from the sidelines of a dance studio in Dublin.Ballet dancers Ryoko Yagyu and Rodolfo Saraiva are about to rehearse what is arguably the highlight of Marius Petipa's classic ballet when I slip into DanceHouse on Foley Street for a behind-the-scenes preview.

From 15 rows back in a theatre, this dance looks like a work of art. From my vantage point today - just a few metres away from the dancers - it's just as much a feat of athleticism. I can see every muscle in Ryoko's legs contract as she rises up into a perfect en pointe. I can hear Rodolfo gasp as he lifts his Sugarplum Fairy into the air.

Later on, I can understand exactly what Ballet Ireland director and co-founder Anne Maher means when she tells me that the designation of 'ballerina' isn't handed out so easily. "Joe Public uses that word all the time but it is actually something that you have to earn and that is bestowed upon you," explains the Dublin-born retired dancer. "Ryoko is a ballerina. The rest of us, at the moment, are dancers..."

It was Anne who invited me to today's rehearsal. Ballet Ireland is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a nationwide tour of The Nutcracker and they have once again attracted a company of international dancers who are at the top of their game.

Home-grown dancers Niamh O'Flannagain and Christopher Furlong. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Home-grown dancers Niamh O'Flannagain and Christopher Furlong. Photo: Steve Humphreys

It's also an opportunity for me to see one of the outreach programmes that they run in action. Anne is passionate about providing greater access to ballet, and today they have welcomed a group of second class students from St Patrick's National School, Corduff, along to the rehearsal. While most of the company warm up with stretches and box press-ups in one corner of the studio, three of the dancers are sitting cross-legged in front of a group of very excited seven- and eight-year-olds for a Q&A. "Do you do it to get paid?" asks a Newsnight presenter of the future. "Do you have any pets?" asks another.

Education officer Stephen Brennan is the unofficial moderator. He keeps the dialogue flowing and later, when the children participate in their own dance class, he keeps his eyes peeled for latent talent. "Stephen has identified students who can really move on the outreach programme and recommended that they attend ballet classes," explains Anne.

It was Stephen who spotted the talent of Offaly-born ballet dancer Christopher Furlong (24). Christopher started ballroom and Latin dancing at the age of seven but it was Stephen who encouraged him to swap the tail suit for tights.

Christopher went on to attend the College of Dance, Monkstown, for transition year. He planned to go back to school to do his Leaving Certificate, but a successful audition for the Central School of Ballet in London took him in a different direction.

Dublin-born dancer Niamh O'Flannagain (19) had a similar experience. She planned to attend Tring Park School for the Performing Arts in Hertfordshire just for transition year, but ended up staying on and completing A-Levels rather than the Leaving Certificate.

Christopher and Niamh are the only Irish dancers in Ballet Ireland's thoroughly international production of The Nutcracker. "You can hear Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese and Japanese being spoken on any given morning," says Anne, who adds that each nationality brings something different. "The Japanese, for instance, have a work ethic that is second to none. When I was going to school in Monaco, there were Japanese girls in my year. Classes started at 8.30am but they would be upstairs in the studio from 7am and they were still there at 9pm after everybody else was dead!

The Nutcracker as performed by Ballet Ireland in 2016. Photo: Christine Burns Photography
The Nutcracker as performed by Ballet Ireland in 2016. Photo: Christine Burns Photography

"The Cubans and the Brazilians bring a dramatic flair to things. The French tend to be very stylised," she adopts a haughty pose, "looking down their lofty noses at us a little bit. We don't tend to have a lot of Russians because they are much more difficult to employ from a work permit perspective - and actually," - she lowers her voice a little - "lots of Russians are not that great. We have a perception that ballet is all about the Russians and that's actually not very accurate."

What about the Irish? What do they bring? "Irish dancers have an innate musicality," she says. "They are also born storytellers and they bring a great artistic ability to embody a character and tell a story with their whole body."

Christopher offers another take. "Irish dancers bring a sense of maturity," he says. "There is no full-time vocational training in Ireland so if you want to be a ballet dancer, you have to move abroad and leave your family at a young age."

"All of us have gone through that in one phase or another," adds Anne, nodding her head in agreement. "It has its positives as well, but it's the fact that you have to. You don't have a choice. Emigrating to train is a must."

For her own part, Anne (55) left Dublin at the age of 15 to train with the Irish Ballet Company in Cork. It was around this time that her teacher, Myrtle Lambkin, wrote a personal letter to the late Princess Grace of Monaco, telling her about a star pupil who just needed a chance to shine.Myrtle's appeal clearly made an impression. Anne was offered a month-long trial, after which she was awarded a scholarship to study at L'Académie de Danse Classique in Monte Carlo under Marika Besobrasova. She was 17.

"I always used to say that I was a total granny because I had to police myself when I left home," says Anne. "When I moved to Cork, I didn't have parents to say, 'You can't go there, you can't wear that, what time are you going to be home at?' I had a sense that I had to police myself because there was no barriers to push against. I didn't go to university and drink myself silly and go on wild nights because you physically can't do it when you have to get up the next day and dance." It was only after Anne retired, in her late 30s, that she experienced a sort of delayed teenage rebellion. "I kind of got a bit silly," she laughs.

Early nights are just one aspect of ballet's relentless self-discipline. The gruelling training schedule is another. Niamh says dancers can practise from 10am to 6pm and then perform from 7.30pm-9.30pm. And this is before we take their supplementary training into account. Christopher says yoga is great for "lengthening and strengthening" and Niamh is a fan of Pilates and reformer. They do HIIT and weight training, too, although male dancers tend to do more of the latter to prepare for lifts.

Poise and presentation is equally important. Christopher says female students in his ballet school were often asked to put on make-up to look more presentable. At Niamh's school, assessment points were set aside for grooming. "It you had a ladder in your tights or your hair was a mess, you would be deducted marks," she says. "I guess they wanted to instil how important it was at a young age."

Relationships can pose their own challenge. Anne says ballet dancers in the bigger companies often pair off with other dancers or crew members. Christopher agrees that dancers often date other dancers, but he makes the point that working relationships don't always make romantic relationships easier to manage. "Even if you're in a relationship with a fellow dancer who would understand what it takes, you'll probably only work with them for a certain period of time."

"And we work long hours," adds Niamh. "It's not like we get the time off that other people would have."

"On the other hand," says Christopher, "I'm single and on the dating scene at the moment and it's quite cool to say I'm a ballet dancer!"

Ballet definitely carries cachet but there are common misconceptions, too. "People think all ballet dancers are anorexic and bulimic - that they eat cotton wool," continues Christopher. "Of course you do see it - it's there - but with more information out there now, ballet is actually really scientific. I wouldn't say that ballet is a sport but we're definitely athletes, and while we don't have to have a strict diet, it has to be a healthy one."

"It certainly helps to have certain physical attributes," adds Niamh, "but companies are much more open to different body shapes these days. It's not just stick-thin."

The ballerina body has evolved over the last century - just compare pictures of Anna Pavlova and Misty Copeland - but so too has the art form itself. A coterie of contemporary choreographers are breathing new life into the classics and traditional gender roles are being challenged with the likes of Matthew Bourne's all-male Swan Lake.

Meanwhile, ballet's inevitable #MeToo moment is now fully under way after a New York City Ballet ballerina filed a suit alleging that the company has an "out of control fraternity-like atmosphere". "I don't think there is going to be any major unveiling here," says Anne, "but I do think some of the very institutional companies are in a bygone era where women are essentially puppets.

"As a part of our daily practice we are, to all intents and purposes, half-naked," she continues. "And as part of that practice we have to touch each other. But this is a professional environment and that is something that I absolutely insist on. I have fired someone for not showing the level of respect that I consider necessary within this workplace."

Anne believes that a workplace culture is created from "the top down" which is why she's also careful not to infantilise her co-workers.

"Dancers are never allowed to grow up and there is a tendency to refer to them as the 'boys and girls' - and I think that means there is always this perception that we are almost childish. So I always call them 'men and women'."

The other stereotype about ballet is that company directors are cold and pompous. Anne is anything but. She's warm, engaging and, most of all, dynamic. She has a vision for her company so it's a real shame that she doesn't have the funding to realise it.

"We've been lucky enough in the last year to see a huge amount of additional funding go to opera - to create the Irish National Opera company - and I would love to see an initiative like that being developed around dance and ballet.

"I'd love to create a full-time dance company - with just a chamber-sized ensemble to begin with - because it's only when you have people engaged full-time in the country that you can spread out into all sorts of other areas, be it creatively, educationally or working with other collaborators, within opera for instance.

"I feel very strongly that it will come to pass," she adds with a smile. "It's just a matter of when."

The Nutcracker is in 22 theatres nationwide until December 23. To book, see

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