Tuesday 12 December 2017

Cork: where the story of Irish ballet all began...

Russian affair: Ekaterina Bortyakova and Akzhol Mussakhanov in Cork City Ballet's Swan Lake
Russian affair: Ekaterina Bortyakova and Akzhol Mussakhanov in Cork City Ballet's Swan Lake

Cork has this secret. It's a clean secret. Clean and professional and of a high, high quality. Yet it's luscious, deeply exotic, almost scandalously beautiful; a secret that would blow your mind.

They don't try to keep it, though for financial reasons it only gets told once a year. It's the ballet. Cork City Ballet is back with Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.

There are two professional ballet companies in Ireland, Ballet Ireland (currently touring Coppelia) and Cork City Ballet (touring nothing, as they can't tour without state funding). But the story of Irish ballet begins in Cork. In the 1940s, a red-haired woman raised in orphanages settled in the city and found a benefactor in composer Aloys Fleischmann. Joan Denise Moriarty used her wits to establish Ireland's first professional ballet company.

She taught every Cork artiste worth knowing and one of her students was Alan Foley. Alan's parents were workers from the Dunlop factory who loved opera and had eight children. Alan was 13 when he saw the film Flashdance and rapidly enrolled with "Miss M", as he calls her.

"She frightened the life out of me. She commanded, and demanded, respect. Make no mistake, when she said 'Jump', I said 'How high?'" But, Alan admits, she taught him to love the art, and to love the discipline it required. She died in 1992, and Alan founded Cork City Ballet the same year.

On the eve of rehearsals for Swan Lake, 47-year-old Alan talks about many things, including Vladimir Putin's anti-gay laws, the heart murmur that terminated his dancing career at the age of 38, the pleasures of wine, chocolate fudge cake and custard slices after years of strict dieting.

He talks about the summer of 1989, a period he calls "my glamour".

He was 19 and had applied on a whim to the Kirov Ballet's first international summer school. One June morning, he crept downstairs when he heard the postman. "I ran into the kitchen and said 'Oh my god, I've been accepted into the Kirov Ballet school!' And my brother said, 'Pass the f**king milk will ye.' It was great to be kept grounded like that."

Alan was the first Irish student to be accepted into the Vaganova Academy, as it's now called. "Miss M" ordered him into her office to reprimand him for not telling her, then beamed for the press cameras. President Hillery invited him to lunch in the Áras. Alan set off for Leningrad (now St Petersburg) along with the 60 hand-picked dancers he would spend three weeks with. He was put in a hotel with another boy. "The first night, I pulled my sheets back, and about 10 cockroaches went scurrying all over my bed."

Soviet Russia was full of people with jobs and no work to do. In the Mariinsky Theatre, "baboushkas" stood two on every corridor monitoring students, with faces "as though they were chewing on a wasp." The food was as you might imagine Communist cuisine to be. "It was so awful. For breakfast we got cabbage and frankfurters, and none of us ate it. So for lunch they used to take all that and turn it into a quiche, and none of us ate that either. So we were living on boxes of vitamins."

When he went away, Alan weighed 11 stone. When he came home, he weighed 9 stone. "My entire rib cage was visible. I look back in horror. I am like a refugee from Belsen."

But the training was "second to none".

What makes ballet worth such suffering? "I loved the ability to do things with my body that other people couldn't. I loved the big jumps. You got the feeling of just being able to fly through the air." He loved its theatricality. "You were able to be anything you wanted in the world. A prince today or a pauper tomorrow or a peasant the next day."

He has led Cork City Ballet into their 23rd year. Their Arts Council funding was decimated to nothing in 2011, but instead of scrimping on opulence, they have a shorter run of just four performances in Cork Opera House.

Swan Lake is a Russian affair - post-Soviet style, choreographed by Yuri Demokov, with costumes from the Mariinsky Ballet. A cast of 49 means a full corps de ballet and soloists starring Ekaterina Bortyakova as Odette and Akzhol Mussakhanov as Prince Siegfried, both brought over from the Moscow Ballet.

Offstage, they are married with a baby daughter.

"They have magnificent chemistry," says Alan. "No matter what she does, whether it's the highest of jumps into his arms, or the most melting of pas de deux, you can tell that she trusts him implicitly.

"When God was giving out ballet bodies, she was at the front of the queue."

Swan Lake plays at the Cork Opera House November18 to 21

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