Friday 20 July 2018

Kept on his toes

In 2004, Diarmaid O'Meara was a Genetics graduate working on a PhD but something was missing. He was athletic and took part in on and off-track sports. He tried trampolining and even springboard diving but nothing satisfied him.

"When I was a kid I was always moving, jumping off sheds, I had endless energy," says the Tipperary native.

When he acquired an injury that meant he couldn't train, he tagged along to a dance class with a friend. "I started trying different things and I wandered into a ballet class and my fate was sealed."

He was 22 at the time and, in a matter of months, he had given up his job, quit his PhD and was spending all his time on ballet. Most professional ballet dancers have been training since they could stand up; O'Meara was coming from a distinct disadvantage.

"I did worry but it happened so fast, it was such a steep learning curve and I had so much lost ground to make up that I didn't have time to reflect. It wasn't until I was sitting in a flat in London with a place in the Central School of Ballet that I thought, 'what am I doing?'."

Seven years later and O'Meara is about to appear in The National Ballet of Ireland's production of Scheherazade and 1001 Arabian Nights, opening at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre next week.

Was ballet something he had considered as a career before? "It was something I always wanted to do but I got distracted along the way.

"I never considered it a career option although I was always first up on the dance floor. If it had been presented to me as a kid I would have jumped at it because I remember watching Fame and being very jealous," he laughs.

Ballet life is tough and unpredictable too.

"It's a gypsy lifestyle. Only well-established, state-funded companies work on a year-round basis. Most people end up doing short contracts here and there that can range from two weeks to six months, which means you're constantly doing auditions.

"In between times you have to squeeze in physically gruelling training and classes. You have to really look after yourself between and during jobs."

O'Meara broke his foot while still at college. "There's constant injuries, people are always going to the osteopath or acupuncturist or masseur. It's not easy on your body."

Anne Maher, director of The National Ballet Of Ireland (Ballet Ireland's new title), says the Ballet is making it possible for the first time ever for young Irish dancers to work in their own country. "In the last four or five years we've seen a situation where the likes of Diarmaid O'Meara and Zoe Ashe-Browne, who are training abroad, can come home and perform, which wouldn't have been an option before."

Since its inception in 1997, interest in ballet has grown and Maher compares it to the growth in popularity of rugby in Ireland. "Rugby was considered a minority sport and it's having enormous success at grassroots level now. It's the same with ballet."

The company has an educational arm for young ballet students but also puts on workshops for older students.

"We had some workshops in Letterkenny and some people in the class were in their 50s and 60s and had never done ballet.

"Of course, at the highest level it is for those who train professionally but, to enjoy it, there are no such stipulations. Get involved, do it, it's a fantastic, enjoyable past-time and a wonderful way to keep us fit."

O'Meara too says he would encourage people to give dance a try at any level. "People might be surprised at how they might react. If you're not very active, people use their bodies so little and have such scant understanding of its capabilities but then they realise they can do it."

Scheherazade and 1001 Arabian Nights runs at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, from Tuesday 25 to Saturday 29 October and national tour to follow. See ballet-ireland.com/touring.html

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