Saturday 17 November 2018

Stepping back to a magical, marginal artform

An exhibition of Irish ballet during the period 1927 to 1963 opened at the Dance House in Temple Bar last night and will run to late January. It is the brainchild of Victoria O'Brien, who has done a great deal of research into Irish ballet and has put together a show which focuses on three specific periods.

It is her own conviction that Ireland has a rich history of ballet and that it is commonly misunderstood and underestimated. No one could doubt this. It was always a marginal art form. It had its devotees and practitioners but lacked a theatre and adequate funding. This seems always to have been the case.

There was also the draining of talent from Ireland, most notably in the person of Dame Ninette de Valois, a Wicklow woman who founded and then became head of the Royal Ballet in Britain.

She was always a friend of Irish ballet, from the beginning of the period covered by this exhibition until the end of it, but privately she had reservations about sustaining the art form in a country in which the culture was, generally speaking, unsympathetic.

The wonder is that it survived at all; as to the richness of the history, that is a subject that needs further exploration, though the current exhibition makes a valuable contribution to this.

The second of Victoria O'Brien's contentions -- of a parallel between what happened here and what was going on internationally -- is more difficult to prove. In kind, it was so. Irish ballet was classical, exacting and attracted considerable talent; but the scale was very humble indeed and it flourished only intermittently.

What can more easily be established and sustained is the pivotal role of Ninette de Valois. She became involved in ballet after meeting William Butler Yeats at the Festival Theatre in Cambridge.

Yeats -- who knew of her work and admired the fact that this girl from Wicklow had become a famous and accomplished Ballets Russes dancer -- wanted her to become involved in dance in Ireland. More specifically, and not without egocentric pretensions, Yeats wanted her to establish a dance school in the Abbey Theatre where she could choreograph his Plays for Dancers.

Though she had pioneering work going on in London, she found the time to come to Dublin to found the Abbey Theatre's School of Ballet. She ran it for six years, creating a repertory of genuinely crafted works which fully integrated dance, music, plot and design. It set a standard. It created a legacy.

The Abbey School of Ballet continued after Ninette de Valois' resignation in 1933. It was directed by a pupil, Muriel Kelly, who extended its work -- probably as part of the effort to sustain its very existence -- by training children in the art of dance, a practice that rapidly spread to other dance schools which have since flourished.

As Victoria O'Brien says: "Muriel Kelly's great contribution to Irish ballet was the advancement of the technical standard of students and teachers through her championing and development of the RAD syllabi and examinations."

Sara Payne, who was the principal at the Abbey School of Ballet from 1928 to 1931, started her own company. This operated in Dublin between 1936 and 1945. It was also associated with the Gate Theatre. She had a role there as 'movement director'. She was interested in a kind of cross-fertilisation of ballet with traditional Irish dance steps and patterns. It was a new genre, exemplified by works like Doomed Cuchulain, The Scarecrow and A Fiddler's Story. Though not recognised for her achievements, the current exhibition reinstates her work in the overall pattern of Irish ballet.

The Irish Ballet Club, which comes next in the sequel, was established in 1939 by Cepta Cullen.

She also trained at the Abbey School of Ballet with De Valois. Her base was the Peacock Theatre. Between 1939 and 1943, there were regular dance performances, often with Irish-themed choreography. There was a modest liberation for culture in Ireland -- at least in sophisticated circles in Dublin -- as a result of the country's neutrality during the darkest days of the Second World War. Ninette de Valois made several visits.

One ballet -- arguably Cepta Cullen's most successful achievement -- was Puck Fair, which she choreographed. It was scripted by FR Higgins, designed by Mainie Jellett in a strong and vivid Cubist way and with music composed by Elizabeth Maconchy, the English modernist composer and friend of Mainie Jellett's. It was staged in the Gaiety Theatre in February 1941.

A critic wrote of the performance of Puck Fair: "Here was ballet conceived by a poet, and essentially Irish in its conceptions, that had been translated from the poetry of words into the poetry of motion and music."

The accompanist, during rehearsals for this and other related works, was Jacqueline Robinson, a dancer and friend of Mainie Jellett's. She later started her own dance company in Paris. She knew Basil Rakoczi and other White Stag painters -- Rakoczi painted a fine small oil picture of a ballet dancer at this time -- and later she became his lover.

One ends on a sad note in recounting the brief history of the National Ballet School and Company, established in 1953 by a Russian dancer called Valentina Dutko and the Irish artist, Cecil ffrench Salkeld. Patricia Ryan developed it into a professional company called the National Ballet Company and brought over Russian and British classical dancers.

She also created Irish-themed ballets in collaboration with AJ Potters, Donagh McDonagh, Patrick Kavanagh and John Ryan. The company joined with the Cork-based Irish Theatre Ballet and formed the National Ballet Company co-directed by Patricia Ryan and Joan Denise Moriarty. This disbanded after one season because of artistic differences.

Sandra MacLiammoir, in her book, The Secret Life of Joan Denise Moriarty, gives an account of the troubled history of this company. It is perhaps an astonishing thing that Ninette de Valois was still involved as president of the company, and her immense contribution reaffirmed her role as a significant founding architect of Irish ballet.

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