Cork City Ballet: “Never Use the Words ‘I Can’t'”

Over the last 25 years, Cork City Ballet has gone from strength to strength, hosting international superstars and bringing the genre’s classics Leeside. Ahead of the premiere of their new documentary ‘Breaking Pointe’ at the Opera House, MIke McGrath-Bryan speaks with director Alan Foley.

The arts are a labour of love, of this there is no doubt. Look at the city’s veterans, the people that have rowed in behind their passion, and laid the foundations for future generations to build on theirs, and you see an unswerving dedication to their work, inextricably tied with the city, building their artistic and facilitative identities in its venues and spaces. These same intangibles are evident as your writer sits down upstairs in Cork Opera House for a chat with Cork City Ballet director Alan Foley, as he casually discusses corralling over twenty-five years of archive material for ‘Breaking Pointe’, a documentary on the troupe’s development and milestones, co-produced with Frameworks Films. Premiering at the Opera House on September 11th, the documentary feature includes interviews, professional performance footage and never-before-seen audiovisual material.

For Foley, it certainly doesn’t seem so long ago since he made a break with the city’s musical establishment to do something new, a change borne of frustration and the need for a body to represent the city’s dance community on the world stage. “I was a dancer, myself. I got to dance with the legendary Joan Denise Moriarty. I came to her when she was older, and tired, I suppose, and it used to drive me bonkers, when I asked her, ‘please, may I do this, may I go to New York, or London, or Russia?’, and she’d say ‘no, you may not’. ‘Why?’. ‘You just may not.’ I put up with that for so many years, I could not be dealing with it and needed to do my own thing. I was always very sure from a young age that I wanted to be in the driver’s seat, so as a result, maybe out of ignorance, I did. So, I set up Cork City Ballet in 1991, and we had our first performance at the Everyman Palace in 1992, and it’s just gone from there… it feels like about five minutes ago, then I look at this lifetime it’s been, and I can’t believe how quickly it’s gone.”

Foley has choreographed and produced all of the troupe’s productions since its foundation, alongside a busy professional career, both as a dancer, and later on the boards of various ballet organisations around the country. One imagines the work/life balance has been a bit of a challenge to maintain. “Necessity. Bottom line. It had to be done. All the jobs, I’ve always done myself to save money, and the one thing I did learn from Moriarty was to never use the words ‘I can’t’. Don’t be coming to me with excuses. If you do have a problem, come to me with it, but come to me with five solutions, and we’ll pick one. So that’s what I’ve employed, even with the young dancers I teach today… I can’t stand bureaucracy, the bulls**t that goes with so much of the world today. ‘Oh, you can’t do this because Memorandum A, Subdivision Q, Article 13 states that the green form and the blue form have to be triplicated and duplicated, etc.’ Are you serious? I want to do a ballet! That kind of thing used to, and still does, drive me to distraction. I can’t cope with it, so I avoid people like that as best I can. I surround myself with doers. Anyone that causes grief, or isn’t willing to make the tea. I don’t care if you’re the prima ballerina or the cleaner, we’re all on the same train, and it’s worked!”

The City Ballet is well-known and regarded on the international stage, with dancers from all over the world coming to town for its productions, as well as to coach and hold seminars. As anyone in the arts will tell you, relationships are everything, and Foley has over the years made a virtue of building on international working agreements. “Very much of it comes from my training or upbringing. I was the youngest of eight kids, airs and graces weren’t tolerated by my parents or my family. Very often, in the arts and particular in the ballet world, the elitism is there. Maybe not so much now, thankfully, but I’m one of those people that believes ballet isn’t just for the privileged. Talent doesn’t have an address. And I bring that ethos into every part of my working life, as well, when trying to attract sponsors or patrons, because we don’t get Arts Council funding. There is a very good product, we deliver that. And if you have that you can go anywhere. You can do anything. Another thing I don’t do too often is dichotomise and politicise. ‘Here’s the ballet, if you like it, fine, if you don’t, that’s fine, too.’ It’s a bit like Picasso, he painted, ‘d’you like it or don’t you?’.”   

The troupe’s business model has increasingly included community and corporate patronage, which allows those involved to enjoy the benefits of supporting the troupe – DVDs, discounts on the door, etc. In an age of crowdfunding and collectivisation of resources, Foley is open about how this model has added to sustainability for the group. “Ballet is very expensive. The tutus that ballerinas wear can go for upwards of three grand. The pointe shoes that they wear, they can go for €100 per pair. They run through three or four pairs of them per show. That’s a lot of money just to make this happen. We’re very lucky over the years to have had some great sponsors, great supporters. The Irish Examiner, Evening Echo, RedFM, have all been brilliant. The Arts Council pulled all their funding in 2011, they don’t approve of us as they say we’re too old-fashioned. Heard that a thousand times before. Innovation is great, it has to come along, but you also have to respect the traditions. Ballet as a modern artform has been around for over 250 years, and will be there for the next 250. The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty. They’re all milestones, that great dancers are judged by. This is what I’m trained to do. I don’t want to bring swans in on horseback or in roller skates. I want to bring them in on pointe shoes! We’ve had a presence here for 25 years, we’re bearing the torch of Aloys Fleischmann and Joan Denise Moriarty before us, so there’s a very rich legacy, and the support we get every year is phenomenal. That’s how we survive.”

‘Breaking Pointe’ began production earlier this year, mining the troupe’s extensive and meticulously-kept archive, as well as engaging dancers and staff in new interviews. While the Ballet had chronicled itself in years prior in text form, the idea occurred to Foley amid unhappiness at how the history of dance had been documented prior. “I had gone to see another documentary about Joan Denise Moriarty, and I was appalled at some of the footage that was used. It was all very well to use old footage, but there was nothing new or progressive. Nothing young people can identify with, and go ‘oh my god, this is cool’. Young people see the fifties or sixties, and it means nothing to them. They can’t relate. Bring it into their world and let them have a look at beautiful dancers, doing beautiful things, to their kind of music. You’ll attract a new audience. And I looked at the archive we have, and I thought, ‘I want to do something different’, and show people what we have today. We are all only of our time. Moriarty had her time, she did things her way. This is my time, it’ll be over soon, and someone else will do it their way. You can only do what you can in your time, and make the most of that.”

While an extensive archive certainly expedited the process of production, the dig for material wasn’t without its surprises, especially when dealing with external footage and its owners. “There wasn’t much of a process as we have a huge archive. I knew we had it documented. I went to press clippings and marketing materials and they were all there. I had wonderful interviews with some of the dancers that we’ve had, big stars, from the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, the Royal Ballet in London, the Met in New York. I knew I had all of this. And then, in the last two years, there was much more footage. Backstage interviews, interviews with the public. But once I had started exploring, I found some real hidden gems that I’d forgotten about. RTÉ came in and filmed me teaching with the Kirov Ballet when they were at the Point about twenty years ago, there was stuff from TV3. So, I was able to draw on all that.”

It’s a tall order, really: the Opera House’s capacity is about 800, all-seated, a challenge for any promoter to sell out on the local level in the current climate. For something as otensibly niche as a historical treatise on local ballet, though, it seems an even heftier challenge, one for which the venue was only more than ready, says Foley. “The plan was to screen it in the Firkin Crane, the 250-cap theatre where we’re based, and do all our classes and rehearsals. When I was speaking to the CEO of the Opera House, Eibhlín Gleeson, she said ‘no, this is your performance home, you have a great following, you sell out every year, I think you should have it here’. I thought, ‘oooh, it’s very big, will we get an audience, what if we don’t’, etc. And she said ‘no, we’re gonna do it here, and that’s it’. So I went with her gut instinct on it, and I’m pleased to say tickets are selling very well. The company and myself are used to the venue, we’ve been here for many years, so it makes sense that the showing is here.”

With the first twenty-five years of the group’s history now comprehensively catalogued, it’s time for the group to look at the future, both in the short-term and as the arts scene in the city changes alongside the city’s expansion. “We have the premiere on September 11th. On Wednesday 12th, we’re straight into rehearsals for the Nutcracker, which opens at the Opera House on the 8th of November. Nutcracker is always a sellout. There are plans afoot for ‘Breaking Pointe’, to bring it to Irish Arts Centre in New York for a screening, to London, to Cannes. But for now, we’re just focusing on the premiere and, getting that over the line.”

‘Breaking Pointe’ premieres on Tuesday September 11th at 7pm at Cork Opera House. For more info on Cork City Ballet, check out corkcityballet.com.

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