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.

Groundfloor Theatre’s The Collector: “It Goes to Some Very Dark Places”

A study in obsession, boundaries and the depths of human behaviour, John Fowles’ novel ‘The Collector’ makes for an unsettling stage production, courtesy of Groundfloor Theatre. Before the show’s final run at the Everyman Palace from September 26th-28th, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with actor Andrew Holden.

When Frederick Clegg, a socially awkward man with a hobby in collecting butterflies, falls under the spell of Miranda Grey, the woman he admires from afar, the heady rush of longing and nervousness becomes something much, much worse. Unable to overcome his anxiety, he does the unthinkable, and resorts to kidnap to add her to his tally. Adapted from John Fowles’ deeply unsettling novel by Mark Healy, The Collector confronts in uncompromising fashion the depths to which obsession will stoop to be satiated.

For actor and co-producer Andrew Holden, who led crowdfunding for the initial run of the show via Irish platform fund:it, bearing responsibility for staging the show was a labour of love for the tale that unfolds. “For me personally, the attraction in taking on the project in the first place was the power of John Fowles original story. I found it to be dramatic, challenging and completely gripping. Obviously, adapting any novel for the stage is a mammoth task, but Mark Healy’s version has been a joy to work on. It is unmistakably the same story, but he has a brilliant understanding of how to tell a story to a theatre audience, and keep them engaged.”

Conveying a story that is inherently uncomfortable, and perhaps reflecting on an unfortunately all-too common fear for many people in the obsession of another, presented a very challenging environment for the cast and crew, with a very delicate balance to be maintained in storytelling and production. “It has been, without a doubt, a difficult piece to rehearse and perform as it goes to some very dark places at times. I think the main challenge involved for the director and actors has been not to pull our punches. A watered-down version of this story would be pointless, but judging from the reaction of audiences around the country we have managed to avoid that.”

The show has completed national touring, including engagements with major city theatres and festivals. For such an uncomfortable piece, garnering the response and making the decision to go on tour from Waterford was a big decision, but one that ultimately was the making of the production. “The reaction to the show around Ireland has been fantastic. Our first performances were in Central Arts, an intimate sixty-seat theatre in Waterford, and being realistic, if it hadn’t gone down well with the audiences there, we probably would not have had the confidence to tour, but the thing I am personally most proud of with this production is how the story is working for the audiences, and they’re having a brilliant night at the theatre.”

The Everyman is a unique venue, even among many of the older theatres still dotted around the country, and for the show’s crew, performing there was among the production’s end goals. “We have been touring the country with the production for many months now, and the Everyman is the largest venue that we will have visited. Obviously there are adjustments to be made from a technical perspective in adapting to a larger space, but we had been looking to bring the show to Cork for some time now, and the Everyman was always our first choice! We are delighted to finally be getting to bring the production to Cork audiences.”

The late September dates for the production herald its eventual end after the aforementioned run around the country. The weight of storytelling aside, the crew have achieved everything they have set out to accomplish and are winding down at the right time, according to Holden. “As it stands, these three Cork performances will be the final performances for this production of ‘The Collector’. It is now just over two years since we originally performed it. One of the original hopes was always that the production would have a life outside of a short run in one venue, and I think we can safely say we have achieved that.”

With that in mind, what’s left is for Holden to reflect on what crowds in Cork City can expect later next month, when the show pulls into the famed McCurtain Street theatre for its final curtain. “For anyone who has never read the novel, never seen the play or film, I describe ‘The Collector’ to them as a drama with a strong thriller vibe at times. When I first read it, the story just sucked me in, and, without sounding too cocky, feedback from our audiences indicates that the story works exactly the same way for them. I’ve still not met anyone who has been able to predict the ending.”

‘The Collector’, produced by Groundfloor Theatre in association with Central Arts Waterford, stops at the Everyman Palace from September 26th to 28th. Tickets €20, available at the venue’s box office now.

And On The Third Day: “A Story to Be Told”

Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with playwright Derek O’Gorman about new work ‘On The Third Day’, premiering at Cork Arts Theatre this August.

A young man falls into the River Lee. His partner and best friend scour the riverbank and wait, riddled with worry for news. A boatman stands by, doing his best to impart hard-won local knowledge and assist the search. These are the underlying tensions in new play ‘On the Third Day’. The idea of a river-rescue search, and the feeling of foreboding for those bearing witness, proved to be fertile ground for writer Derek O’Gorman, giving him the opportunity to study the city’s quays as a community and as a location. “The river is an integral part of the fabric of Cork City life, and that always fascinated me. Working in the city centre, I would cross numerous bridges every day, and at times of tragedy the community spirit shown by volunteers also intrigued me. There was a time when boatmen worked along Union Quay in particular, and the how and why of their life stories interested me. I felt there was a story to be told.”

Over the course of the play, three protagonists form a bond over the search, joined later in the story by a pair of estranged parents, creating an ensemble cast and providing scope to examine the nature of relationships between both people and environments, and how they are tested in times of uncertainty. For O’Gorman, this is a central element of the show. “I wanted the play to explore relationships, relationships with the river, the city but also interpersonal and intergenerational relationships. I wanted to explore these in as natural a way as possible. I think there are elements of all the characters in all of us.” Director Philip Anthony McCarthy has taken charge of casting for this production of the play, imbuing the story with the experience of local veterans and the energy of new faces from the local theatre community. O’Gorman is effusive. “Philip has assembled an unbelievably talented cast, mixing established local actors with, young, exciting talent. Tony Walsh, Cian Hurley, Rebecca McCarthy, Veronica Henley, and David O’Donoghue all really bring a natural feel to the piece, and (help) draw the audience into this world.”

McCarthy himself is an award-winning local director, with an expanding body of work in live theatre and film, and O’Gorman’s admiration for his work led to him being offered the director’s chair. But professional respect is only part of it for O’Gorman. “Philip is an extremely talented director, whose work I have always admired.He has a tremendous creative vision for whatever he puts his mind to, be it theatre or film. He is a very natural director, and has a real feel for Cork in general, and this piece in particular. The creative process has been dynamic. I have worked with directors off-Broadway and the Abbey, and I would put Philip right up there. What I really admire is that Philip has a great humility about him, and in my opinion that sets real talent apart.”

You’re working with the Cork Arts Theatre, colloquially known as the Cat Club, to stage the play’s debut run – what have they been like to deal with, and what effect has the room’s atmosphere had on rehearsals and the subsequent result? “The Cat Club is an amazing venue, but first and foremost is run by a dedicated team, who are committed to providing excellent theatre while also developing writers, directors, actors, and crew. Artistic director Dolores Mannion works brilliantly at finding a balance to put the Cat Club at the forefront of both local and national theatre. I think the space at the Cat Club is really going to complement the play.”

Once the August run is over with, the play’s story almost demands being brought to site-specific productions, a possibility already being mulled over. “I would like to bring the play into the community, and perhaps reach non-traditional theatre audiences in non-traditional settings. I like that idea, so watch this space.”

Corcadorca’s The Numbered: “These Elements Combine and Diffuse”

“What if we all knew at what age we were going to die – how would this change us as individuals and as a society?” This is the overarching question posed by ‘The Numbered’, a play written in the 1950s by Nobel-winning author and playwright Elias Canetti. Questioning social structures and our acceptance of same in stark terms, it’s a weighty and ambitious work. Enter Cork-based theatre trailblazers Corcadorca, the same theatrical stable that premiered modern Irish classic ‘Disco Pigs’ in 1995, and brought Shakespearean classic ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ to Fitzgerald’s Park for a now-legendary run in 2001.

Returning to Fitzgerald’s Park from tonight, this presentation of the play reunites the Irish Times Theatre Award-winning design team from 2017 festival hit ‘Far Away’, including sound artist Mel Mercier, and lighting specialists Aedin Cosgrove and Paul Keogan. Production assistant Kate Waldron discusses the themes that Canetti touched upon in his work, and how they informed the initial idea for another site-specific presentation. “The central premise is of a society in which everyone knows when they are going to die. In the play, this is presented as some sort of utopian ideal. But, as is often the case, all is not as it seems. Ultimately, Canetti is preoccupied with ideas of power and compliance. How easily we can accept a particular system and the assumption that this is for the best. A lot of work has been done with the original text, with considerable refining and distilling of the central ideas. While the texts we work with are often thematically rich and deal with some heavy ideas, the shows tend to be very experience-based, which I do think is less suited to a tidy narrative that gives definite resolution.”

It’s quite a heavy conceptual proposition for an outdoor, site-specific presentation as part of Midsummer Festival’s wider remit. Waldron outlines how the Corcadorca team sat down to make the idea work, and how they could make their own mark on Canetti’s original intention. “The creative team has been working together for many years, and there is a very strong understanding between them. Elements of sound and lighting, as well as the space and how it is used, are always vital to the understanding of a Corcadorca play. The text can often be more suggestive or evocative, and avoid giving clear or easy answers. Also, there’s always a strong element of novelty for audiences in being in an unusual location that they might not normally have access to. Of course, Fitzgerald’s Park will be familiar to most audience members, but being there at night, and with the curiosity of how the space has been transformed and even where the action might move to next. Personally, I find all these separate elements combine and diffuse, so that a Corcadorca show leaves me buzzing with ideas, both from the text but also from a striking image or use of sound and the space itself.”

The production sees Corcadorca return to Fitzgerald’s Park for the first time since 2006, when the company staged a production of The Tempest. Since then, the park has been comprehensively overhauled. Waldron looks at the differences that these changes, including the addition of a full bandstand, have made for the cast and dramaturges. “I don’t think the park in its former incarnation would have been chosen as a site for this production. The park’s transformation, completed back in 2014, including the addition of the bandstand, with its curved canopy is crucial to the decision to use it for the current production. The play moves between two worlds, one somewhat clinical and the other much more naturalistic, even bohemian. The play portrays a dystopian/utopian society, and many of the new structures and areas of the park definitely suggest an idea of cultivation, even of architecture imposed on naturalism, this supports ideas within the text.”

‘The Numbered’ runs as part of Cork Midsummer Festival this year, the latest chapter in an ongoing working relationship between the two organisations that has been of mutual benefit. Corcadorca’s site-specific shows have contributed to the festival’s stated goal of access to the arts across the city, while Midsummer’s status as a collaborative arts extravaganza has informed the troupe’s creative direction on these presentations. “Our relationship with the Midsummer Festival goes back to 2001, with our production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, also our first time creating a show in Fitzgerald Park. Since then, the company has been a regular centrepiece of the festival, staging works in diverse locations across the city and county. The festival itself has grown so much over the years, and provides a fantastic platform for local and national artists. The buzz around the city for the period really heightens the excitement for our own show and helps to create general anticipation and enthusiasm for the arts across the city. Our offices are on the same floor as the Midsummer Festival, and having a team of such experienced arts workers to bounce ideas off is also a huge benefit.”

Much can and will inevitably be made, off the back of this run of shows, of the potential of Fitzgerald’s Park as a more regular or permanent venue for arts groups, both on the community and professional levels. While an active venue in the summer months, it’s a topic on which everyone in Corcadorca has an opinion. “I know Pat (Kiernan, Corcadorca director) is very enthusiastic about the bandstand in particular, and the possibility of it being used more often for performances. It is great to see all the activity in the park, even if it means Corcadorca has to share the space and in a way that isn’t always the case. It certainly adds to the logistics of the show, and all the stuff the audiences don’t see.”

Running over the course of the Midsummer Festival’s fortnight, the show, like any other, consumes a great deal of energy, enthusiasm and effort from cast and crew. For a presentation as deeply involved as something like ‘The Numbered’, one has to wonder where the reserves of the aforementioned start to run dry, especially when it’s a featured event for a major festival. Waldron concludes the conversation by discussing the process of show night. “To be honest, I think once the run starts, it’s all a lot more relaxed and everyone gets into the swing of things. Our shows definitely demand a lot of both cast and crew. Working outdoors is a novelty that actors enjoy, but it can be physically demanding. We’ve been very lucky with the weather over the rehearsal period, and generally we tend to get lucky for the run of our Summer show. However, this is Ireland, and we’ve had shows in heavy rain in the past. For our production of ‘Far Away’ out on Spike Island last year, we had two nights of extremely heavy rain. This is tough on audiences, but for actors, dressed in light costumes and performing, it’s particularly hard going. Judith Roddy, Pauline McLynn  and Manus Halligan did incredibly well to keep going on both those nights last year, and our audience certainly appreciated it! We got numerous emails from people expressing their gratitude and how impressed they were the efforts of actors and crew to keep the show running.”

Druid Theatre’s Waiting for Godot: “Very Aware of Itself”

The Everyman Palace plays host to Druid Theatre Company’s production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot from March 20th to 24th after US and Irish theatrical runs. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with cast member Marty Rea.

It’s a classic of Irish theatre and the calling card of one of the country’s greatest playwrights, transcending the French culture that informed its creation and the Irish wit that brought its subsequent English translation to life. Waiting for Godot, a tragicomedy in two acts penned by Samuel Beckett, pits misfortunate protagonists Vladimir and Estragon (as well as their audience) against their own circumstances, the company of others, and questions of existence. A defining work of humour, absurdity and thought, it’s since been interpreted as social commentary, writerly absurdity, and even a commentary on marriage and ennui, on its way to exalted status as one of the English language’s most important works.

Galwegian troupe Druid Theatre’s interpretation of Beckett’s seminal play premiered with a sellout run at the 2016 Galway International Arts Festival, with their performance taking an unassuming attitude toward both negotiating the challenges and accentuating the upsides in the interpretative process for such a beloved work, according to actor Marty Rea. “I think what really stood to us is that we didn’t have any big, academic approach to it. We couldn’t ever meet anyone on that level about it. There’s none of us Beckett scholars, or anything like that. We were approaching it merely as a play we wanted to do, because we would enjoy it. The fun that you can have with it kind of eclipsed any academic approach, which might have made it a very different production in the end. When people talk about a fresh approach, it might be something to do with it. We never pretended to be experts, but we know how to put a play across, between the four of us.”

The subsequent presentations of the show at Galway International Arts were far better received than anticipated, coming in for massive critical praise from national press, and demand for subsequent touring. This would, of course, boost anyone’s confidence, but for Druid, it was simply a catalyst for expanding on their work. “It was a big surprise that people enjoyed it as much as they did. We were enjoying doing it, and we’d been playing for two weeks in the Mick Lally Theatre in Galway, about a hundred-seat space. As it turned out there was much more demand to go further afield with it. It’s also great to know that people can still enjoy this play as much as they do. People come into it for the first time and they wonder, ‘god, how did he write that, what was he thinking, etc.’ It’s great to know a play has as muscular a life as Godot does. It gives you great faith in theatre.”

The subsequent ‘Unusual Rural’ Tour of the play found the company heading to outdoor locations around the country, recontextualising the performance experience for Glencree, Inis Meáin and the Céide Fields. Rea was taken by the experience of performing the play in locations like the aforementioned, and their effect on their rendition of the play thereafter. “Godot is one of those plays that’s very aware of itself being in a theatre. In the play, we refer to the audience, (Beckett) had fun with that. So we lost a little of that when we went outdoors. The thing about these, especially Inis Meáin, was looking up into the sky, like the characters do for a long period of time. The weather at the time, we couldn’t tell the difference between the sea and the sky, it was just one big arch of grey. When we brought that back to the theatre, we had that experience then, of the vastness of the nothingness of that grey, and Inis Meáin was a great place to experience that.”

The following year, the ensemble’s Godot had a month-long run at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in April, prior to heading to Charleton, North Carolina’s Spoleto Festival USA in June, playing to capacity audiences in both venues. It provided for Rea and crew an interesting case study in the contrasts between Irish and American audiences, and the frames of reference that informed their enjoyment of the experience. “Spoleto is a very classical and opera-based festival. So, it’s a very refined affair. We thought, ‘hmm, how’s this going to work?’. We got a great response. They know it, alright, they’re aware of Beckett. But there were different laughs in different places, different responses. One that occurred to me: any references to the Bible, the two boys talking about the gospel, in America they were laughing away at those kinds of jokes. In that part of the country religion is a much bigger thing, the Christianity of it all, and it was chiming with them much quicker than it was when we were at home. (I don’t want to generalise, but) the Americans wouldn’t have the cynical same sense of humour as we do, so certain plays, there’s a change of reaction. We did Beauty Queen of Leenane the year before last, and (Irish audiences) would be roaring laughing all the way through it, we went to LA for it for six weeks, the response was much more devastated, they were affected by the huge tragedy of it all!”

Next month sees Druid’s Godot head to the Everyman Palace on MacCurtain Street, from March 20th-24th. The grand dame of Leeside auditoria has always been a home for Druid, and Rea is enthused about sharing the musings and tortures of Beckett’s Parisian misfortunates with a crowd that’s traditionally been very engaged with the theatrical process. “Well, I think I’m right in saying I’ve only ever played the Everyman in Cork. I don’t think I’ve played anywhere else. Very fond of it, there’s great new stuff, and fresh energy to the Everyman now. Cork’s always brilliant. Great audiences, great support for Druid always. And you always get a good, honest response. They pull no punches (laughs). It’s so good, though. You get great conversation with audience members in Cork. They actually engage in conversation about what they’ve seen, instead of the usual ‘wonderful, wonderful’ stuff.”

Fidget Feet: Taking to the Skies

Fidget Feet dance company heads to Cork on the 23rd, bringing with them a double-header of aerial dance shows. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with dancer and creative director Chantal McCormack Daly.

Pursuing a labour of love is a tough business, as any creative or media individual will tell you. It is quite something else, then, to effectively blaze the trail for it in your home country. For Cork musician Jym Daly and Donegal dancer Chantal McCormick-Daly, it’s been a consuming passion to establish their company Fidget Feet, and bring the thrill of aerial dance to essentially a new audience, one largely built up from scratch in their own case. It’s a process Chantal is evidently proud of. “Fidget Feet received its first commission in 2004 from Customs House in Newcastle, in the UK, to create a solo show called I Can’t Handle Me. Previous to this, we toured Ireland with support from local arts offices, to village halls, churches, anywhere that would take us, with our first shows in 1998. I trained in dance in the UK, and the reason we set up Fidget Feet is we wanted to move home to Ireland, be the first aerial dance company here, and bring what we’ve learnt in the UK to Ireland. We had to wait till Circus became a recognised artform by the Arts Council, before we could move home in 2007. Since then we’re now the leading aerial dance company in Ireland, funded by Arts Council, Culture Ireland, Donegal County Council & Limerick City & County Council. We’re the resident company at Irish World Academy of Music & Dance at the University of Limerick, & our permanent home is at the Irish Aerial Creation Centre.”

The process of establishing a regular touring schedule, effectively building something new for themselves in terms of booking, scheduling and venue liaison, was the foundation of their activities, one laid carefully over the course of years. Chantal is grateful to their Leeside home, the Firkin Crane Theatre in Shandon, in particular. “We’ve been touring successfully since as early as 1998, so the relationships we built since then, we still work on, we build trust with venues, working together to build audiences. Firkin Crane was one of the first venues that supported Fidget Feet, offering us residencies to create work since 2001. Without their support we wouldn’t be where we are now, and we’re excited to be coming back.”

In June, the company will be hosting the annual Irish Aerial Dance Festival in Letterkenny. How did the concept come about and how has it been to see grow the last few years? “I went to the original Aerial Dance Festival in Colorado in USA in 2005, funded by a travel grant from Arts Council. There I trained for two weeks, working with amazing teachers, and I wanted to bring something like this back to Ireland. We started with funding from Dance Ireland, and in Dublin Dance House, we ran weeklong Aerial Forums once a year for three years. Then we partnered with Donegal County Council & An Grianain theatre, moved up to my home county and started running the Irish Aerial Dance Festival there with funding & support from these partners . In year one, we had forty participants for one week, with six teachers. Now we have over twenty teachers, and over 170 participants. Shows, workshops, symposiums and lots of fun. It’s in its eighth year this year, and we have plans to expand, if we get the funding, to make it into a programming festival, so it becomes a platform for national and international circus companies to show their work. We aim for this by 2019, the festival’s 10th anniversary. It’s a dream come true to see it grow and for it to be at home. When I was growing up in Donegal, I knew I wanted to be a dancer but there was not much for me to do – so now we are offering this to any young person that would like to have a career in the arts & circus.”

In 2015, Fidget Feet opened the Irish Aerial Creation Centre in Co. Limerick after garnering funding via Arthur Guinness Projects in 2013. Chantal takes us through the process of planning and creating such a centre, and tying it into the group’s community engagement goals. “It was down to a trip to Montreal in 2008, to the Cinars festival, & we had a tour of Cirque De Soleil’s headquarters, and I thought, ‘Ireland deserves something like this. Much smaller, but a space!’ (laughs) So I had a bee in my bonnet to find a space. We got LEADER funding in 2012, to write a feasibility study on converting a barn into a creation centre in Westmeath, where we were based. In 2014, we were offered the Guinness award of €45,000 seed money to find a space. We were resident company at the Irish World Academy of Music & Dance in the University of Limerick, so I talked to Michael O’Sullivan, the director, if we could move the Creation Centre idea to Limerick, could we be partners, and could we teach aerial dance to the Academy students. He said yes, so we found a warehouse space near the University, and moved in 2015, with support from Limerick City & County Council for three years. With the addition of the Arts Council’s supports for professional development and training at the centre, we had our partners. Then with a Small Capital Grant and McManus funds, we were able to kit out the space. We are so thrilled to have been granted €350,000 plus, in March, funding from Limerick City & County Council to move into a new building in the city of Limerick by 2019. So it’s all go, go. go!”

The group is touring Ireland this month, and after all that’s been accomplished and what they’ve set up for aerial in the country, how is it for Chantal to still get into the spaces and rooms around the country, and further afield, and just perform? “I’m a mum, and I thought maybe with these three businesses, and being a mum, that maybe I don’t need to perform too. But my heart is all about creating and performing, that’s why I do everything I do, without that chance to perform my heart amd soul would be lost. So I have to choose when I can perform, so not all the shows & not all year. I have a great team of performers & a small team in the office (three of us) so together we try to make it work. Lots of late night admin work for me!”

The group performs two shows at the Firkin Crane on the 23rd of this month, for two distinct audiences. The early show, Strange Feathers, is for a younger, formative-years audience. “I went to India, and did a course called Next Generation, where I met my Icelandic partner, Tinna Gretars, from Bird and Bat Dance Company. We hit it off, and together we choreographed the show in Ireland and Iceland. Riverbank in Ireland supported the show and we premiered it last year there. In Iceland we did a small tour with Culture Ireland & Icelandic support, so we’re thrilled to be taking it to so many Irish venues. I have always wanted to make an aerial dance piece with music for the early years. For kids between eighteen months and seven years old, it’s a beautiful, magical piece. If anyone like The Elves & The Shoemaker, they’re going to love this too. Lovely music and the story of two little birds learning to fly, the audience sitting on cushions right in the action, if they arrive at the venue early they can make a mask to watch the birds… It’s all about magic & imagination, and for parents & children to enjoy together.”

Likewise, evening show Hang On is more of a sweeping drama, telling of the ongoing struggle between genders and the precarity of love. “Hang On is one of the shows we have toured internationally since we made the half-hour version in 2010. We have now extended it to fifty minutes, and added some projection. It’s about male & female meeting, and how we compete, struggle, draw lines apart, and then find a way to work together. But even then, if you find your true companion for life, the fear of losing them can be overpowering… it’s a simple story, that everyone can identify with.”

It’ll be a chance to touch base with local arts centre and long-running partners ahead of an expanded schedule this year. “We have a few Irish and international shows planned. Hang On goes to Costa Rica in May, Strange Feathers tours Ireland again in October and November, then Norway & Denmark. We’re researching two new shows, Bingo Wings & Hip Opera, that we hope to create in 2018/19, and we hope to tour a new show, Second Coming in 2018. Hope to see you all in Cork!”

Fidget Feet presents Strange Feathers and Hang On at the Firkin Crane Theatre on Thursday March 23rd. For more information on show times and tickets, go to firkincrane.ie.

Celtic Championship Wrestling: Running the Ropes

 

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Four years old and growing exponentially, Celtic Championship Wrestling has overcome the odds to find a regular hometown audience among Cork city’s fight fans. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with promoter/performer Lee Cahalane about the ring, the business, and the fans.

“The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess. Here we find a grandiloquence which must have been that of ancient theaters. And in fact wrestling is an open-air spectacle, for what makes the circus or the arena what they are is not the sky (a romantic value suited rather to fashionable occasions), it is the drenching and vertical quality of the flood of light. Even hidden in the most squalid Parisian halls, wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: in both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve.” – Roland Barthes

Professional wrestling, both as pop-culture pillar and sporting performance art, is approached with a double-standard that may not necessarily be applied by casual viewers to other venues of theatre, popular culture or athletic exhibition. Like any other performance art or athletic endeavour, pro wrestling is an acquired skill, one requiring hundreds of hours of practice to perform safely in the ring, and whose idiosyncratic narratives and logic are inherited from generations of adjustment and change out of it. Perhaps in reaction to the grand debate regarding “worked” (pre-determined, as opposed to “fake”) combat, or simply identifying with some aspect of the presentation or the athletes/personalities of the time, pro wrestling has lasted the test of time, drawing a fanbase from across the socioeconomic spectrum as generations have passed. From the strongmen of the genre’s 1920s birth, to the “skill boys” of British rings in the sixties and seventies, to American-style “sports-entertainment” from the 1980s on, served up by the Technicolor travelling show that is World Wrestling Entertainment, to today’s multicultural and layered worldwide panorama, it’s a genre that teeters on the precipice of mainstream acceptance and cult following. It’s in this space that Skibbereen man Lee Cahalane discovered a passion that drove him to start an independent wrestling promotion in Cork. “I’ve been a wrestling fan for as long as I can remember. Started really getting into it during the Attitude Era of WWE, and have loved it ever since.”

The rough-and-ready shock TV of the 1990s informed WWE’s on-screen product, as it jostled for television time and licensing fees with such titans as South Park, Jerry Springer, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Anti-heroes like beer-chugging, management-harassing “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and the man that would become The Rock propelled the profession to the top of American cable television as the last millennium drew to a close. As the new millennium began, the seeds of Irish pro wrestling were sown in companies like Irish Whip Wrestling and NWA Ireland, in tandem with the return of the genre from obscurity in the UK. It’s from these pioneers that Cahalane learned his craft, as we find when he provides a little insight into his experience in the wrestling business prior to establishing his company, Celtic Championship Wrestling. “I didn’t have a major amount of experience pre-CCW. I promoted two wrestling events before CCW for another independent promotion in Ireland, but that was it. I had to learn the business from scratch, and surrounded myself with experienced members of the Irish wrestling scene in order to do so”, muses Cahalane, referring to athletes & that came through the doors in various capacities, such as Ross Browne, Blake Norton and Bingo Ballance.

Cahalane began organising and promoting pro wrestling cards in Cork city in 2012, seeing a gap in the market as a fan himself, and seeing both an opportunity on which to capitalise & the entry point to the industry he loved that had eluded him and others over the years. “I always wanted to be a pro wrestler, as opposed to a promoter. I realised one day that we hadn’t seen wrestling in Cork in years. So I took a gamble. I invested money into a show to test the market, so to speak, and fortunately it got a great response. We have now ran almost forty events in four years, have a fully operational training facility for people to learn pro wrestling in Cork city, and I am now also doing what I’m passionate about, which is being an in-ring competitor”, enthuses Cahalane, portraying a corrupt promoter under his own name, and heading up a faction known as The Establishment, cosseting himself with villainous talent, loyal to his own ends.

Shortly after the promotion started rolling, CCW started taping their shows for YouTube, at present for free viewing. With no access to regular television slots with which to set up and advance storylines, promote upcoming shows or feature merchandise, UK and Irish independent companies have taken to the world of on-demand streaming to counter both apathy from broadcasters, and the inexorable retail DVD slump. Indeed, the industry’s major players, such as WWE and New Japan Pro Wrestling have already begun future-proofing themselves, using subscription services to counteract piracy and declining ad revenues from legacy media. CCW hopes to follow suit. “We have taped almost all of our shows over the last four years and the plan is to indeed have them available to view on a on-demand service as well as DVDs. YouTube is a great resource to show the fans what we’re all about, and to give them the opportunity to follow our stories as they unfold.”

With the foundations laid, Cahalane set about founding a training facility, the CCW Academy, with the help of various Irish and international wrestlers as coaches and visiting tutors. The rigours of the ring are different from any martial art or pugilistic exercise, as trainees require not only ring savvy and spatial awareness to perform safely, but theatric psychology, such as remembering where cameras are placed, and communicating facial expressions & body language to a live audience. Falling between two pews as it does, the school has seen a high turnover. “Pro wrestling isn’t for everyone. We see a lot of guys come and go at the Academy but we are also developing some amazing talents, a lot of whom have been there since day one. The training is hard, but that’s to be expected with any physical sport. For those that are truly passionate and motivated, to be a pro wrestler it can be the best experience of your life.”

In recent times, CCW has also established a second brand, CCW Riot, which has presented an Attitude-adjusted alternative to the usual family-friendly matinee wrestling shows, pitting their own homegrown talent against independent stars of the UK and European circuits in a more raucous atmosphere ramped up by home venue The Kino’s BYOB status. How has Cahalane seen the difference in crowds at the Kino and, say, the more family-friendly audiences? How does story-telling in and out of the ring differ? “As far as storytelling is concerned, we remain consistent with the stories that are showcased on our family shows, but we allow the product to be grittier, and explore more adult-themed areas. The crowds are great in both the family and over-18s events, and they really get into the action. The opportunity to work with international talents is fantastic not just for our own home grown talents to mix it up and learn from, but also for the fans who always look for the most competitive and entertaining matches possible.”

The company has a Hallowe’en show on October 22nd, another CCW Riot affair, to be entitled Nightmare on Washington Street. Cahalane, in time-honoured wrestling fashion, keeps his cards close to his chest, with the event’s matches yet to be announced at the time of interview, but insists that the brand itself, and the atmosphere it engenders, is an attraction in and of itself. “Expect to see all the top CCW stars from here in Ireland and Europe. Expect us to go the extra mile to entertain our loyal fans. Expect an alternative great night of entertainment!”

And so, we get to the elephant in the room when discussing the nuances of pro wrestling for a wider magazine audience: the derision the artform receives from various quarters. Written off as “fake” in the same breaths that carry excitement for TV boxsets, or “reality” shows, or dismissed as redundant Americana by those not cognisant of the global reach of the artform, pro wrestling deals with stigma that negatively affect its progression and development, from stereotypes of its fanbase, to broadcasters unsure of advertising revenues from same. Cahalane dismisses critics of the genre. “I’ve said this many times, you’re either one-hundred percent a wrestling fan, or you’re one-hundred percent not. I don’t worry about the people that don’t appreciate pro wrestling, my only concern is the passionate wrestling fans of Ireland. To us, wrestling is the coolest thing on the planet!”

Celtic Championship Wrestling presents Nightmare on Washington Street at the Kino on October 22nd. For more info, check them out on Facebook and Twitter @ccwrestling1.