Cork Jazz Fringe Festival: Engaging with the Community

The Fringe and Music Trail events have always been important to the Jazz Weekend’s engagement with the city’s community, with hidden musical gems and workshops aplenty. MIKE McGRATH-BRYAN takes a look.

Engagement with the city’s community groups, residents and businesses has been key to the growth and development of the Jazz over the past four decades: it is, after all, with this support that the weekend festival has been able to expand into a bank-holiday staple capable of attracting music fans from all over the world. The Jazz Fringe Festival, a programme of events at venues around the city, is an important part of this process, bringing music, tuition and performances to the citizenry as part of the weekend’s proceedings.

At the heart of the Fringe is the festival’s club, running all day and night throughout the weekend from the festival’s spiritual home at the Gresham Metropole Hotel, where the first Jazz was booked in 1977 to fill a gap left by a cancelled bridge tournament. With numerous resident performers, and appearances from ensembles also playing elsewhere throughout the weekend, it’s the very heart of the festival itself, and any perusal of the festival requires a stop at the Metropole at some stage during the weekend. Other all-weekend festival venues around the city for some free jazzin’ include the outdoor stage at Emmet Place (outside the Opera House, also playing host to the Jazz Bites Food Fair), and the River Lee Hotel’s Riverside Bar.

The City Library has long been a staunch source of support for musicians in the area, and it’s fitting that the library’s music department opens proceedings with a pair of crash-courses in music theory and appreciation. Wednesday 24th sees a special beginners’ seminar in reading sheet music take place at 11am, as musicians and guests attempt to help stave off confusion surrounding the written language behind the sounds. The class is suitable for all levels of musical knowledge and all ages. The following day, same time, same place, a special workshop on listening to Jazz takes attendees through the question of jazz music, and why casual listeners have historically odd about it. This presentation is aimed at introducing jazz to suit all tastes, new pathways into listening and enjoying jazz, and to providing information on a vast and exciting sonic world.

Hallowe’en preparations kick off in earnest on Thursday 25th with a Festival Parade, winding through the city in celebration of Dia de Los Muertos, the Latin-American Day of the Dead. Held in association with Cork Community Artlink and setting off at 7pm, it’s suitably spooky fun for all the family, as a marking of the beauty of life and death takes in major floats, dancers, musicians and performers, weaving their way through Cork city. A New Orleans-type jazz funeral is at the centre of proceedings, with live improvising jazz musicians paying homage to departed jazz greats. Friday the 26th marks a major first for the Jazz, as the Festival has commissioned ‘Unity’, its fully-immersive audiovisual experience, fusing Jazz, contemporary classical and electronica, juxtaposed against the surrounds of St Luke’s Church, now better known as the ‘Live at St. Luke’s’ venue. 4k microscopic projections, a full lighting show, and The David Duffy Quartet unite to accentuate a show that examines what it is that connects, unifies and binds us. Tickets are €15, from uticket.ie.

The CIT Cork School of Music has long been a destination on Jazz Weekend, for a look at the new generation of musicians and performers, as well as family-friendly entertainment. On Saturday 27th at 10.30am, the CITCSM Youth Jazz Ensemble, under the direction of Sarah Dewhurst and with special guests from the New York Jazz Standard Project, provide a programme of big band music, suitable for all ages. Wee jazzers will also have the opportunity to meet all the different instrumental families, as they feature in familiar tunes from TV and the silver screen. At noon in the same building, the CITCSM Jazz Big Band gets ready for a High Noon Jazz Gala, as the finest young musicians on the degree programmes of the CSM are directed by award-winning composer, pianist and arranger Cormac McCarthy in a recital of modern and standard classics that’s kept the event a hot ticket among jazz fans for years. Tickets for these events are are online at events.cit.ie.

While the Sunday is packed with the usual favourites, including live jazz at Cork City Gaol at 4pm (tickets €5, email info@corkcitygaol.com), Monday 29th has a pair of highlights for musicians and poets alike amid all the sore heads and smaller shows that typically accompany the festival’s last day. Vocalists can head to Voiceworks on South Terrace at 1pm, for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with Cork Jazz headliner Sachal Vasandani, alongside veteran Cork vocalist, Gemma Sugrue. These two world-travelled singers promise an intimate vocal workshop, working with all levels of singers to up their vocal development game (€40 for participating students, €20 to attend as a non-participating member). That night, poetry night Ó Bhéal has its annual jazz-poetry session. The night begins as usual at 9.30pm, with the group’s customary five-word poetry challenge, followed by impeccably-monikered guest poet Sex W. Johnston, who will be accompanied by jazz musician Darragh Hennessy, who will also improvise music to the later open-mic poetry session.

Meanwhile, throughout the weekend, there’s a lot on for more discerning palates, as the best of original music from Cork and further afield can be spotted amid the chaos and jazz standards of the music trail. Electric on South Mall plays host all weekend to performances from Cork folk singer-songwriter Marlene Enright, as well as DJ sets from this parish’s own Ronan Leonard. Fred Zeppelin’s keeps metalheads happy on Friday night, with a crushing headliners double-bill of Scots doom lads King Witch and Leeds post-metallers Hundred Year Old Man, while punk rockers can shine their boots for Saturday’s free gig, featuring Dublin oi merchants Jobseekers and seldom-seen Cork punx Stanton’s Grave. Sunday sees Cork’s finest neo-soul six-piece hit the back room of Coughlan’s on Douglas Street, as Irish Times Band of the Year winners Shookrah look likely to pack the venue out for a late show at 11pm.

For more information and tickets, check out GuinnessCorkJazz.com.

Cork Chilli Company: Too Hot to Handle?

Cork Chilli Company is set to host its first-ever eating competition at its stall at Douglas Farmer’s Market, in aid of St. Vincent de Paul. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with company head Gary Barriscale about what potential contenders are up against, and SVP regional co-ordinator Gerry Garvey about the challenges the charity faces this winter.

It’s a novel idea, albeit one that resonates with both pop-culture kitsch and the county’s growing reputation for homegrown food production. A chilli-eating contest: competitors square up to the specialist produce of the Cork Chilli Company, a Douglas-based start-up, and test their mettle, as the heat intensifies with each round. It’s not for the faint of heart, or the weak of constitution, but oddly enough, Cork’s first chilli showdown, happening on October 6th at Douglas Farmer’s Market, is the product of popular demand. The company’s stall has been kept busy by the adventurous palates of the city’s foodie community, who called for the competition to take place.

Gary Barriscale is part of the team behind Cork Chilli Company, and while the idea is an opportunity for potential competitors to sample a wide range of palate-testing peppers, all proceeds from donations raised by entrants go to St. Vincent de Paul in Cork, a cause close to his heart, as his father was deeply involved in the charity’s activities in the city and county. “It was the obvious choice for our business. We grow more than forty different varieties of chillies here in Cork, so we have the means and raw material to be able to run the competition. Several of our customers had asked about doing one, and running it as a fundraiser seemed like a much better reason to put it on, rather than doing it just for fun alone.”

St. Vincent de Paul has been a source of support and help for people in need throughout the country for generations, assisting families and individuals through difficult times in their lives with the help of public donations. This winter poses the greatest challenge in a generation for the charity, as living costs skyrocket amid an unprecedented housing crisis, and weather events continue . Gerry Garvey, South West Regional Co-ordinator for St. Vincent de Paul, speaks on the importance of fundraisers like this. “We can’t help out people in need unless we get donations and fundraising coming in. It’s particularly important at this time of year, because we’re just into back-to-school costs, and with cold weather now, we’re going to have huge costs for heating, as well as our everyday costs. Now until March is an important time. People are struggling to pay mortgages and meet rental costs, especially people on welfare, which hasn’t risen in line with living costs. People are under immense pressure.”

Barriscale’s family connection to SVP informs his decision to run a fundraiser for the charity, but the other part of this story is also born from homegrown efforts, with the Cork Chilli Company quite literally growing from a window box. “The interest originally came in 2013, from a fascination with growing a few chilli plants on the windowsill at home. In 2014, I filled my window sills with chilli plants, and started a night-course in horticulture to learn proper growing skills. Around that time, I also became very interested in hydroponics. I found it fascinating, as it eliminates the traditional soil-borne challenges with growing, but it also adds many other challenges. In 2015, we built our first polytunnel in the back garden, and in 2016, with the help of some friends we built our first commercial-sized polytunnel. The number of plants has increased every year since then, and all are grown hydroponically. (The same year), we started developing our range of chilli sauces. We had just two to begin with. We also did our first farmers market on 1st of October 2016, selling sauces, fresh chillies and chilli plants. We moved to Douglas Farmers Market in December 2016, where we have been ever since. We continue to develop our range of products, and as of this week we have 8 different sauces, ranging from very mild to blisteringly hot, with several in between to cater for all tastes and heat preferences. We’re happy to keep things small for now, concentrating on growing quality chillies, and making high-quality, small batches of delicious sauces.”

There’s been plenty of interest in entering the contest, but as of yet, very few have been brave enough to line out. For those that fancy themselves brave enough to tuck into some speciality chilli – what exactly will be served up, and how will a winner be determined? “The contest will be run across a series of rounds, with participants able to withdraw at any stage. The chillies will begin at a mild heat, and will increase in heat, based upon the Scoville Scale of chilli-pepper heat as the rounds progress. Each contestant will receive a single chilli in each round, and will be required to eat the entire chilli but excluding the stalk. Chillies likely to feature in the contest will be Jalapeno, Ring of Fire, Habanero, Scotch Bonnet, Ghost Chilli, Moruga Scorpion to name a few, and culminate with the world-record holding hottest chilli, The Carolina Reaper, if anyone makes it that far. The winner will be determined by being the last remaining contestant willing to continue in the contest. In the event of a tie, remaining contestants will be given an additional minute to consume as many chillies as possible, with the winner being the individual that consumed the most whole chillies in the time.”

So, with the gauntlet thrown down and the terms outlined, what’s the interest been like, and more to the point, in the spirit of good fun that events like this are about… what’s at stake? “Loads of people are interested in coming to watch, but what we really need is people to put their mouths where their money is, and enter the contest. The prize for the winner is incredible: a lifetime’s supply of bragging rights… and possibly a small trophy. All going well, we would like to make it an annual event, where the champion can defend that title again next year.”

Initiatives like this are a lifeline for St. Vincent de Paul, providing fun and unique experiences for people to partake in, that come from others’ passions and bring help local communities together for the cause. But with the challenges that lie ahead, fundraising is of utmost importance. Gerry Garvey explains how people can parlay their life’s loves into helping the effort. “Lots of people do fundraising efforts. Schools often do food and clothing appeals, we often have independent companies come to us and ask how to get involved. Our biggest fundraiser are our Flag Days, starting from October, through to the end of December. If people want to organise individual fundraisers, they can reach out to us and speak with our regional fund-raiser Anna McKernan, and lend a hand with our ongoing campaigns.”

Foróige Big Brother & Big Sister: “It Changed Me”

For over a decade, youth work organisation Foróige has been matching socially-minded working people with teenagers that can benefit from an hour or two a week of chat and collaborative activity. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with programme facilitator Sinéad Murphy, as well as programme siblings Martina Lyons and Jamie Halpin, about the project.

For youth work programmes all over the world, the idea of a ‘sibling’ programme has been a mainstay of their services. Pairing working adult volunteers with the experience of a lifetime with young people at a crossroads in theirs has long fostered mutually beneficial relationships, providing the young person with purpose and direction as they move forward with careers and study. On September 8th, Foróige in Cork City will provide training for prospective new big brothers and sisters for their programme, at the project’s headquarters on Watercourse Road. There, potential big siblings will garner experience on both informal and formal levels, regarding the place of their efforts in the wider world of social work in the city.

Programme facilitator Sinéad Murphy gives us some insight into the creation of the programme, explains how the idea found its way to Cork, and how it was implemented not just in the inner-city, but at Foróige clubs around the country. “It came from America, a programme that’s been running there for well over a hundred years at this point. We would have brought it in Ireland in the early-2000s. A pilot programme was set up in Galway in 2003, 2004. We’ve had it in Cork since 2007. The siblings will meet up once a week, usually for an hour or two, to go for a coffee and a chat, or do some fun activities. It’s a commitment for a year: based on studies here and internationally, for the best benefit of a programme for a child, it should be running for a minimum of a year. It’s not something you can dip in and out of – you’re making a commitment to this young person.”

For the programme itself, Foróige liaises with local community organisations and agencies to ascertain young people’s strengths, in order to match them with an adult that can help develop them further. “We don’t seek them out as such – they might come to us through an agency that refer them to us, they might be sent to us through school, through a parent or a youth worker. We have young people from all over the city and parts of the county – it’s not targeted areas, as we don’t want to stigmatise young people over where they’re from, we work with them on the basis of individual need.”

For Murphy, the programme’s reward is in seeing the results of matches, as bigger siblings spend time developing ongoing friendships and mentorships with their charges as their time in the programme moves on. “You can tell from seeing matches, you can see confidence and self-esteem building for a young person when they’re involved. I’ve clearly seen it, in my time working with people, I can see that change. Definitely, it’s very positive in terms of promoting school, and school completion, having a goal regarding what they’d like to do after second level… it definitely does work for young people in terms of development, goal-setting, and helping them with independence and decision-making.”

At present, the programme is in recruitment mode, as the number of children and teenagers seeking mentorship or being referred is beginning to surpass the number of adults currently able to commit. Murphy outlines how people can get involved, and what to expect at training on the 8th. “Contact us directly. We have a Facebook page now, ‘Big Brother Big Sister Cork’, and you can get in touch via our website. We arrange to meet people on an individual basis, where we would chat with them, explain what’s involved, and it goes from there. It’s a stringent recruitment process, because it’s a one-to-one situation, and we have to make sure they’re the right person for the role, really. Interviews, references, garda vetting, big-sibling training and child-protection training. It can be a lot more difficult also, to get male volunteers, but certainly, we’re always, always looking.”

Getting involved with the programme came along at the right time for Jamie Halpin, as his academic career in social work required something a little extra to ground him in his discipline. Working with young people helped broaden his understanding of the demands of his course and the work that would follow. “Originally, I was going to study Social Work in UCC. I met with the director, she recommended that I do some volunteer work before going into it, so that sparked my interest. I went to VolunteerCork on North Main Street, asked for some help with voluntary work, and the Big Brother/Big Sister programme was the one that appealed to me. I contacted them, had an interview with a case worker, and it went from there, and I haven’t looked back.”

Of course, it’s not just a one-way exchange. While the aim is to link up with young people and provide them with direction and encouragement, the perspective that such a relationship can bring to the big sibling bears much consideration, while the supports that are available to him via the programme have helped him in other ways. “Getting involved with the programme is one of the, if not the most, rewarding things I’ve ever done. For me, the main thing is it’s helped me become a far more responsible adult. Spending time with a young person on a weekly basis, biweekly basis, making sure that we’re both on time, because they’re younger, in their teens. Organising with them or a parent regarding where to meet. I always want to have something different, interesting or fun to do. I want to actively listen, then, I suppose, to anything that’s going on for them, good, bad, that’s big in their lives. It was a great way of improving my own socialising too. I’d moved around the country, so finding like-minded mentors (was a big help for settling back down).”

For Big Sister Martha Lyons, once the initial interviews and exams were all done with, the process of getting to work with young people on their personal development was a matter of drawing on her training. Getting herself in the right headspace to be a Big Sister was another matter. “I suppose, sticking with the same time every week to meet with your Little is important, or not going out the night before if you’re meeting your Little the next day. It’s something you do when you can schedule things around it so it doesn’t feel like a burden, you’re excited to do it.” Like Halpin, Lyons’ experience in the programme, working with young people and helping advance their development comes with the upside of getting their perspective, and depending on the young person’s willingness to share, getting into their interests. “I’m quite lucky I have a lot of nieces and nephews roughly the age of my Little, so it wasn’t completely alien. Our parents look at us and think everything we do is out there, but I’m just learning with K-Pop is, what all these PlayStation games are, and I don’t think I’m going to get my head around it! But if she’s interested in it, happy about it, that’s all that matters.”

Getting involved is, as stated, a commitment, and one that requires a lot of thought and planning on the part of potential Big Siblings. Lyons has words of advice for anyone considering giving their time and effort. “Do your research, get stuck in. There’s so much support, and Foróige are so good with support, always on call. Other than that, it’s all down to your Little, what she likes, what she doesn’t like. They will tell you, and you can trust them to tell you!”

For more information on the Big Brother/Big Sister programme, email brenda.keatingomeara@foroige.ie, check out https://www.foroige.ie/volunteer-enquiry, or find Cork Big Brother Big Sister on Facebook.

Nick Mulvey: “The No-Thing Thing”

Off the back recent long-player ‘Wake Up Now’, former Portico Quartet man Nick Mulvey comes to Cork on September 22nd, performing at St. Luke’s. Mike McGrath-Bryan hears about the record’s beginnings, and the wider issues it addresses.

A wide musical frame of reference can be a real blessing for a songwriter, once one’s natural urges are given focus. Since leaving Mercury Award-nominated outfit Portico Quartet in 2011, guitarist Nick Mulvey has been busy investing American folk influences of his own with his background in ethnomusicology, in particular African guitar styles and subgenres. A working relationship with Bat for Lashes producer Dan Carey bore fruit in studio, while support slots for the like of Willy Mason, Lianne La Havas, and Laura Marling allowed him to roadtest and refine further new material. Mulvey’s full-length debut, ‘First Mind’, arrived in 2014, charting in the top ten in the U.K., and garnering him a solo Mercury Prize nomination.

Third LP ‘Wake Up Now’ builds on this extended momentum, casting an eye outwards on matters both personal and professional, in keeping with the rate of change in society, and the trajectory of his own work. “I’m really proud of this record, and happy how my fans have taken it to heart. It’s an album I felt I had to write. The songs celebrate what it means to be alive, and they draw a line between the current crises we are experiencing as a species, and our generally shallow depth of self-knowledge. The songs talk about important things: yes, we are these bodies and yes, we are these roles that we play, but only very fleetingly. Basing an identity, personally, and building societies, collectively, on these temporary things, has been unsound, and we’re watching it fall apart around us now. This album is a praise song celebrating the ‘no-thing thing’ that we actually always are and as such it’s an offering of hope.”

The creative and production processes for the record speak to the extent of changes that Mulvey underwent in its run-up. Fatherhood came calling, right as wider human rights issues began making the news, which had to have been a tonic creatively, if for nothing but urgency. The end product, meanwhile, is a result of its surroundings, with Mulvey and band settling into Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio, in Bath. “I wrote most of the songs during and in parallel with my wife’s pregnancy and the birth of our first kid. Once he was born, it seemed to be rocket fuel for the record, it all came together so quick. It was recorded at Real World at the end of 2016, and we worked live, and we worked fast. I need an atmosphere of playful intensity to get the performances down, and ‘capture’ it as a still-living thing.”

Leadoff single ‘Myela’ touched on the aforementioned human rights crises, with its focus squarely on the ongoing European migrant crisis. Collecting one’s thoughts on such a weighty matter, before putting it together into a song idea, is a deeply personal matter, so Mulvey understandably conducted as much research as possible. In doing so, the voices of the voiceless came to the fore. “I knew I couldn’t write firsthand about this subject, but it felt like something I couldn’t ignore, so I drew the lyrics from refugees’ own words about their experiences. I found an online archive of refugees’ accounts of their journeys, and as I read these stories, the song became easy to put together. I wanted to humanise these people, and so I included as many names and places and details that I could, changing bits, of course, to fictionalise where necessary.”

Travel and an external perspective are nothing new to Mulvey, though. His story began at the age of nineteen, when he moved to Havana to pursue his own personal musical education, living in Cuba right as the once-reclusive country was in hot debate internally about whether or not to open itself up to the world. Upon returning to London, Mulvey parlayed this experience into academia, and studied ethnomusicology, a discipline also taught here in University College Cork. Ethnomusicology informs Mulvey’s approach to creativity and his understanding of the process, beyond the obvious question of musical influence. “I loved looking at music with this broad lens, taking nothing for granted, and I loved situating music in its cultural and historical context. The course introduced me to so much wild music, and taught me that we don’t hear things in a pure, isolated way – that every utterance is loaded with all the previous utterances gone before it.”

Nick Mulvey plays Live at St. Luke’s on September 22nd. Doors at 7.30pm, tickets €24 plus booking fee at uticket.ie.

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.

Gender Rebels: Fighting for Visibility and Rights

Gender Rebels are a group dedicated to working on the rights of transgender, intersex and non-binary people in Cork City, negotiating obstacles both infrastructural and everyday, and providing an outlet for social events and peer support. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with chairperson Jack Fitzgerald.

With Pride month in the rear view mirror for another year, and celebrations around the country winding down, it’s easy to bask in the colour, pomp and circumstance that the weekend’s proceedings confer on the city. Inclusivity and visibility have traditionally been at the heart of Pride celebrations, stemming from its roots in civil rights protest. But with criticism mounting in recent times of co-option by major sponsors of the Pride movement, the importance of maintaining that visibility for the city’s LGBT* community on a day-to-day basis has been drawn into sharp focus. For transgender, intersex, non-binary and otherwise gender non-conforming individuals, representation and community has historically been of utmost importance in the absence of substantial infrastructural assistance, with this year seeing Dublin host Ireland’s first ever Trans Pride march.

Enter Gender Rebels, a group formed last year to provide peer support and social outlets with a distinctly Corkonian identity. For chairperson Jack Fitzgerald, being part of its foundation was about strengthening connections between people in the city. “The last peer support group in Cork had kind of wound down, and (advocacy group) TENI was looking for something to fill the gap. Just from other things, they knew who I was, called me and asked would I be interested in taking up the peer support group. From looking at what the support group did and the resources it had, I kind-of figured that I might as well do my own thing here, that wasn’t connected to any organisation. I thought that would give us more of a voice and more visibility.”

Last November saw the group’s inaugural AGM, at the Village Hall community venue on Patrick’s Quay. With the event’s agenda ranging from social events to addressing the wider infrastructural needs of Cork transgender, non-binary and intersex communities, reaching a consensus among members before settling on a mission statement was a considered process. “It took a while. When I set the AGM, the community was very dispersed in Cork, there wasn’t one epicentre for people. Loads of people are online, in online groups, that’s where we advertised it, we got the name out there, as well as networking with people we know, and we booked the space in The Village Hall upstairs for the AGM. It was surprisingly well-attended, about 50 people, which was absolutely fantastic. There, we just said what each wanted from the scene in Cork, what we were looking for, and then, from that, hearing stories. From there, I was able to pull together a steering group, we set it up and outlined the aims of our community, how to raise awareness, and then also to try and get better resources for ourselves here in the city.”

Among the key items on the agenda, and one that has defined the group subsequently, has been that of addressing the needs of the city’s community, in different ways. Recent years have seen an upsurge in national awareness of the issues facing trans, non-binary and intersex people, but on a local level, Gender Rebels have been putting in the work on educating others on the issues that affect people on a daily basis. “The big one is if you’re wishing to transition and get onto HRT, there’s no services in Cork for you. You have to go to either Galway or Dublin, and the waiting list for Loughlinstown in Dublin is twenty months. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get onto HRT after that time, either. They’re using a very outdated mode of care for trans people, they’re not applying themselves to the international standard, the WPAT. There’s a movement in Dublin, This is Me, trying to get the international standard of care brought in. The other issue is people don’t know. They don’t know what being trans is, don’t know what being intersex is. If you’re an individual trying to access a support or service, the people you’re dealing with don’t know what you are. That can be very difficult. People that are going to their GPs or their counsellors are often in the position where they are the educator, and that can be very difficult as they may not know everything themselves, but they are expected to. Other people may choose not to come out because of that, so they may use a service in the city and people may not know they’re trans because they don’t want to have that conversation.”

Among the biggest issues facing the community in Cork at present, is the coarsening of discussion on the topic of gender, thanks in no small part to the rise in agenda-driven online debate channels and personalities. Recurring jokes and memes belittling minority social groups have been a pillar of their online strategies, and Jack has seen the attrition on discourse in his everyday life. “You get the people that think this is some new fad that just came up, don’t realise there’s a history to it, thinking that it’s okay to have “debates” with trans, non-binary and intersex people. This could be a person just going about their day, and all of a sudden, they’ll meet an individual that has this pre-planned debate, made out in their head. You’d be, y’know, just trying to get your coffee. You don’t want to be debating if the ‘they’ pronoun is singular or not. I just want to have a coffee. You’re always expected to ‘perform’. Part of that is, as the gay and lesbian movements have picked up acceptance, visibility and allies, they’re no longer the ‘easy target’. Trans people are likely to be more vulnerable or isolated, so they might be an easier target for this stuff.”

Another stated goal for the group has been garnering better resources with which to work, and provide spaces for people from the community to meet up and support one another. The processes of dealing with officialdom and venues around the city have been relatively easy for the group, with goodwill being extended from different quarters. “It’s been very positive. I was volunteering with Cork Community Art Link, who are at the Lido (in Blackpool). I had asked them if we could avail of the space and they were more than happy to give us that space. So, while you do have those people online that are anti-gay, or anti-trans, the average person is more than willing to be accepting, almost like they can’t do enough for you, and it’s really been heartwarming to see that. People are really kind, or if they don’t know, say, the right way to go about things, they just ask questions like ‘how can I support you better?’, which is really encouraging. Interestingly, we have had difficulty in accessing (lesbian and gay spaces), but it is getting better. The Cork Gay Project has recently changed their remit to include trans men, which is really encouraging. Bi Ireland has been fantastic. I’m surprised by the amount of trans people in bi groups in Ireland. They’re an accepting space and they’ve made sure that they’re an accepting space.”

With the polarisation of online discussion and subsequent second-hand talk, it could be difficult for some people to know where to begin getting up to speed on matters pertaining to the city’s trans, non-binary and intersex communities. Discussion regarding preferred pronouns, gender identities and trans rights have come to the surface in recent years, but for Fitzgerald, knowing how to help starts with the everyday ways in which people interact and support each other. “The biggest one is, first and foremost, view us as human. There’s a lot of ‘othering’ that can happen. Some people can be so different to you, so out of your norm, that it’s easy to other them, but when you do that, you dehumanise them. Just realise that we are human and the vast majority of us want to live our lives. I’d be very unusual, by being very proactive and advocating for trans rights, but the majority want to live their lives and get on with things. The second one is, if someone has come out to you, and has changed their pronouns, to just respect those pronouns, try and use them. I know it can be difficult if you know someone for a long time to change to a new name and new pronouns, especially if it’s ‘they’ as a singular. It can a take to while to get used to it. If you do make a mistake, misuse pronouns, etc., what works best, I find, is to say sorry and move on. One thing that often happens is someone will get the wrong pronoun, and then spend the next half-hour saying sorry for it. It comes from a place of kindness… if it’s an accident, it’s an accident. It happens.”

Another pillar of the group’s remit is raising the local profile of the community in Cork, with this awareness feeding into the main aim of better resources and support in the city. To this end, creating visibility has been a major part of the group’s activities. “I think the mere fact that we exist has created a lot of awareness. I’m after getting phone calls or emails from people where a family member has come out, or they have a client who’s trans, and they go online because they don’t know anything about it, they Google it and they find us. We’re a place for them to ask their questions. Another one is having been involved in Pride this year, which allowed us to have our own trans event. In UCC, I’d do a lot of talks… when anyone calls us asking to do a talk, I’d always raise my hand. During the Repeal campaign, I was asked to provide my perspective as a trans person. Y’know, we have meetups and social events, we do so in public, to reinforce the idea that there’s nothing wrong with being trans. We can exist in public spaces. When we launched the group, a gay man came up to me and said he thought it was unusual that we would have gatherings in public. He said he knew two trans women that wouldn’t “pass”, didn’t ‘look’ female, and because of that they shouldn’t be out in public. It’s that kind of thing we want to challenge. We are as entitled as anyone to be in these spaces.”

While the social events include coffee gatherings, nights out and games nights in places like Tabletop and Barcadia, an important offering for the group is a closed-doors peer support group at the Lido, happening monthly. Provided is an accepting space for people to present themselves as who they are, with group discussions, workshops and changing facilities available. “Mainly, we meet up in cafes. It’s a lot more chill for people. If you saw us sitting around, you wouldn’t twig that we are trans, non-binary or intersex. We just look like everyone else. We get people that go to our peer support meetings, those are closed spaces, people can be ‘more’ themselves, can dress the way they want, act the way they want. Some people can be more reserved in public, depending on how ‘out’ they are and where they are in their transition. It’s a place to support each other, discuss their experiences. If someone is just coming out, don’t know where they fit, groups like this are very handy, they can hear stories, ask questions. Oftentimes, it’s the first space (people) have been in where they’re ‘out’, or the norm, they’re not ‘unusual’. And just to have that, where they’re not the different person in the room, can be very liberating.”

The group has come along in leaps and bounds, with another AGM due later in the year, advocacy work ongoing, and social activities planned throughout. Fitzgerald points to ongoing growth and hard graft. “To grow bigger, have more events. Weekly events. Down the line, our own centre or space. When you look at Belfast, they have the Trans Resource Centre there. Seeing what they’ve done up there, we’d love to have something similar up there, where you can get resources and info. Another thing is more of an online presence, at the moment, we’re all based on Facebook. We want to move from that to our own website, so that will be a resource to access, as people might be afraid of using socials, others might not know they’re out, etc. There’s a few other things lined up, but right now it’s about getting stable, growing and building our community.”

For more information on upcoming peer support groups and social activities, email genderrebelscork@gmail.com, or find Gender Rebels on Facebook.

Marsicans: “We’re Always Going Down the Rabbit Hole”

From DIY stragglers to BBC radio playlisting, indie four-piece Marsicans have had a fairytale eighteen months. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with members James Newbigging and Rob Brander ahead of their gig at Cyprus Avenue next month.

Sometimes a good story is made interesting because a certain trope is subverted, or at the least, flipped convicingly. In a time when artists going it alone and wearing the multiple caps of a DIY musician, it’s increasingly interesting to see a band sign to an independent label and obtain success by any measure. In the case of Marsicans, the process of gigging, recording and generally slugging it out has accelerated exponentially since signing with indie label LAB in 2017. What began as just a means of getting the band’s new music out has landed the band at festivals, in high-profile touring, and in a most unlikely occurrence, providing the theme song to Channel 4 reality confection ‘Made in Chelsea’. For frontman James Newbigging, it’s been a lot to take in. “It’s been full-on, but in the best kind of way. Working with LAB has helped us keep doing what we were doing, but on a bigger scale, and more frequently. Each release has been gaining more momentum, and we have been lucky enough to have BBC Radio 1 and Spotify supporting us along the way.”

The band’s arguable breakout single, ‘Wake Up Freya’ released earlier this year, and aside from online success, is the anchor track for an EP of LAB Records singles of the same name. Newbigging discusses how he feels about how they’ve fared creatively in the past while, in terms of writing and production. “I’m very happy with what we’ve released so far, but there’s always ways to improve. I’m mostly happy that each song has its own kind of ‘place’, if that makes sense. When writing, we try not to stick to one exact formula. I think some bands find something that works and stick to it. That’s not to say they won’t do well, but we’re always calling each other out if we’re trying to get away with the same tricks song after song. Production-wise, we’re always going down the rabbit hole in the studio. That might not always end well, but we make sure we give everything a go.”

The band has hit a million streaming listens, also – while vinyl and merch is important to any indie band, Spotify has had an increasing impact on bottom line at management level. As mentioned earlier, Newbigging credits the emergence of the service and its accessibility for much of their newfound success. “I think it definitely makes your band more accessible to a wider audience. For example, we were sat in a restaurant in Ipswich the other week and our song ‘Too Good’ came on. They had put on a Spotify playlist that we’re featured on, and I don’t think those chance plays would happen without Spotify. There’s definitely a change overall with streaming, but you’ve got to roll with it, because ultimately you want your music to be in as many people’s cars/ radios/ ears as possible. Spotify and streaming make that a lot easier.”

Not to discount radio and the like – singles of theirs have made the aforementioned BBC daytime playlisting, placement on Channel 4, etc. with backup from the numbers that the band has reached via streaming. For bassist/vocalist Rob Branding, these are all signifiers of progress. “Those kind of things are, first and foremost, a great validation that you’re doing things right. It’s such an open-ended industry that it can sometimes be difficult to know whether you’re making the right decisions. So when Radio and TV start supporting then it feels really good. The two platforms are great for helping to get your music further afield, but I’d say the biggest thing that having media backing does is to tell your existing fans that things are happening. The people who have been with us from the beginning get just as excited as we do about that kind of thing, so it’s good to make them feel their support has been worthwhile.”

After endless grinding in support slots and spot-shows, the band is just off its first headline tour of the UK, off the back of some high-profile tour supports in the indie and pop worlds, and all this media excitement. Branding is keen to emphasise that this is what the lads are after. “It’s the best feeling in the world walking on to stage in a room full of people who are all there to see you play your songs. The other stuff is nice to have, but ultimately it’s the energy you feel from those people that you chase.”

The band is renowned for the constant roadmiles it’s putting in, and as with any other band that leaves their effort and energy around the touring circuit of DIY venues in the UK, the question emerges of how they have managed to balance all this with a personal life, health, and wellbeing. There’s a certain amount of sacrifice, but Branding maintains its value. “In terms of having ‘normal’ personal lives outside of the band, we kind of just forgot that idea a long time ago. It sounds like a sad thing, but when you spend all your time in a van with your best friends seeing new places and meeting cool people, it’s not worth crying over. Being in a band is all-encompassing, so it’s not just the touring that has an effect on our personal lives, it’s the everyday stuff too. We have to be ready to go at the drop of a hat and having structure and routine is almost impossible. That can sometimes have a negative effect, but at those times we try and look at the bigger picture and think about what the alternative might be. We soon start to feel better about ourselves!”

Marsicans are touring Ireland next month, including a date in Cyprus Avenue on the 7th. It’s looking like a voyage of discovery for the four-piece, lying just before another stint in studio and the pressure to maintain their considerable momentum. “For most of us, it’s our first time in Ireland full stop, let alone as a band, so we’re really excited to come over and see that part of the world. The travelling element is one of the most fulfilling parts of band life and it’s always fun to be somewhere new. It’s also a nervous time because you don’t know whether there will be 1 person or 1,000 people there to greet you. Let’s hope it’s the latter (laughs).”