Stepping up for Sleeping Beauty

As well as top Russian talent, Cork City Ballet’s new production features a number of local dancers. Jo Kerrigan attends rehearsals and hears about the gruelling rehearsal routine

Pictures: Richard Mills

Cork City Ballet is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month with a full-length production of The Sleeping Beauty. Moscow ballet stars Ekaterina Bortyakova and Akzhol Mussakhanov will fly in to take the principal roles of Aurora and her Prince, and costumes and stage sets will be all that a fairytale demands.

Very few people in the audience, however, will realise just how cruelly demanding the life of a dancer can be, must be, if he or she is to have any hope of surviving, let alone reaching the heights of solo stardom.

Ballet requires more stamina, more strength, more stretching beyond the limits of endurance than any of those. Don’t believe it? Let’s look at the experience of a young Cork man who has devoted the past decade to pursuing his dream.

Cormac Murphy was only a baby when Cork City Ballet was founded, and didn’t really get into dance until he was a teenager. “I did jazz, contemporary, at Cork Arts Studio first, but it was at Stiofain Naofa I really started ballet. I really liked the strictness and the formulaic style”

Alan Foley, director of the CSN course at the time, saw enough promise in the young Murphy to give him a tiny role in Nutcracker in 2005. The following year, Cormac moved to London, intending to follow the musical theatre route, but ballet kept pushing itself forward.

“I was training for musicals but found I was doing more ballet every day. Alan asked me back to do Ballet Spectacular in 2007, and after that I moved to a specific ballet school. Then I went on to Ballet Rambert in London, which was definitely moving up to the next level. It could be excruciating – you were constantly in agony, training at least eight hours a day if not ten or 11.”

Dancers are athletes, he stresses, and it’s a 24/7 lifestyle. “You have to commit everything.”

Rehearsing one show, he lost a stone, “because it was so hardcore, 9-6, six days a week, and we were pushed so hard.”

He was also, he mentions casually, going to the gym after rehearsals to do weight training. “But that’s what you have to do if you want to get ahead.”

The career of a ballet dancer is not so much continuous as spasmodic. “You never know where the next job is going to be and you’re almost like a gypsy because you could have a job for a year and then you’re back in the wilderness again and you have to go searching.”

Murphy is just back from a season of entertaining on cruise liners, something he’s been doing that for the past five years. In between he qualified as a personal trainer, and as a dance teacher. Why does he do it? “I wouldn’t do anything else.

"I will keep on as long as my body will let me. I’ve invested everything in this, emotionally, physically, financially. Dance is a part of my life that I can’t live without.”

Besides stretching your body way beyond the pain barrier on a daily basis, there is the ordeal of auditions. Preliminary selection is usually by sending in CV, photos, and a showreel which displays your talents in various roles. Then, if you’re lucky, there is a personal audition.

“The competition is immense — there could be from 300 to 400 there for just a few places, and unless you basically want to die for it, then you won’t get anywhere.”

The experience can be fairly degrading, he admits, with some of the bigger companies. “You have a number on your chest and you feel just like cattle being called to the slaughter.”

Perhaps things are a little gentler in Cork, but nevertheless they had almost 150 hopeful applicants for Sleeping Beauty.

When we slip in unobtrusively at the first rehearsal, the final successfuls are nervously shedding sweaters and legwarmers to take an assessment class with choreographer Yury Demakov.

How they perform in this class will determine who gets the coveted character roles, and so everybody is on edge. Cormac Murphy is there with the rest of them, his cheerful Cork smile barely concealing his tension. He’s made it this far, but can he push his luck further?

Demakov puts them through a rigorous session, barely indicating with hand gestures the sequence of steps he would like them to follow. But they cope, these young dancers. They have to. They leap, glissade, bourree, pirouette as if their lives depended on it.

An hour goes by, and still they dance to his tune, while director Alan Foley and ballet mistress Patricia Crosbie watch from the sidelines.

The final test is multiple fouettés or whipped turns (classic example: Odile’s 32 turns in Swan Lake). Four, five six, and dancers are starting to drop out. Three girls continue, counting up more and more turns. One drops out, then a second.

The third, a tiny Japanese girl, continues on and on and on. 40, 50, 60? We’ve lost count. Eventually she finishes with a flourishing triple turn, and spontaneous applause breaks out from company and watchers alike.

“Twenty minutes for breakfast,” calls Alan Foley, “then back here please.”These kids have just arrived, come straight to a rigorous class, and are only now going to have some food? That’s the life of a dancer.

Cormac pulls on a bright green Cork FC sweatshirt over his sweatstained practice clothes.

“Oh yes, I’m a fanatical Cork fan, have been since the age of six. Being abroad means I can’t always be there, but I did make the last league game at Turner’s Cross!”

The dancers huddle together, murmuring about the class, about how they think they did, what the directors thought.

ormac is among them, trying to relax, laughing and chatting, but still on the alert. A call from the door and his head jerks up. He is summoned to the office.

Minutes later he returns, a beam spreading across his face from ear to ear. Exhausting work has been rewarded. He will dance the Bluebird divertissement with that tiny Japanese girl, Nana Shibuichi. “Isn’t it great? I can’t wait to begin!”

Later, when we’re leaving, we look for him, but he’s already over in the far corner of the studio with Nana, practising poses and lifts. This is the next step on the long road, and he’s going to make it the best it can possibly be.


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