It’s 25 years since Alan Foley created Cork City Ballet. Today it’s firmly established in the city’s cultural landscape, writes Ciara McDonnell.
"Lots of people over the years have said, ‘Oh isn’t ballet dancing very posh’ but it’s not posh - it’s hard bloody work.”
I’m talking to Alan Foley, founder and artistic director of Cork City Ballet ahead of a black tie gala, which will take place later this month to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
From beginnings in a local ballet school in Fountainstown to a place at the Kirov ballet, Foley has tread the boards of some of the world’s most prestigious stages.
Life in dance began for him properly when he went to train with famed dance teacher Joan Denise Moriarty at the age of 15.
“I told her that I thought I would like to be a ballet dancer and she frightened the life out of me and told me that I would need to study art and drama and music and appreciation and culture and I thought to myself ‘is she for real’.
“And so I fled and went back a year later and said, ‘ok I’ll do it as long as you never put me on stage in tights – of course three months later there I was jumping around in a pair of tights.”
While jumping around in a pair of tights, Foley found himself with a coveted place at a summer school with the Kirov ballet in what was then Leningrad.
“I remember thinking it was like going back in a time warp, like for breakfast we used to get these frankfurter things with cabbage – clearly none of us would eat them,” he laughs.
“I remember on the graduation ceremony they told us they had a massive surprise for us and it was a bottle of Coke each. Mars bars used to be in glass cases, locked.
“At the end of the tour we went to Moscow and it was the first time that McDonalds had opened in Russia and there were queues around the block – it was mad.”
The trip to Russia may have been marred slightly by stark surroundings, but there is no doubt that the experience helped to shape the ambition of the dancer.
“The training was sublime. I was so in love with ballet I lapped it up”.
Foley remains friends with most people he met on that summer camp years ago, and while some enjoyed stratospheric success with their careers, these days he finds himself musing whether ‘success’ is as easily measured as it was back then.
“I remember thinking that you’re nobody unless you’re with the Bolshoi or Kirov and while some very good friends of mine have been very big stars of said companies, some of them have quite sad lives.”
Today, ballet is different, says Foley.
“Thankfully today all that has changed.
“World-class dancers can go wherever they please, they can have babies, they can enjoy families - a life.”
Aging is the enemy of the dancer, no matter how successful they are, and that’s something that every ballet dancer has to deal with, says the artistic director.
“You work all your life – every day – and then you arrive at a point where you are just beginning to understand the artistry of it and your body starts failing,” he explains.
“You can’t jump as high, you can’t lift your leg as high – you can’t pirouette as much.
“We have a saying in ballet ‘if you miss class once, you’ll know it, if you miss class twice your teacher will know it and if you miss class three days the public will know.
"It’s so tough. How many professions do you know where you stand in front of a mirror for eight hours a day wearing very little clothes, criticising your body?”
Enduring relationships in ballet are something of a rarity, and Foley has enjoyed a long-term relationship with Ireland’s prima ballerina, Monica Loughman.
Having interviewed Monica years ago I can see what they love about each other – both are gloriously unaffected by the ‘frou frou’ nature of the art. Loughman and Foley were dance partners for over a decade, and at the 25th anniversary gala Monica will dance her farewell dance in full circle to when she joined Alan at his farewell dance at the Cork Opera House just over ten years ago.
“What I love about Monica is that she’s normal, she just makes it real.
“There’s no airs and graces, it’s just her, and that’s how she is.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why the both of us always got on so well,” he says.
“When people talk about the apparent stuck up nature of ballet I say that talent doesn’t have an address, and that’s why Monica and I get on so well because we both have the same mentality.”
Foley founded Cork City Ballet, and they held their first performance a year later.
At the time, Foley was full of vim and determination to be bold and challenging.
“Some of the dancers who joined us at the beginning came because they wanted new challenges and to work with someone who was young and a bit bold,” he explains.
“Of course, youth is wonderful, because you think you can achieve anything. If I knew then what I know now I’m not sure if I would have been as enthusiastic!”
Over its 25 years Cork City Ballet has hosted some of the world’s most prolific dancers, and performed pieces that highlight both the classical beauty of ballet and those that have challenged our perception of it.
From Sleeping Beauty, to Swan Lake to a tour of La Bayadère (Foley’s own favourite), their catalogue is rich and varied.
Alan Foley’s own career highlight is one of validation – all any creative maestro requires.
In a forward for Ballet Through A Lens, a book co-authored by Foley and Monica Loughman, famed ballet critique Mary Clarke compared the work he had carried out with Cork City Ballet to that of Ninette de Valois, the Wicklow-born ballerina who founded the Royal Ballet in London.
“I mean, what more could you want?”
During the last quarter of a century various life circumstances have caused changes in the running order at the company.
Ten years ago, a heart condition resulted in Foley hanging up his dancing shoes, something which he was devastated about at the time but is reticent about today (“I swapped dancing for television and the sofa – I can’t believe nobody told me about this joy before!”).
The team behind Cork City Ballet is tight knit, and most have been together since its inception.
From Foley’s sister Catherine Foley who was with Alan in his first class and runs front of house for the company today, to Janet Dillon the auditions director who used to spend Saturday nights with Alan leafing through the phone book and highlighting possible people to sponsor the ballet, to Patricia Crosbie the dance mistress who Foley reckons is the best dance teacher he has ever met, to Colette McNamee the public relations guru who ‘just gets us’, the feeling is familial and more stage school than high falutent and lovey.
When all is said and done, is the artistic director proud of what they’ve achieved?
“It’s rare I pat myself on the back, and if I do, I do it in private because my mother used to always say that pride comes before a fall,” he laughs.
“In all fairness, I am proud of what we’ve achieved over the years, and I feel like we are a part of Cork’s cultural landscape, which is extremely gratifying to me.”
The Cork City Ballet 25th Anniversary Black Tie Gala Ball takes place on Saturday May 13 at the Rochestown Park Hotel and will feature a drinks reception, five course meal and performances from Cork City Ballet, The Stargazers, Cork Youth Ballet and the magnificent Sun Quintet as well as Monica Loughman.
Tickets are €75 and can be purchased by calling Firkin Crane on 021-450487
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