Alan Foley, Artistic Director, Cork City Ballet

My introduction to dancing was following my sister to a class. She fled and I stayed.

I did get slagged about my dancing at school, of course, but it didn’t matter a damn to me. I’m the youngest of eight kids, so I’d learnt how to stand up for myself very early on.

My first, vivid memory of dancing is winning a disco-dancing competition when I was eight. I won another one at 12. Then, at the tender age of 13, I wrote to The Royal Ballet School in London, asking if they did any courses in disco. Their letter back was dripping with disdain.

As a dancer, I was super-disciplined about what I ate and how I trained. You have to be, because your body is your instrument. My siblings would be digging into desserts and chocolate cakes — but if I’d done that, I would have seen it immediately when I looked at myself, in my leotard, in the mirror during our eight-hour working days.

I trained here, first with Joan Denise Moriarty and then at the Kirov, when they opened their doors to foreigners in 1989. It was an amazing experience, but they worked us very hard. I weighed eleven stone when I went there and nine when I came back. It was like going back in a time warp. I remember going to Moscow to see the Bolshoi, and the first McDonalds had just opened and there were queues around the block.

My biggest challenge, so far, was having to give up dancing after I had major heart surgery.

I was born with a heart murmur, but always had it properly monitored. Then, my doctor told me it was time to operate. I thought it would be a bit like changing a light bulb, and that I could return to the stage afterwards, but he said ‘no, you’re going to have to stop dancing’.

It was the worst experience of my life. Dancing was the thing that I relied on. It was what had got me through all those other tough times, like when my dad died. It was how I defined myself. When I stopped, it was difficult, both physically and mentally.

I’m normally a very upbeat, glass-half-full kind of person. I’d never known a day’s depression or anxiety, but after the operation I suffered from severe panic attacks. It’s all behind me now, but even seeking help was difficult, because, as a dancer, you are trained to simply get on with things. I did see a counsellor for a while and, basically, the solution was quite simple — I had to learn how to be kinder to myself.

Since then, I’ve discovered there’s a whole world out there that I never knew about — television, food, lazing around in track suits, staying in bed late on a Saturday — that type of thing.

I now spilt my time living between Cork and Stockholm. I love the Swedish mentality, which calls for a major announcement if the train is running 30 seconds late.

I’m very lucky to be working as an artistic director, in the art form that I love.

I’m not a procrastinator. I can’t stand people taking ages over making a decision. That’s one of the things I like about being the boss — you’ve only yourself to blame.

Normally, I’m pretty calm, because I’m disgustingly organised. But we just had a major drama. The principal dancer, whom I’d booked months ago for our Sleeping Beauty, had to pull out. The other leading ballerina from her Russian company got injured, and they couldn’t manage without both of them. But the good news is that we have secured Monica Fotescu Utahe to dance the leading role of Princess Aurora and she will be partnered by Sergio Tarrado, who was Natalie Portman’s partner in the smash-hit movie Black Swan.

Alan Foley directs Cork City Ballet’s production of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty at the Cork Opera House, Nov 22-24, at 8pm, with a matinee on Saturday, Nov 24, at 2.30pm, and at the Wexford Opera House on Sunday, Nov 25, at 8pm.

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