The depths of love: Ballet Ireland founder talks 21 years in business and touring Swan Lake

Ballet Ireland founder Anne Maher tells Helen O’Callaghan why it is marking its 21st year with a tour of a classic: ‘Swan Lake’

Ballet Ireland founder, Anne Maher, whose international career in dance spans 35 years.
Ballet Ireland founder, Anne Maher, whose international career in dance spans 35 years.

THE first ballet Anne Maher saw was ‘Swan Lake’, on TV, at home in Sutton. She was 12 years old and “enthralled by this vision of swans.” She checked her dad’s collection of LPs (“he had this most wonderful collection of old vinyl LPs”), delving through Vivaldi and Mozart, until she found Tchaikovsky.

It began a phase of playing and choreographing ‘Swan Lake’ in her Dublin sitting room, along with two school friends. “I directed them on the steps and what they should be doing. One used to do ballet with me; the other hadn’t a clue, so she could only do very limited stuff.”

Years later, as principal ballerina with Wiener Ballet Theater, and touring Europe, the first principal role Maher danced was Odette in ‘Swan Lake’, in a theatre in Germany. “I must have danced in ‘Swan Lake’ several hundred times,” says the Ballet Ireland founder, whose international career in dance spans 35 years.

Now, it’s easy to see why the national ballet company should celebrate its 21st anniversary with a nationwide tour of ‘Swan Lake,’ which Maher calls the “most iconic” of all the ballets. It tells the story of beautiful princess, Odette, cursed by evil magician, Von Rothbart, to transform into a swan by day, only regaining her human form at night. Out hunting by the lakeside, Prince Siegfried encounters Odette and falls madly in love with her.

Accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s majestic score, ‘Swan Lake’s’ enduring story of love and tragedy, good and evil, has enthralled audiences since its premiere, in 1877, and, this winter (November 6 to December 22), 22 international, world-class dancers will perform it in 19 theatres throughout Ireland. The tour is in association with EY Ireland and Maher is very encouraged by this partnership, which has happened on Ballet Ireland’s milestone birthday. “That we have just now secured our very first corporate partner tells us the company has really arrived and we intend — together with EY — to build a better, brighter future.”

While other dance/theatre companies come and go, Maher says Ballet Ireland is thriving, which she attributes to a willingness to present beautiful, iconic works, like ‘Swan Lake,’ while also embracing more contemporary, cutting-edge ballet. Examples are ‘Minus 16,’ created by choreographer Ohad Naharin, which Ballet Ireland presented last spring alongside ‘Lost,’ a piece they’d commissioned for ex-Royal Ballet dancer Ludovic Ondiviela.

Maher wants us to recognise how important dance is for wellbeing and as a form of expression, particularly for young people. “Dance is not word-based. Sometimes, it can be difficult for young people to express how they’re feeling, or even how they can feel better.” Through its education officer, Ballet Ireland does a lot of work in Deis schools, where there’s a mix of different social backgrounds.

“For some, English may not be their first language. And there are children not particularly good at verbally expressing how they’re feeling. We’re told by teachers that when they finish up an hour’s dance workshop, they’re much better-balanced and calm; they can learn better for the day. Whatever frustrations they’re feeling, whatever inability to find words to tell or someone to listen, dance is a great means of self-expression.”

Maher founded Irish Ballet Forum, which provides master classes and intensive courses for aspiring young dancers. She’s giving back for the “inspiration, motivation, push and encouragement” she received from her first trainer, Myrtle Lambkin, in Dublin. “She was responsible for writing to Princess Grace of Monaco, saying she had a talented student and would she have a look at me.” Aged 17, Maher was invited to audition for a place at L’Acadamie de Danse Classique, in Monte Carlo, and was awarded a scholarship.

Jane Magan in Ballet Ireland’s ‘Swan Lake’ in 2014. Picture: Ros Kavanagh
Jane Magan in Ballet Ireland’s ‘Swan Lake’ in 2014. Picture: Ros Kavanagh

And while Monaco may be famous for its lavish lifestyle, for “humble little ballet students,” it was a place of study and hard work. “Classes started at 8.10am and finished at 5.30pm. It was a boarding school: we weren’t allowed out after 7.30pm. I spent two years living in Monaco, but I didn’t see a whole lot of it, beyond the post office and supermarket.”

The students were invited to the palace and Maher twice met Princess Grace. “She was a very elegant, warm, charming lady. Shortly after I left, she died. I was absolutely devastated. She’d been so good and kind to me. It was such a shocking death. Nobody had computers or mobile phones then; we communicated by letter and some of us [former students] corresponded about it.”

Still one of Ireland’s biggest advocates for ballet and dance, Maher retired from performance aged 35 and it took her a while to realise her place was now on the other side of the curtain. “It took me two years to be able to sit in the auditorium and not want to take the costume off the dancer and say, ‘here, look, I’ll do it’. Partly, I wanted to be up there and partly I was frustrated at seeing someone do it not in the way I wanted.”

With dancers spending years rising to strenuous physical demands, Maher plays golf and is in good health. “I sometimes suffer with a bad back, but a lot of the population does, without ever having done any pirouettes. I have a great pair of feet and legs; there’s a bit of wear and tear, but that comes with age.”

With rehearsals for the ‘Swan Lake’ tour now at a point where most of the work has been set and done, Maher is counting down the days until she sees it on stage.

For tour dates/venues, visit https://www.balletireland.ie/on-stage/swanlake/

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