Lifting our spirits: Behind the scenes of Cork City Ballet's Swan Lake production

Alan Foley’s winter production has become a Cork tradition, so much so its annual run has been dubbed ‘Ballet Week’.

Lifting our spirits: Behind the scenes of Cork City Ballet's Swan Lake production

Pictures by Miki Barlok

Alan Foley’s winter production has become a Cork tradition, so much so its annual run has been dubbed ‘Ballet Week’. This year, he brings Swan Lake to the stage. Marjorie Brennan goes behind the scenes.

As the world seems to descend into further chaos on a daily basis, the transcendental power of art and culture has never been more necessary. As art forms go, ballet is up there with the most sublime, and as ballets go, there is none more iconic than Swan Lake.

Even if you have never laid eyes on a ballet, you will know Swan Lake from its timeless Tchaikovsky score, one of the most recognisable classical soundtracks in popular culture, used in countless films and advertisements. The story, of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer — is also a perennial favourite.

Artistic director of Cork City Ballet Alan Foley is even more familiar with Swan Lake than most, having danced and produced it more times than he cares to remember. But Foley’s love for Swan Lake remains undimmed and this year he is again embracing another opportunity to stage the famous ballet for November’s traditional ‘ballet week’.

“It encompasses everything that people associate with ballet, the beauty, the glamour, the gracefulness, the music — I mean, the score is sublime. The choreography, the costumes, the sets, the lighting, it’s magnificent. It’s escapism, and that’s what people need right now. And there is no greater escapism than classical ballet because it encompasses all of the art forms. It’s the complete fairytale.”

Of course, while it may look like a fairytale on stage, just like the swan that floats by with grace and beauty while furiously paddling underneath, the work that goes on behind the scenes is relentless. Due to a number of factors, including budgetary constraints (the company does not receive any funding from the Arts Council) there is no resident corps de ballet, so for productions such as Swan Lake, dancers are recruited on a freelance basis from around the world.

While Foley says it is a challenge to drill the dancers in a short space of time, it also works for the company in terms of the sense of unity and purpose that is forged in such an intense atmosphere.

“It is a challenge. I’m very honest with them and I tell them how much I would love to have them all working with me full-time but it’s not possible because we don’t have the money. So I tell everyone I need them to really focus — they do and much of that goes back to the fact that all of them love coming to dance here because we work hard but we have a great time.

"There is a completely different dynamic — when it’s time for the cup of tea, it’s time for the cup of tea.

"The dancers know they’re respected, minded and cared for and they give their all in return. I don’t do the boss thing — I prefer to lead by example. I mean, I would never ask any of those dancers to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself — ever. And they see that and I think that’s why they come back year after year.”

Foley also pays tribute to the dedication and professionalism of the Russian director of Swan Lake and long-term associate of Cork City Ballet, Yury Demakov, a former dancer with the world-famous Bolshoi ballet.

Yury is magnificent, and with Pat Crosbie, the ballet mistress, they are just incredible. The choreography, particularly for act IV, is very complex and difficult. And it takes time to fine-tune all of the small details.

Demakov also provides a nice link to the storied history of Swan Lake.

“Yury trained at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, then danced with the company. He can lay claim to a legacy that goes back to 1877 when they had the premiere of Swan Lake — which, incidentally, was a flop — at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow,” says Foley. Another link with the legendary ballet company has been formed for this production after one of the principal dancers, Akzhol Mussakhanov, was unfortunately injured.

“About a month ago, I got a call from Katya [Ekaterina Bortyakova] our leading ballerina to say her partner/husband Akzhol, had injured himself really badly in rehearsal and he wouldn’t be able to come so I was frantically trying to get another partner. So now we have Andrei Bolotin, who is a principal dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet. Tonight, he’s doing Swan Lake in Moscow and next week, he’s doing Swan Lake in Cork.

That’s pretty cool and to think that all of this is made here is pretty special. We have may have dancers from all over the world, as well as Irish dancers, but it all comes together and is made in Cork.” In terms of drawing new audiences to ballet, Foley is a traditionalist at heart and doesn’t believe in adding modern flourishes to a production like Swan Lake.

“I don’t think there’s a need to keep something like Swan Lake ‘fresh’. It’s a masterpiece... It’s like the Mona Lisa — it’s there, it doesn’t need to be altered or changed. Of course, there are little nuances that you can attach. This year, for example, the end is different — there is a fairytale twist. I just felt people need a little bit of magic and a little bit of hope.”

Swan Lake, a Cork City Ballet production, Cork Opera House, today, 2.30pm and 8pm;

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