No solid footing for Irish ballet

Why do many who want to become ballet dancers have to go abroad to complete their training

1st May 2006





For many people, becoming a ballet dancer in Ireland involves leaving the country. Upon reaching a certain level, dancers need to go England or the Continent to train or find a job. In the past, those involved in ballet training in Ireland have tried to merge strong instruction with frequent performance opportunities, but gaps in education and funding have prevented anything sustainable.

The Arts Council is about to invite tenders for a review of ballet in Ireland. Successive enquiries about the tender went unanswered, but, in theory at least, the potential exists for change. Performances sell out and students travel for hours just to have a ballet lesson, poising Ireland to join other countries with world-class schools and companies. Classical and contemporary ballet companies are eager to put the country on their touring roster and, although it has yet to programme ballet, the International Dance Festival Ireland is now to become an annual event.

With a vision for ballet and the passion and patience to implement it, the art form might have the potential to finally put down roots. Since Ireland now enjoys one of the most prosperous economies in Europe - and parents are willing to pay substantial sums to send their children to train abroad - the stage is set for starting a ballet school and company rivalling the best in the world. The Arts Council has commissioned studies on vocational dance training and how to integrate dance into schools and the community: Shall We Dance (1998) and A Professional Dance Curriculum for Ireland (2003). Now the country just needs someone to implement it.

'I THINK IT'S unlikely someone like Princess Grace of Monaco will swoop in and give us €3 million to start an academy of dance," says Anne Maher, director of Ballet Ireland. "We still have a great deal to learn from the other side of the Atlantic." Students might now have the financial resources to train seriously in Ireland, but venues for doing so remain limited. "People love ballet here," says Anne Campbell-Crawford, artistic director of Irish National Youth Ballet, a company based in Dublin now celebrating its 10th year. "It used to be that in order to train more seriously, some people used to go away to England, and pay prohibitively expensive fees." The Irish National Youth Ballet provides performance opportunities for as many as 40 young dancers, but when they want to join a professional company, options here are few.

A number of people have tried to establish professional ballet companies, with Ballet Ireland the current incarnation. Employing up to 23 dancers at a time, the company maintains a brisk touring schedule. But its budget and dancer contracts are small compared to other European companies, and Maher is concerned about the Arts Council's impending tender. Past Arts Council reviews of dance have resulted in detailed, highly comprehensive studies, but there has seldom been action on the findings.

Joanna Banks, artistic director of the College of Dance in Monkstown, Dublin, has experienced the fallout from shifting State support for dance. Banks performed with Joan Denise Moriarty's Irish National Ballet company, one of the country's first ballet companies. A dancer who trained with the Royal Ballet in London and went on to perform in Germany and throughout Europe, Banks stayed in Ireland in 1974 because she saw possibilities for growth. Her hopes were dashed when in 1989 the Arts Council discontinued funding to Irish National Ballet.

"We had a very astute general director who encouraged us to change the company's name from the Irish Ballet Company to the Irish National Ballet, thinking that if the word 'national' was in our name, it couldn't be annihilated," Banks says. "How wrong was he?" By then Banks, like others passionate about ballet, had become firmly entrenched in trying to help it take off. Understanding that if the education infrastructure for ballet in Ireland existed, dancers might have more of a chance to work professionally, she established the College of Dance, a two-year pre-professional programme where students take daily ballet classes in addition to contemporary dance, jazz and musical theatre. Some of her students have continued training with London's Royal Ballet School or launched performing careers with companies such as Netherlands Dance Theatre II, but lacking educational resources such as university-level programmes, Banks feels limited in what she can do.

She still envisages great potential, especially now that dance in Ireland receives international attention because of events such as the festival. Although the country lacks a rigorous ballet school where students may feed into an affiliated professional company, Banks believes the interest and the talent for a full-time ballet academy in Ireland exists.

TEACHER AND CHOREOGRAPHER Anica Louw arrived in Ireland in 1979 unsure of how she would use her ballet background. Having trained under the Royal Academy of Dance, and with a performance career in South Africa, she started teaching classes to help girls improve their posture. Seeing how much it improved their movement and overall confidence, Louw continued teaching in Ireland, and for the past 28 years has directed Shawbrook, a dance programme in Co Longford that draws dancers from throughout the country to weekend intensive courses, summer courses and the chance to perform regularly.

Despite nearly three decades of watching students leave the country if they want to dance professionally, Louw also envisages greater potential for ballet. Implementing dance training in schools - particularly at university level - tops her wish list.

"I believe the Irish are fantastic choreographers - maybe that's because music and storytelling are so deep-rooted here," Louw says. "If we had dance as a subject in school, it would be wonderful." She points to dance training in Holland as a model, where ballet schools and companies receive full support from the Dutch government. She also sees the benefits of starting ballet academies, as in America and elsewhere in Europe, where dancers learn from practising professionals rather than through passing a series of exams.

Louw, Banks and Campbell-Crawford understand that the exam-based Royal Academy of Dance teaching method is so firmly entrenched here that students and parents automatically question other methods. But they believe a broader dance education and wider selection of training methods might be possible over time.

"Parents want their children to have exams," Louw explains. "When professional dancers come to perform here after dancing on some of the biggest stages in the world, I point to them and say, 'See that? And they've never taken an exam in their life!'" The London-based Royal Academy of Dance began in 1920 to improve standards and re-invigorate dance training for teachers and dancers in the UK. Now established worldwide, the method is so widely regarded in Ireland that some believe the only way ballet will go forward is if a full-time RAD academy takes root. Others claim an American or European modelled-school would be more successful, but its impetus would have to come from someone outside the country.

Zoe Ashe-Browne is a 16-year-old who has trained with Dublin-based teacher Debbie Allen, performed regularly with Irish National Youth Ballet and spent summers at Vassar College's American Academy of Ballet. She leaves in September to study at the English National Ballet in London, believing she must go elsewhere to prepare for a professional career. Moving to London presents the financial and practical challenges of living away from home on her own as a teenager, something she accepts but says might be avoided if full-time professional ballet training was available here.

"There have been loads of campaigns for full-time schools, but everyone has given up," Ashe-Browne says. "There's no support from theGovernment, so if you want to train full-time you have to leave." Ashe-Browne received a scholarship from English National Ballet totalling more than £10,000 (€14,357) to train in London, but her family must pay the remaining tuition fees - around £2,000 (€2,869) annually for the next three years - as well as transportation, lodging, food and other expenses. Her pointe shoes alone cost more than €50 a pair, and going through approximately one pair every two or three weeks, she faces an annual €1,000 shoe bill.

ASHE-BROWNE'S ELDER sister Lindsey recently experienced similar success, having been accepted into the London Studio Centre on a scholarship. While the family is ecstatic at the ballet talent in their family, they are slightly panicked at facing such sizeable fees for six years concurrently. They hope full-time ballet training arrives in Ireland so that future generations of ballet dancers may remain in their own country to train.

The Arts Council's reports both advocated greater contact between dance education and the professional dance world, implementing dance education at university level, providing additional space for dancers to perform and rehearse and providing full-time ballet training at an early age. While provision for professionals and audiences has increased - such as the International Dance Festival Ireland and a new Dance House about to open in Dublin this summer - initiatives in training remain stagnant.

Solutions are discussed within the dance community, but without Government support or a wider support from private philanthropists, the problem remains. As Louw says, "We are successful with the dancers we export, so why can't we keep them?" Many involved in dance training are battle-weary and concede that a mixture of belligerence, patience and international experience would be needed to establish full-time ballet instruction. They have set the groundwork by developing young dancers and audiences. It may take someone from outside the country to point out the wealth and talent that lies within.

© The Irish Times