Marjorie Brennan goes behind the scenes at Cork City Ballet’s festive classic, The Nutcracker.
In the Tchaikovsky classic The Nutcracker, the heroine Clara embarks on an adventure which leads her to the Kingdom of the Sweets, where she encounters the Sugar Plum Fairy, one of the most iconic characters in ballet.
When I enter the HQ of Cork City Ballet at the Firkin Crane theatre in the historic Shandon Quarter, I feel a little bit like Clara, except it’s more like I’m in the Kingdom of the Cakes.
I’ve just been introduced to Alan Foley, the ballet company’s artistic director, who is proffering a plate of delectable scones and will not take no for an answer. We sit down to enjoy a coffee with our sweet treats in the office, strewn with costumes for the company’s upcoming production of The Nutcracker, which has become a much-loved harbinger of the festive season.
Foley is overseeing the production which is directed by Yury Demakov, a former dancer with the world-famous Bolshoi ballet.
The large-scale production featuring dancers from all over the world, from Japan to Canada, is a big deal for Cork City Ballet, as it relies hugely on box office takings for its survival and favourites such as the Nutcracker are guaranteed to draw a crowd.
But former ballet star Foley takes it all in his stride, from recruiting the dancers to sourcing costumes and, of course, providing the scones.
“The only thing I get panicky about is whether it is going to sell out or not. We are not in receipt of any Arts Council funding, we haven’t been since 2011, so we really rely heavily on the goodwill of the Cork Opera House, our sponsors and our audiences,” says Foley.
Having danced in the Nutcracker himself countless times also helps, of course.
“I’ve danced it the length and breadth of Ireland. Every year I would say I’m never doing that again,” he laughs.
Work on the Nutcracker began many months ago, with the younger stars of the production.
“There are a lot of children in Nutcracker, you have the toy soldiers, the mice, the party children and so on. We work with the children from the Cork School of Dance and we have been rehearsing them for the last number of months with Sinéad Murphy, who is the principal there.”
Foley says the ballet is a timeless favourite because it has universal appeal.
“The main thing is it is a family ballet. The children adore it. There are so many elements to it, you’ve got everything. For example, when Clara gets to the Land of Snow, the children in the audience can’t understand how the snow is falling on the stage.
While many companies feel the need to put a modern twist on well-worn favourites, for Foley, when it comes to classics like the Nutcracker, he follows the age-old adage, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
“It is what it is, there is no need to change it. In my opinion, it’s perfect. I’m not trained to bring dancers in on horseback or on skis, I want them coming in on pointe shoes, like they’ve been trained to do, like I’ve been trained to do. That’s what I know.”
Speaking of pointe shoes, as we sit in on rehearsals later, Foley informs me that they cost £100 a pair and the principal ballerina, Ekaterina Bortyakova, will go through three pairs a show.
“The backs of them break so easily. She’ll have a hard pair, which she will wear for the main pas de deux because that is the longest she will be standing on one leg. She has a softer pair for act one, and for the virtuoso pieces, she’ll have another pair at the ready. You can see where the money goes, ballet is an expensive art form. Some of the tutus are €3,000.”
Foley shows me one of the costumes which, as one would expect, is tiny and beautifully embellished, but the actual tutu is much sturdier, almost like scaffolding.
“Most of our costumes are made in Russia because they have to be really durable,” says Foley.
“You can see the workmanship in that…if you think of what the ballerina has to do in that costume, she’s lifted up, she’s thrown about, the male dancer is pirouetting her around, so here [underneath] needs to be really durable and strong. Only in Russia would you get that.”
The male lead in the Nutcracker, the prince, is danced by Ekaterina’s husband, Akzhol Mussakhanov. Both dancers have been associates of the Cork City Ballet for many years and Foley sings their praises.
“Their level of professionalism is beyond belief. They are both stunning dancers and even more importantly for a production like the Nutcracker, they are lovely to the children, with whom they have to work very closely.
“There are a lot of ballerinas who are like: ‘please keep the children away from me’. Katya is not one of those and I just love her.”
Foley, now 49, retired from dancing professionally when he was 38, after serious heart surgery. While he quotes the legendary choreographer Martha Graham, who said “A dancer dies twice”, he says he has come to terms with his retirement and feels lucky to be alive after his health scare. He says his role as artistic director of Cork City Ballet and his teaching also made the transition less difficult.
“I had two major heart surgeries but I was coming to the end anyway. I was 38 but I could still kind of do everything. But I was at the point where I was getting a little bit nervous, and I had never been nervous. For about two years, I grieved. It is how I defined myself. Then suddenly, it was over. That was tough.”
Foley, who previously trained with the legendary Joan Denise Moriarty, was given the opportunity to look back on his career with the making of Breaking Pointe, a documentary about Cork City Ballet which premiered at Cork Opera House last September and will be shown at a special screening in New York in January.
“I had to trawl through everything, including all the archive footage of me with Joan Denise patting me on the bum and telling me to lift my leg up,” he laughs. “I was looking at it and it was like a lifetime ago.”
We watch Yury Demakov put the young dancers of the corps de ballet through their paces, under the watchful eye of ballet mistress Patricia Crosbie.
Foley can’t help but marvel at the Russian director’s abilities.
“He’s incredible, his mind is like a Google of ballet. If you just think of how many ballets that man has in his head. He is just step perfect. Take, for example, the party scene in act one, when the children are coming on — at any one time, there are 50 people doing 50 different things. And he knows every step, he can tell them all what they should be doing.”
As we chat, one of the male dancers takes a tumble, and the bang as his elbow hits the ground reverberates around the studio.
I can’t help but emit a loud ‘ouch’ on his behalf but there isn’t a word of complaint from him and he bounces back up again and is back in action within seconds. It testifies to the resilience needed in the profession.
“You need a strong constitution,” says Foley.
The reward for such exertions is the capacity to keep an audience spellbound by your talents.
For Foley, especially when it comes to the Nutcracker, it is seeing the reactions of the younger audience members that makes all the hard work worthwhile. He particularly enjoys the relaxed atmosphere of the matinee performance.
“It’s great, the rustling of all the crisp bags and non-stop talking. We’ve had some whoppers over the years, one year we had ‘Mum, I can see her knickers’. It was hilarious. I still get a kick out of seeing them all skipping out the door of the theatre, I love that.”
The Nutcracker, a Cork City Ballet production, Cork Opera House, today, 2.30pm and 8pm; corkoperahouse.com
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