ONE OF the surefire highlights of the Town Hall Theatre’s autumn programme comes next week when Ballet Ireland arrive with its staging of an enduring favourite, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
First performed by the Bolshoi Ballet in 1877, Swan Lake has become one of the best-known and best-loved ballets in the entire dance canon. It is also one that has a special significance for Ballet Ireland, as company director Anne Maher tells me over a morning phone conversation. “It was the very first full length ballet we produced,” she tells me. “It was also the production we chose to revive for our celebration of 10 years in 2008. We felt it was time for it to come out of the wardrobe again.”
Anne was a prima ballerina who performed all over Europe before returning to Dublin in 1997 to found Ballet Ireland. She has choreographed this staging of Swan Lake herself with additional input from company member Richard Bermange.
“Acts I and III have been completely overhauled and are new as are the costumes,” she says. “Acts II and IV we have maintained it as very much the original, dating back to the classic Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov staging for the Imperial Ballet in 1895, so that remains faithful to what people know and love.”
Ballet Ireland’s new staging of Swan Lake comes to Galway as part of an extensive nationwide tour which takes in Coleraine, Monaghan, Newtonabbey, and Portlaoise, none of which could be deemed as ballet hotspots.
“It’s very exciting and very important for us,” Maher declares of her company’s itinerary. “We are an Arts Council-funded company which means the taxpayers of Ireland fork out to ensure that the work we do is produced. I am a very firm believer, ever since the company’s establishment, that everybody should be entitled to access, as much as is practicable, to proper professional theatre. You shouldn’t have to travel from Kerry or Letterkenny to Dublin in order to have access to top quality professional ballet when you have a beautiful theatre on your own doorstep.”
Maher has alluded in interviews before about the balance Ballet Ireland seeks between staging classics like Swan Lake and contemporary work. She enlarges on her vision of that dynamic.
“The classical repertoire is extremely important to dancers because it gives them the measure and the bar by which they can compare and challenge themselves at all times,” she says. “Equally, new work is terribly important because we need to be always pushing this artform forward. We cannot simply be curators of the past. You can imagine if bands or singers lived by their first album how intensely boring the world would be and likewise with ballet, it’s really important we present work that is new and exciting so that we don’t just remain part of the dusty past.
“It’s central to the core of what we do that we present work that is inspiring and that is resonant. The dancers in the company are young and they are no different to the person in the audience who enjoys all things modern and contemporary in their lives. So our work needs to be resonant for them, and exciting and stimulating, and equally for the audience.
“The classical tradition and heritage is also something that we respect and it’s terribly important that we continue to present that. Swan Lake is Swan Lake because it is so extraordinary and overwhelmingly beautiful. Those works stand the test of time because they are so wonderful.”
The two principal roles in Ballet Ireland’s Swan Lake are taken by Michael Revie and Ryoko Yagyu, both of whom have starred with the company before. Interestingly this production also sees Ballet Ireland welcome aboard apprentice dancers Kate Haughton and Aisling Kennedy as part of the company ensemble.
“The apprentice dancers is a new initiative and something that we are very excited about,” Maher declares. “It’s always been something that we wanted to do, to support young Irish talent.
“We have always had a number of Irish dancers in the company but sometimes young Irish people can finish training and perhaps not be quite ready for a full step into a professional role and they may need some support without being put under too much pressure.
“So we have taken on two apprentices this year, they have what we refer to as a mentor, someone they can talk to regularly and who can advise them. They are not put under the same kind of pressure within the company to appear in all four acts and they get extra coaching sessions so that they develop along the way.”
There are 23 dancers in the Swan Lake troupe. Include the technical and support personnel and this is clearly a large-scale enterprise. “It’s a huge economic undertaking,” Maher acknowledges.
“We need everybody’s support and for audiences to come out and fill the house so that we can ensure that financially it is viable. When we spend the Arts Council’s and taxpayers’ money it is very well invested, it goes into providing a lot of jobs and it goes back into the local economy and that too, I think, is a powerful argument for the arts. Although one hates to quantify it like that but unfortunately it is the only way politicians understand! It is not a cheap or lightly undertaken project, we’re out on the road with a large cast and a large supportive cast. We’ve done four shows already and all four have been sold out so that has been great.”
Maher declares Ballet Ireland “has an important role” in the country’s arts scene.
“We have been around now for over 15 years and fulfilled a very important remit,” she says, “not just in producing professional work but also the education work we do around the country which is ongoing throughout the year in both national and secondary schools and in theatres during the summer. Also, I see a role for the company not just nationally but also internationally. We have frequently toured abroad and just earlier this year we presented Carmen in Sadler’s Wells so we’re flying the flag for Irish art and ballet abroad.”
Swan Lake is performed on Tuesday November 11 and Wednesday 12 at 8pm. Tickets are €20/16 from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie