BALLET HAS long been a Cinderella of Irish arts and very few Irish dancers have achieved international prominence. Yet 17-year-old ballerina Emer Lenihan, from Claregalway, looks set to buck that trend and go to the top of this demanding profession.
Currently studying at the Brussels International Ballet School, Emer was home in Galway this week for a few days and she met me to talk about her remarkable journey to date. Also present was her first ballet teacher, Regina Rogers, who has taught generations of Galway dancers over the past 35 years.
“I first noticed Emer when she was about two and a half,” Regina begins. “Her elder sister, Ciara, was doing ballet classes with me and their mum, Andrea, arrived to collect her and she was holding this toddler by the hand. It was Emer, who was in her bare feet as it was a sunny day, and she got up on the balls of her feet, the ‘demi-pointe’ position, and advanced forward on her toes.
"It showed that, even at two and a half, she had this innate desire to be a dancer. In all my years of teaching, Emer has the most natural talent, determination, drive and a wonderful work ethic. She is very ambitious and while you can be a naturally gifted dancer with the correct build and flexibility, if you don’t have an inner core of pure steel you will not make it at the professional level. Emer has all of that."
'I try to absorb every bit of information from all my teachers because they have done it, and one little tip from one person can really help you in your career'
A measure of Emer’s ambition and steely inner core came in the middle of her Junior Cert year when she moved to London, on her own, to enrol in the London Russian Ballet School. “I was 14 when I went to London, in December, for the audition,” she recalls. “They offered me a place starting in January so I had two weeks’ notice to move to a different country on my own. It was difficult but I knew it was something I had to do; there are no opportunities to train in Ireland so you have to move away. I was there for six months and was then offered a place in Brussels under director Anderson Santana who has helped me immensely in coming on as a dancer and developing the whole ‘ballet persona’ that you need to get on in the ballet world.”
Emer expands on the thoroughness of the training she gets in Brussels; “They don’t just train you as a dancer they guide you as a person; how to live alone, how to manage when things change so quickly – you can go a few weeks without dancing anything or, as happened me a few weeks ago, I came back after being out sick and was asked to dance the lead part of Le Corsaire for a producer who came from Italy. Also, as a ballet dancer if you are walking down the street, you can’t just walk like a normal person you are still a dancer and you have to project that vibe because you don’t know who you are going to meet.
'Not only is she the best dancer I ever trained, she is the most talented young ballet dancer to come out of Ireland in a very long time. She should be recognised and assisted' - Regina Rogers
"They also helped me with the travelling the first opportunity I got was when three of the older students were going to a competition in Varna, in Bulgaria, and they invited me to join them in the contest not to compete but just to get a feel for the whole milieu so when I did later compete in big competitions it was easier for me to deal with as I knew what I needed to do. I try to absorb every bit of information from all my teachers because they have done it, and one little tip from one person can really help you in your career.”
Over the past year Emer has begun to make her mark in elite competitions and be noticed by leading companies. “Emer’s first competition was the American Grand Prix in Paris where she did remarkably well," says Regina. "Last November, Perm Ballet were in Dublin and Emer flew over from Brussels to do a class with them where they put her at the bar with their very best dancers and they were very impressed with her.
She also went to Kiev for a very prestigious competition with 120 dancers from all over the world. In the first round alone 80 were eliminated. It was for dancers aged 15-25 and Emer, then just 16, was competing with Russian-trained professional dancers. Its main sponsor, Tokishisho Takahashi, awarded Emer a special prize. He also sponsors Perm, the Bolshoi, and others and was in touch with her just two weeks ago to invite Emer and her coach to St Petersburg to take a class with the Marinsky Ballet.”
Emer’s ballet training is extremely arduous. “I do at least 10 hours a day, six days a week” she notes - yet, amazingly, last year she also home-schooled herself, without any tutor assistance, to successfully do GCSEs. “I’d stopped my academic studies when I moved to London so I decided to home-school myself using three folders in maths, biology and French. I’d come home wrecked from ballet school but put in an hour of study. It was intimidating because the GCSE syllabus was more advanced than what I’d done in the Irish Junior Cert but I decided I needed to get it done and stuck at it. I am glad to say I got high results in all three of my GCSE papers.”
'I have very strong feet, which makes things easier as a dancer but it also means I pay €100 - €200 every week on pointe shoes'
I ask Emer where her path is headed in the months and years ahead; “I will stay in Brussels until I am 18. That will open a lot more doors for me to get into companies – these days, most companies won’t hire dancers younger than that. My director has plans for me to go to more international competitions such as the Prix de Lausanne and audition for the companies I want to work with, namely Marinsky, Bolshoi and Perm; I really want to work for one of the Russian companies.”
Emer Lenihan is clearly a young artist of exceptional ability, temperament and determination. Yet if she is to fulfil her outstanding potential she may need sponsorship to meet the high costs entailed in being an elite ballet student.
“My school is €8,000 per year, and one of my main expenses is my pointe shoes,” she explains. “I have very strong feet, which makes things easier as a dancer but it also means I pay €100 - €200 every week on pointe shoes and that’s a huge expense. Then there is travel; to become the best you have to be seen by people which means travelling to auditions and do competitions. "
"Not only is she the best dancer I ever trained, she is the most talented young ballet dancer to come out of Ireland in a very long time," says Regina Rogers. "She should be recognised and assisted.” Here’s hoping Emer finds the backing that she so richly deserves and goes on to her find her place in the dance firmament.