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in the spotlight

VIDEO: The secrets behind the scenes at the ballet

Ballet Ireland is bringing The Nutcracker to the Gaiety stage this week. But what goes on during rehearsals? We take a look.


THE FIRST THING you notice about the dancers from Ballet Ireland is their physiques: incredibly toned, muscular and powerful.

The next is that with their machine-like bodies they’re carrying out complicated dance moves – and making it look so easy.

You’re likely to immediately check your own posture, and, watching them stretch and do the splits between dances, vow to take up Pilates classes the next day.

During rehearsals at Dublin’s Dancehouse for Ballet Ireland‘s production of The Nutcracker on Monday, the dancers were two days away from bringing their big show to the Gaiety stage, but there wasn’t a hint of stress.

Just as ballet is about making the complicated look simple, they made the task of putting on such a famous production look like peaceful meditation – with a tiny bit of sweat.


The impeccable Dancehouse is worlds away from Ballet Ireland's early rehearsal venues. (At one, they had to step over discarded needles to get to class.)

While things have changed in the world of Ballet Ireland, they have changed in the world of ballet, too.

The company director, Anne Maher - a former professional ballet dancer who trained in Monte Carlo - told

The dedication, the work ethic, none of that has changed. The competition is possibly as tough as ever if not tougher. Jobs are fewer and the range of work the dancers are now expected to be able to do is huge. There wouldn't have been like the same crossover in terms of contemporary movement and straight classical form.

As Maher watched her limber dancers do Pilates exercises, she recalled a time as a student when she and her peers "used to sit and smoke in the studio. Can you just imagine..." Even their instructor would teach with a cigarette in hand.

Maher set up Ballet Ireland in 1998 along with Gunther Falusy, at a time when she was contemplating retiring, aged 35 and 10 years into her professional career. With room for both classical and contemporary ballet in its repertoire, the company attracts a high calibre of dancer from around the world.

Maher was coached in Nutcracker's pas de deux by Marion Sinclair, who herself was coached by the legendary Margot Fonteyn.

This direct link to one of ballet's most famous dancers means a huge amount to her: "I love that history that we have in the ballet world, where actually things are passed down physically from one generation to the next, through dancers being in studio coaching one another."

imageDay in the life of a dancer

Zoe Ashe Brown dances lead in the Ballet Ireland production of Carmen. She decided as a child that she wanted to be a dancer, and the music from ballets often soundtracked impromptu dances in her family's kitchen.

After school, she trained at the English National Ballet School for three years. Her colleague Emma Lister, a Canadian, was also entranced by the music at a young age, and began her training aged eight by attending a vocational school.

A typical day in the run-up to a Ballet Ireland show begins with warm up at about 9am before their first 10am class, followed by rehearsal, with breaks, until 6pm. "It's a pretty heavy day," said Ashe Brown, who added that it is "really important to stay in really good shape, so we all have to eat properly and sleep properly".

She wryly described how, thanks to a recurring foot injury, she tends to wear "very sensible boring looking shoes" to keep her feet aligned in the run-up to a show.

Wondering how dancers make sure their pointe shoes fit? As Ashe Brown explained, one important element is boiling a kettle:


There is no professional training available in Ireland, so all aspiring dancers need to go abroad - usually the UK - where they train for six days a week. There's little time for rest for professional dancers.

"We have a saying in the ballet world: If you miss one day of class, you notice; if you miss two days of class, your teacher notices; if you miss three days of class, the audience notices," said Maher.

Ballet can have a reputation as being intimidatingly high-brow, but for Ballet Ireland's director, productions like the Nutcracker help to demonstrate its accessibility.

People will go to Nutcracker not because it's a ballet, but because it's Nutcracker.

When Ashe Brown tells people about her profession, they're impressed. "But I think they think of it as something they can't access, or something they can't understand - it's so strange but it's thought of as maybe elitist," she said.

"It is definitely something that anyone can enjoy, and I think a lot of people are really surprised, and they surprise themselves when they come to see a show."

Watch as Emma Lister (Sugar Plum Fairy) and Dominic Harrison; and James Loffler (The Nutcracker Prince) and Ryoko Yaguya (Clara), give us a glimpse of the level of performance we can expect at the Gaiety:


The Nutcracker is at the Gaiety, Dublin, from today (20) to Saturday (23) November, in association with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.

Photos: Dublin ballet dancers attempt a new world record>

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