Black Swan

Alan Foley, Cork City Ballet.

The great Soviet ballet dancer and choreographer Rudolf Nureyev said that you live as long as you dance. It’s a sentiment Alan Foley echoes when talking about the abrupt and cruel end to his time as a professional dancer; “Dancers die twice – first when their time as a dancer ends and then when their life ends.” 

Foley was indeed fortunate that, for him, both deaths didn’t happen at the same time. Born with a congenital heart murmur, he had been monitoring his health and knew that someday he would need major heart surgery, but as long as he was healthy he would keep dancing. Then, aged 38, in the build up to a major show he was starring in, he collapsed. Two major heart surgeries later and he was alive, but his life as a full-time ballet dancer was over. There was no fading out, no wringing of hands as he struggled against advancing years – he was simply done. Asked if he thinks that perhaps it was better to go with a bang, rather than a long drawn out battle against an ageing body, he says no – it was a hugely traumatic way to finish, as he felt a choice was taken from him. But in the quarter century he spent dancing to that point, few could say that he had not achieved a remarkable amount. 

For the layperson, the word ballet invokes images of the icy grand dame, cane in hand, barking orders at terrified dancers as they contort their bodies into unnatural arcs. It is also perceived as an artform that is accessible only to the elites. Alan Foley does not fit either of these stereotypes. He is genial, good humoured, and swears as easily as he laughs. His father worked in a factory, his mother a housewife, and he and his eight siblings lived in the Cork suburb of Ballinlough, before moving to Fountainstown, a sort-of Brighton of the Rebel County. The family had, as he puts it, no airs and graces. From an early age he loved to dance, and specifically to perform, as he used to line up his teddy bears as an audience and dance around the living room. Then, aged eight, he won a disco dancing competition and after that his formal training began. But disco, sadly, was not to be as timeless as ballet. When he was 13 he wrote to the Royal Ballet School asking if they had courses in disco dancing. Unsurprisingly, they did not. But he came to understand that ballet was the way forward, and he also had the good fortune of being from Cork, a place with a strong ballet heritage.  Joan Denise Moriarty set up her first dance school in Mallow in the Thirties, and, along with Professor Aloys Flesichmann, became a central figure in the development of dance in Cork, and founded the country’s first professional ballet company in Cork in 1959, quite the achievement after the battles she had faced in implementing a culture of ballet in Ireland; in 1931 the Pavlova Company came to Cork, and was promptly denounced by the Catholic church, and thus played to empty theatres. 

By the time Foley joined her school in the Eighties, Moriarty had achieved legend status, but Foley was something of the unctuous young upstart, and the two frequently clashed. But despite the friction and electricity between them, Foley got away with far more than his female counterparts ever did, but Moriarty had her limits. As Foley’s skill as a dancer grew, so did his stature in the dance world. In 1989 he was accepted into the Vaganova Ballet Academy Summer School in Russia. Foley was delighted, accepted immediately, and ended up with his photo on the front page of the Cork Examiner. However, Moriarty did not sanction the trip, nor did she know he had accepted the offer, until she saw the paper. She was not best pleased, or, as Foley puts it, ‘she was beyond furious’. But there was little she could do. So off Foley went to what was then Leningrad, and the glamorous world of Russian ballet, where he was staying in the same digs that Nureyev had stayed in. Expecting imperial grandeur, upon arrival he was startled to pull back the covers on his bed and find several cockroaches scuttling away. Ballet in Russia was a way of escape – there was no elite there, just dancers desperate for success, willing to endure terrible conditions in order to achieve fame, fortune and freedom. So he trained, and trained hard. 

Not long after he returned it became clear that Moriarty and he would have to part ways. In the aftermath of that he was effectively cast out from ballet in Cork. It was heartbreaking for Foley, but he persevered, setting up Cork City Ballet in 1991. Shortly before Moriarty’s death in 1992, the apprentice and the master made their peace, with Foley acknowledging that while they clashed over many things, he stills owes her a huge debt of gratitude. 

“Of all the people I have worked with, she was the most important, because she was the one who instilled the love of the artform in me. She wasn’t the best ballet teacher, not by a long shot, but she had the passion and the integrity that you need for any artform. And she passed that on to me.”

Aside from the discipline of ballet, Foley also learned business acumen from Moriarty, and soon realised that he didn’t want to be a poor ballet dancer, as many of his friends were and are, so when he graduated he opened a ballet school. In 1998, he was the first person in Ireland to be awarded the Fellowship Diploma in Classical Ballet (with distinction) of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing in London. He is still artistic director of Cork City Ballet, and is now in the position of having dancers in the ballet troupe who were trained by his academy. It is 12 years since his operations, and since he had to stop dancing, but he found other joys in life – being able to relax, to watch TV, to enjoy food (he worked as a chef in Bunnyconnellan in Myrtleville to fund his studies), things that can be seen as luxuries for the professional dancer who is always on tour, always on pointe. But he is still on the move – before he wanted to be a dancer he wanted to be a pilot or a train driver, so forward motion has always been part of his make up. Next is Cork City Ballet’s production of one of the best known and loved ballets of all – Swan Lake. Foley is pragmatic about putting on such an iconic show, and its ability to get bums on seats. “It absolutely is one of ballet’s greatest works, and that is why the crowds keep coming; Swan Lake is sublime. You mention ballet the world over, and the first thing people think of is Swan Lake. It would sell out a show in the middle of Basra.”

But this isn’t playing Basra, but rather back in Cork, the Opera House to be precise. The big shows like this are the financial generators that enable them to stage smaller, more challenging works, as they have had no Arts Council funding since 2011. Ballet is an expensive business – the most basic tool of the ballet dancer, a pair of pointe shoes, costs around a hundred euro, and everything else rises in cost from there. But he is used to the grind – when he started out he asked his bank if they would be interested in sponsoring him. They gave him five púnts. Internally screaming, he thanked them, took the fiver and never looked back. Foley’s path has been very different to that of his mentor, Miss M, as he calls her still, but he is keeping her dream of Irish ballet alive. 

Cork City Ballet returns this November with their spectacular full-length production of the classic ballet  – Swan Lake. Thursday 7–Saturday 9 November 2019; 2.30pm/8pm. Tickets are €25, €31, €38 & €43 | Family Ticket €120*. 

Written for the Irish Independent.

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