AT 16, dancer James Berkery was the youngest ever student at CSN Dance under the tutelage of Alan Foley, artistic director of Cork City Ballet.
A few years later and Berkery has gone from student to choreographer, working with music giant Sting on his musical The Last Ship and as a choreographer for The Late Late Show with James Cordon and Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Now the proud nominee of a BAFTA for his work on a short film, Toni_With_An_I, Berkery is excited to see where social distancing takes the arts industry and looks back at his time in Cork with great fondness.
Hailing from Tipperary, Berkery had just done the Junior Cert when he got the opportunity to move to Cork. “I lived in student accommodation and would travel in and out to the Firkin Crane. People would watch out for me because I was so young. It was a very nurturing experience.”
Moving to a city can be a scary thing for someone so young but Berkery was made to feel at home. “Cork is compact, it is hard to get lost, and people are welcoming so I always felt safe, I never felt out of place.”
During his time at CSN, he got a taste of what it would mean to be a professional dancer. “The course ran in conjunction with Cork City Ballet. We performed in professional ballet at the Opera House while still training. It was the best of both worlds, being a student and seeing the world of professional dance in Cork city. That’s something I don’t take for granted, a fantastic experience.”
Through the course, Berkery travelled to Russia to take part in a ballet festival. “That was incredible. We fund-raised to get there and part of the festival was the chance to train with dancers from Vaganova and Kirov Ballet. It was an amazing experience to see and train with the top level of classical and ballet dance in the world. I was 17 and it was such a great inspiration. Even to this day, it’s like, wow.”
Berkery continued his training in London, ultimately becoming a choreographer. “I was in between professional dancing jobs. I had been assisting agents and casting directors and it really just opened my eyes to a world that wasn’t being a dancer. I started to explore doing choreography. I reached out to choreographers I found inspiring and whose work I loved. I was so lucky some of them replied to let me observe them and some let me assist.
“It grew from there. Choreography is not just dance and movement, it’s dance and movement expressing a story. That’s why I love working in theatre, film, and television because you have to express a story with them.”
Berkery has had some big opportunities, but says being resident choreographer on Sting’s The Last Ship has been the highlight so far. “I’ve had some great adventures, particularly working in the U.S, but working with Sting was fantastic.”
With the arts world in peril, Berkery relishes the chance to think outside the box. “It is a terrible situation, but I welcome all the changes this is going to make for the industry and how we’re going to have to evolve in terms of choreography. I’m really intrigued to see where it goes. During lockdown, I worked on a music video over Zoom which had 18 dancers. It was very different to work in this new way, away from the studio, but it was really challenging and fun to change it up and to change what we’ve kind of taken for granted a lot of the time. There’s a real worry about theatre but the art dates back to Greek and Roman times.
“It is going nowhere, it’s just going to change how we perceive art and how we consume it.”
Berkery’s BAFTA nominated film revolves around a 14-year-old girl who is trolled by school bullies but finds escapism through dance. Berkery says its director, Marco Alessi, worked in collaboration with him. “Sometimes a director has a vision, other times it is up to you to devise the movement. With Marco, it was a conversation. I was there from the beginning when he was pitching it to BBC4.
“It wasn’t much about the movements, but about how important the movements were in terms of the narrative of the piece?”
The BAFTAs take place this Friday, July 31, and Toni With An I has been nominated for best short form programme.