The Cork woman who brought  beautiful ballet to Ireland

In this month’s column on the inspirational women of Cork, NICOLA DEPUIS looks at the life of Joan Denise Moriarty, founder of the Irish National Ballet
The Cork woman who brought  beautiful ballet to Ireland

Joan Denise Moriarty Collection, courtesy of Cork City Libraries

THE name Joan Denise Moriarty is synonymous with ballet in Ireland, and for good reason. She is responsible for demystifying the dance form and making it possible for thousands of young people in Ireland to receive training.

Many of Joan Denise’s dance students were later given the option of a career at her professional ballet company, the Irish National Ballet, which was the first professional ballet company to be established in Ireland.

The details of Joan’s early life are obscure. It is believed her parents were from Mallow, Co. Cork, but moved to Liverpool in around 1907.

Joan Denise Moriarty.
Joan Denise Moriarty.

She started dancing at the age of six and became the champion Irish step dancer of England in 1931. 

She was also a member of the Gaelic League and won many awards for her talent as a war-pipe player.

Joan studied ballet in London from a young age under the tutelage of Dame Marie Rambert, who was one of the biggest influences on British ballet. However, at the age of 14, Joan Denise was forced to spend months away from rehearsals while recovering from a bout of scarlet fever.

During these months, she experienced a growth spurt and when she returned to the studio, Madame Rambert dismissed her as being too big to be a dancer, adding that if Joan Denise was to appear on stage ‘there would be no more room for anyone else’.

Joan Denise Moriarty.
Joan Denise Moriarty.

For a while, she considered moving to America where the male dancers were taller. 

But Marie Rambert had seen a great deal of talent in her young pupil and urged Joan Denise to channel it into teaching other dancers.

Joan was further inspired to teach after a chance meeting with friends on St Patrick’s Bridge. I explained I was a dancer and was hoping to continue my career and so on. And a man there said ‘Oh, ballet, I can’t stand it! What is it… a man chasing a woman around the stage?’

“Well, I was a very young person at the time but I was furious. I remember my face getting redder. I wanted to burst out in temper, but I made a vow that day standing on that bridge that I would then come back and start a ballet school, and that we would have a ballet company in Cork and a ballet company in Ireland. 

"Very highfalutin’ ideas, but you know what youth is, nothing stands in your way. I wanted to make him eat his words.”

With this in mind, Joan Denise became a ballet teacher, registering with the Royal Academy of Dance. The Moriarty family returned to Mallow and Joan set up her first ballet school there.

After the death of her mother in 1940, Joan moved to a little studio on Patrick Street where she would spend the majority of her professional career.

In 1945, she met composer Aloys Fleischmann, Professor of Music at UCC, who asked her to play the war pipes in his new work, Clare’s Dragoons. This was the start of a life-long collaboration between the pair.

In combining an amateur ballet company with an amateur orchestra company, they produced some of the most innovative productions ever seen in the world of ballet, including The Golden Bell of Ko, Macha Ruadh, An Coitin Dearg and The Planting Stick.

Joan Denise Moriarty.
Joan Denise Moriarty.

In 1947, Joan Denise upheld the vow she had made to herself that fateful day on Patrick’s Bridge by setting up Cork Ballet Company, the city’s first ever ballet company. In 1959, she launched the first Irish professional ballet company, the Irish Theatre Ballet, which employed a number of dancers Joan had personally trained in the Cork Ballet Company. When the company went into administration due to lack of funding, she refused to give up. After ten years of lobbying, she was finally awarded £40,000 by the Arts Council and set about establishing the Irish Ballet Company, known afterwards as the Irish National Ballet.

When Ninette de Valois, founder of The Royal Ballet and creator of modern British ballet, arrived unannounced to see the first performance of Joan’s new professional company, she was so impressed she donated half of the Erasmus Award she had just received from the Dutch government to the fledgling professional ballet troupe. With this money, Joan was able to buy the Firkin Crane, an historic Cork building, which she restored and used as the home of the Irish National Ballet.

Joan was now in a position to pioneer many exciting new productions that brought ballet in line with the more traditional heritage of Ireland.

In the late 1960s, she choreographed 13 one-act folk ballets for the RTÉ television programme An Damhsa. She choreographed many ballets set to the music of Sean O’Riada, including Billy the Music.

Her first full-length work, a dance version of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, premiered at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1978, and later went on tour to New York. It was revived with music by the Chieftains at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, in 1980, where it got rave reviews.

In 1981, Joan Denise choreographed her second full-length work, The Táin, at the Dublin Theatre festival, with music composed by Aloys Fleischmann and performed by the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra.

The Irish National Ballet continued to develop and perform until 1985 when, during a recession, the Arts Council terminated their grant, effectively forcing the collapse of the company. However, Joan continued to work with the amateur Cork Ballet Company until her death on January 24, 1992.

Joan started a ballet company in Ireland at a time when ballet was seen as an elitist art form with no place in Irish culture.

 She was to prove her critics wrong by pioneering a new form of dance that combined the more fluid elements of Irish dance with the elegance of ballet, against a backdrop of Irish myth and lore.

She choreographed over 100 original works for her companies, and by the time of her death in 1992, she had created a strong ballet culture that had become one of the most prevalent art forms in modern Ireland.

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