The founder of the Cork Ballet Company and of professional ballet in Ireland.
This article was published in The Cork Examiner 31.5.1997 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Cork Ballet Company
On Sunday 1 June 1947, forty dancers from Joan Denise Moriarty's Cork Ballet Company appeared for the first time on the stage of the old Opera House; they were accompanied by a full orchestra: the Cork Symphony Orchestra, founded by Aloys Fleischmann in 1934. From this ballet evening grew the annual Cork Ballet Week, which lasted for nearly half a century, the 45th performance taking place in 1992 in the presence of President Robinson, after the deaths the same year of the two founders.
From the beginning, Miss Moriarty created original dance for her company, producing a specifically Irish form of the art she had introduced to the city. She created over 100 works, many of them based on Irish legends; Michael MacLiammóir and others wrote libretti for her, and she commissioned Irish composers to produce new music. Aloys Fleischmann wrote the music for five ballets for her companies. She began experimenting with a fusion of traditional Irish dance steps and ballet, which was to become the hallmark of her subsequent works.
Ironically, it was during her youth in England that she acquired the competence for the Irish element in her experiments. Her Mallow family lived in Liverpool in the early 1930s, where they kept up close links with Ireland. She was a member of the Gaelic League; she became champion Irish step dancer of England in 1931 and was hailed as such in the Republican paper An Phoblacht of 25 April 1931.
In 1956, only nine years after its founding, the company had progressed sufficiently for Miss Moriarty to be able to put on Act 2 of Swan Lake with guest dancers and producer from London Festival Ballet and Sadler's Wells. In 1957 the first full-length classical ballet was performed; for the first time a distinguished London ballet critic came to Cork; the show received a good review in The Daily Telegraph. Miss Moriarty's immense efforts coincided with favourable circumstances, making this remarkable development possible. First of all, she and Aloys Fleischmann had the good fortune to be able to work together, each making a unique contribution towards their common goal. Furthermore, the government was about to abandon the protectionist policies which had failed to bring prosperity, and to open up the country to European investment and later to the EC. This orientation was anticipated in the cultural sphere in the early 1950s. Cork took the opportunity provided by the annual national festival An Tóstal to open the door to continental European culture. Dermot Breen gave the International Film Festival to a city where the cinema as an art form was little known. The International Choral Festival was begun in order to give Munster choirs a forum where they could present their music, learn from each other and from first-rate foreign choirs. In the course of An Tóstal some of the world's best orchestras played in Cork.
The city also saw Marie Rambert's renowned ballet company in October 1958: the company rehearsed in Miss Moriarty's studio, and six girls from the Cork Ballet Company danced in the visitors' corps de ballet. Madame Rambert had been patron of the company since 1953, having come to Cork to see it perform.
In 1959 Miss Moriarty founded the first Irish professional ballet company, Irish Theatre Ballet, employing a number of dancers she had trained herself in the amateur company. Her aim was to bring ballet, which in Europe had been an art form for the wealthy, to the ordinary people of Ireland, to every small town with a stage the company could perform on, and (equally innovative for those days) to create cultural links with Northern Ireland, performing there on a regular basis.
The venture came to an end after five years due to lack of funding. Nine years later, in 1973, Miss Moriarty set up another professional company, known until 1983 as the Irish Ballet Company, thereafter as Irish National Ballet, with the same aims. This time it was funded by the Arts Council. Ireland was now a member of the EC, and money was available to help depressed regions. Ninette de Valois came unannounced to see the first performance of the new company, approved of what she saw and donated half the Erasmus award she had just received from the Dutch government.
It was a hard struggle, given the limited finances and painfully difficult working conditions; there were also some triumphs. In 1978 Miss Moriarty's Playboy of the Western World with music played by the Chieftains was the success of the Dublin Theatre Festival; it was then taken to New York, to London's Sadler's Wells and to France. In 1979 Miss Moriarty was awarded the highest honour the state can confer: an honorary doctorate of the National University of Ireland. In 1981 another full-length new Irish ballet was acclaimed at the Dublin Theatre Festival: the Táin, the music by Aloys Fleischmann performed by the Radio Eireann Symphony Orchestra. Miss Moriarty bought the historic Cork building, the Firkin Crane, for her company and managed to raise sufficient money to have it restored as the home for Irish National Ballet.
But then the situation changed dramatically. In the 1980s the Arts Council's budget was reduced due to the severe recession and the monetary discipline imposed by Brussels. Cultural activities had increased all over the country, thanks to Arts Council aid: there were now more groups competing for less money. Ireland's only touring theatre company was disbanded; the grant to the Choral Festival was stopped; the Arts Council revised its policy on dance.
Touring ballet companies are inevitably expensive, and there was no prospect that Irish National Ballet could become self-supporting. Dublin dance companies were pressing for funding, so in 1985 the Arts Council drastically reduced the Cork company's grant.
By now the Council had appointed Dance Officers, who had distinguished themselves in other fields and had to acquire competence in dance. They were critical of Miss Moriarty's directorship, and sought the expertise of Peter Brinson, an English academic who had done much to increase audiences for ballet in Britain and to promote modern dance. In August 1985 Miss Moriarty resigned. Three years later the Arts Council ceased funding Irish National Ballet. It also stopped supporting the Dublin dance companies: the Council's dance budget was halved.
This was a tragedy for Miss Moriarty, and the greatest disappointment in Aloys Fleischmann’s life. Valiant to the last, despite bad health, Miss Moriarty continued her work with the Cork Ballet Company, bringing shows to as many towns in the province as possible. She did not live to see Ireland’s economic growth of the 1990s, and the new opportunities for dance in Ireland. But her work is being continued by her students Breda Quinn and Sinead Murphy in the Moriarty Schools of Dance, and by her student Alan Foley with Cork City Ballet.
Joan Denise Moriarty first brought the colourful art of ballet to Cork and beyond during a time of poverty and isolation, opening up a new world to her pupils, dancers and audiences. It was her love of her art and her determination to see it established in Ireland that gave her the courage and endurance to persevere, and which earned her the admiration, respect and support of her students, of her large audiences all over the country, and of her colleagues in the world of dance.