How do you make a connection with dance?
The first thing I remember is seeing Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, or it might have been “Smooth Criminal”, on television. For sure it was Michael Jackson, and it was one of those two. I was very young, about 4 or 5, and my mum had asked me to get something for her, and as I was doing that, I saw the clip on TV.
That’s the first memory which springs to mind. That was my first exposure to dance, certainly mainstream dance. My mum and my brother both did Irish dancing, but that was long before I was born.
What about ballet?
I was in a panto in The Grand Opera House, Dick Whittington. I got in through the McMaster Stage School; I’d seen “Whistle down the Wind” in the Opera House and my mum found out where all the kids in that came from, which was the McMaster Stage School in Bangor.
During the panto one of the professional dancers said to me that if I wanted to take it seriously I would need to learn everything, Ballet, Tap, Singing and he gave me a video “Centre Stage” and that was the first exposure I had to ballet. I watched that film religiously, and whenever I needed motivation, I would watch it again.
Later, I went to an outreach programme which was run by Ballet Ireland. Stephen Brennan ran a fantastic Outreach Programme in Cookstown, and that was a wonderful experience. It was held at the Burnavon Arts Centre.
There is also my experience with piano which adds to my foray into the arts world. I was learning to play piano from when I was four and there was a part of the exams where you had to sing something back to the teacher. In true country boy fashion, I didn’t want to sing. It just so happened that Burnavon was running a show called “Little Shop of Horrors” and my teacher got me into that. That was in order to show me that singing wasn’t weird. So The Burnavon is also part of the journey.
How do you move forward from there?
I started at a Ballet School in Dungannon, the Roberta McCormick School of Dance. The Panto finished when I was around ten years old and then my mum took me up once a week to Dungannon to learn ballet because that was the foundations of all dance, the language, the vocabulary, the movement. And then, as I said, I would see ballets and take part in the outreach work by Ballet Ireland that would take place in Cookstown. I remember, at one point, there was a week’s intensive, working on a ballet version of The Canterville Ghost and I really enjoyed that. But ballet was really just a side project that I was doing that to help with all the other things I wanted to do.
When I went to see Stephen Brennan, working with Ballet Ireland, that was my first real exposure to dance in a serious sense and even after all this time when I run into Stephen, he still remembers me from when I was a child.
Did you get any support at school?
When I was in Primary School, they were supportive in terms of when I was doing panto in the Opera House, they would let me go to perform. I never told anyone about ballet as I was already being bullied for being musical, having red hair, the list was endless. I didn’t want to give anyone anything else to lay into me for. That went on till I was in 5th form, and it just got too much. Once people found out, the bullies questioned my sexuality, they would call me a girl, so that in addition to all the other reasons people wanted to bully me.
How does that change?
Eventually I went to Methodist College, and they were very supportive; incredibly supportive. The bullying just stopped and there were people there who thought doing ballet was the coolest thing in the world. And when I needed to go to London at very late notice, they would support me to do that. All they said was that they wanted me to be on top of my schoolwork.
You end up studying in London?
I wanted to be in musical theatre, from 10 to 16 years old, and perform on the West End. That was my dream. Then I saw Carlos Acosta dancing a solo from Don Quixote that only lasted a minute, but that minute changed my whole perspective. I knew then that that was what I wanted to do. My mum had no idea what that entailed, but she supported me. I spoke to my ballet teacher, Laura Walker, and another choreographer, Mary McDonagh in Sligo, and they agreed to help me.
I upped the number of classes I was doing a week, I trained by myself all the time. I auditioned for the National Youth Ballet of Great Britain. I was accepted and that really exposed me to what you had to do to get to a professional school. I got a lot of advice from dancers, especially a dancer from Malta. He went a little later to the Central School of Ballet; you are supposed to go at 16 and he got in at 19. He said basically you must show that you were willing to do the work. I applied to go to the Central School of Ballet in London, and I was accepted. It was my goal to train in London, and to live there, and I achieved that.
What happens after the Central School of Ballet in London?
I found out very quickly that there was no easy road to success. I thought that having been at the Central School of Ballet I would find a job in a company pretty easily. It isn’t like that at all. You have to find your own way if you want to work professionally. I ended up looking towards companies in America. I got auditions in Cleveland, but they didn’t have the money for a visa for me, and I auditioned for Nevada Ballet Theatre and Milwaukee Ballet, and I got apprenticeships at both. I decided to go to Milwaukee because even though the money wasn’t as good, it had more opportunities for performances.
During my time in Milwaukee, you could feel that attitudes were changing; it was the year before Trump became president. I knew it was going to be hard to get a visa in America, the cost was high and companies would have to justify why they would employ a foreign dancer over an American dancer. I returned home without a job and had to start applying to companies again.
What happens then?
I applied to the Singapore Dance Theatre, now Singapore Ballet, and a company in Canada, Ballet Victoria. While Canada wasn’t really in my plans it turned out to be an important turning point. It was a small company, with lots of performances, lots of touring and while I found the artistic director was really demanding in the beginning, he told me that his aim was to turn dancers into soloists and then into principals. He said I should use that that company as a transition to something bigger. I learned so much from Paul Destrooper, the Artistic Director of Ballet Victoria; he refined my strengths and my weaknesses and thanks to him I have developed my career. I owe a lot to Paul. After that experience, I rose relatively quickly through the ranks and ended up in Gdansk.