Ulster ballet alive and well for these Sleeping Beauties

The ballerinas selected to perform in The Sleeping Beauty at the Grand Opera House in April.
The ballerinas selected to perform in The Sleeping Beauty at the Grand Opera House in April.

Ballet might be seen as the preserve of only the wealthiest families but it is about to become a whole lot more accessible in Ulster, with the launch of the National Ballet Company of Northern Ireland.

Images of fairy-like dancers floating elegantly across a stage dressed in a pink tutu feature in many a young girl’s dreams but the reality of tuition fees for top UK dance schools running into the thousands, have made it one that has historically been hard to reach.

Next month 21 Belfast dancers will enjoy a rare opportunity to perform with the professional company English Youth Ballet in their production of The Sleeping Beauty at the Grand opera House.

Despite having had to audition for the production, and now partake in a 10-day intensive rehearsal process at Methodist College Belfast, the dancers all had to pay hefty sums for the privilege of being involved.

This often draining financial commitment required to get involved in ballet has inspired Newtownards teacher Tamy Conn to set up a ballet company in Northern Ireland, providing the opportunity to enter competitions and win scholarships just like pupils on the UK mainland.

The mum-of-three, who runs Mrs Conn’s Dance Academy and has five pupils taking part in The Sleeping Beauty production next month, said children here do not enjoy the same opportunities as their Great British counterparts.

“I am trying to do for our young people what the English Youth Ballet is offering young people on the mainland,” said Tamy, who has been a dance teacher for 13 years. “At the minute dancers here have to travel if they want to do anything in the world of ballet, such as entering competitions and so on.

“I’m a real stickler for the problem that it costs a lot of money - I don’t want that to stand in the way of people with real talent and ability.”

The interest in Northern Ireland is strong, according to Tamy, with 200 pupils at her school currently, and lots interested in being part of the new ballet company. She admits the stereotype of ballet being a female dance form still exists.

“There is maybe one boy for every 100 girls taking lessons here,” she said. “And we find lots of daddies don’t want their little boys doing ballet, which is a shame as men end up in important roles in productions, having the strength to perform lifts and things.”

Jessica Steele, a pupil of Grosvenor Grammar School and Mrs Conn’s Dance Academy, said she is delighted to have the opportunity to perform next month, while the English Youth Ballet’s principal ballerina, Amy Drew from Australia, said the dancers here are lucky to have the option to dance with the English Youth Ballet.

Tamy said she hopes the National Ballet Company of Northern Ireland will extend that opportunity even further. “Anyone can be a dancer - it depends on the opportunities you are given and how hard you work at something,” she said.

The Sleeping Beauty comes to the Grand Opera House in Belfast on Friday April 25 at 7.30pm and Saturday April 26 at 2.30pm and 7.30pm.