Judith Sibley – Artistic Director, Youth Ballet West
Coreographer and dancer Judith Sibley is the artistic director of Youth Ballet West. A director of the 'resting' Chrysalis professional dance company, she also teaches dance in the Corrib Dance Academy.
Tell us about your background
I'm from Swords in the North Side of Dublin and I started ballet at four; my sister went, and mum thought it would be good to calm me down cause I was quite giddy. I became quite serious about it and by the time I was 11, I was doing five ballet classes a week. We did all the children's activities and then we'd cut back when another ballet class was added, so by the time I was 16, we knew I was quite talented. I'd gotten as far as I could go in my ballet school in Ireland and we decided I'd audition in England. Actually, I look back with my mum now and go, 'how did she ever do this without the internet?' There were no dance magazines in Ireland, you couldn't even book flights and find B&Bs on the internet. I don't know how she did it; mum is great. The total opposite of a ballet mum, though - just supportive.
So ballet was your passion from the beginning...
Yes, so I auditioned for schools and I got into a school called Elmhurst, which was in Camberley in Surrey which is where Sandhurst is, actually - the posh boys army training academy. I went there after Christmas, because a place became free and I did a year and two terms there. I did my A levels there - just about - I did English and History. I was in a boarding school, so we were relatively safe; I wasn't in the heart of London, in a house. But in my second year in Elmhurst, I decided I wanted something different than what the school could offer, so I auditioned again for schools, and I actually got into all the schools, including the Royal Ballet, but I chose the school that I really wanted to go to from when I was a child called Rambert, set up by a woman called Marie Rambert. Rambert was kind of different to all the other schools in that you never felt like a body. Ballet is very much about having the perfect physique, but from day one that you went there, you felt like an artist. There was a lot of choreography, we'd all be in the studios till 9 at night. So I joined Rambert and graduated in third year there. So that was in London, beside Richmond, which was really nice. The other lovely thing about Rambert is that it was in a university - Brunelle University - so I worked in the student union bar, all our friends were not just dance people - they were musicians and actors. I experienced normal university life, because ballet can be very tunnel-visioned, whereas we had a much more open life in Rambert. From my year in Rambert, there were only 11 girls and 14 guys, which is very unusual for ballet school and most of us are working today in dance. Some of us are performing. They say college is supposed to be the the best years of your life and Rambert definitely was; it was amazing. At the time, the Arts Council had grants here for exceptionally talented students, so I was lucky enough to get a grant each year. They don't exist any more, but my mum basically said, well, if you're not good enough to get a grant in Ireland, then you're not going to get into the best schools, there's no point in going, because you're going to be auditioning against those people in the end anyway. So then, Rambert was half contemporary, half ballet, but only a couple of us went into ballet. I was really lucky, because getting your first job is really hard, and I got my first job two weeks after graduating in a company called Vienna Festival Ballet. And even though we did do a couple of tours around Switzerland, we predominately toured the UK. I did a ten-month tour and an 11-month tour with them. That was nine shows a week. It was great - we had a wonderful ballet mistress. I learnt so much about classical ballet from Vienna Festival - we did all the classics - Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppelia - you name it. I hadn't known ballet that intently until then. I was the youngest in the company and everybody kept an eye on me and guided me. You're a sponge at that age.
Where to from there?
From then, I went onto do lots of different jobs. I worked here for a time in a modern ballet, neoclassical ballet. I worked in America in Spirit of the Dance, which was like River Dance. There was a ballet girl who was the lead and that was me for a time. We got to tour the States; it was awesome. I worked Cork City Ballet for years. That was a project job - I'd go down a couple of times a year. When Ballet Ireland was established here, I was their first main dancer. I then went to the Phantom of the Opera for two years in Belgium and Hamburg, and I was one of the Megs. Meg is Christine Daaé's best friend, and she sings. I'd never sung in my life. I used to say to the musical director, 'This is a professional show, this isn't me in my bathroom'. But it was really great fun, I really enjoyed the Phantom, and the money is an awful lot better in musical theatre than it is in ballet. All the singers in Phantom of the Opera are opera singers and just working so closely with them and the orchestra - it was just a real buzz of a show. You were just really proud to be in it.
So I spent ten years dancing full-time. I was really, really lucky - I was only out of work two times. I had two knee operations, one was an accident and one was wear and tear. That was the only time I wasn't working, and even then, I worked in a bar, because I was grand; I just couldn't dance. Then I came home for personal reasons. I kind of thought that would have been it with my performing. My sister, Phyllis, who runs the Corrib Dance Academy, was teaching and she asked if I wanted to start teaching. At that point, I had barely even seen a child and I was like, what? The following summer, I went and did my teacher qualifications with the Royal Academy of Dance, and I really loved the course. It's called the 'Professional Dancers Teaching Diploma', so everybody on the course were professional dancers and we'd end up going to the pub and talking about ballet steps till midnight. It was so interesting - there were amazing artists on my course. I graduated with the second highest mark that the Royal Academy Dance had ever given out at the time. I was really passionate and I felt like I was really lucky in that I loved my second career as much as my performing career. I really do love teaching, particularly teenagers. They're just these little raw diamonds that are just such awesome fun to work with. I love the little ones as well. I just find that it's an incredible job; it's a real honour, because if they stay with us, we have them from four until Leaving Cert. You see them the whole way through. My ex students now are getting married and having babies, which makes me feel old, but it's brilliant.
I set up my own ballet school called Shannon Dance Academy and I worked with my sister in Corrib Dance Academy here as well. When Phyllis built the space ten years ago, that's what brought me down here. I really wanted to choreograph; it's something I was really passionate about in school, but I hadn't done it. I had worked as a dancer, but work was put on me, predominately, even though there might have been improvisation. So I set up Chrysalis Dance Company, on a wing and a prayer, and did our first performance here 11 years ago in the Black Box Theatre. We sold out on the first night. It was a ballet called Strings to the music of Paddy Casey, who at the time was huge. I realised I could get a different audience into dance if I used music that young people could relate to. So Chrysalis existed for nine years. We lost our Arts Council funding on our tenth anniversary. We did very big tours, we did tours as big as 14 venues, which for Ireland is huge. We could go to teeny little places like Carrick-on-Shannon or places like the Black Box, and we always sold really well. I predominately choreographed that, and also had guest artists coming in to choreograph. We had great dancers, and we had great fun as well. I know that a lot of people are really sad that the company is no longer working because the dance students could really relate to our work. We did a lot of workshops as well. I say the company is resting at the moment. I don't know what the future's going to hold.
Is it something you'd jump at the chance of doing again?
Yes, I miss working with professionals. They were these incredible dancers. Some of them were with me seven or eight years and grew with me, grew with the company and there was always a really positive atmosphere in Chrysalis. The dancers would come back year after year after year because they'd have such a positive experience and such a laugh as well. I'd have an idea, I'd walk into the studio and I'd have these amazing dancers that would just make my ideas come to life. I was still performing when my daughter turned one - she turned one up in Belfast. Then, when I had my son, I stopped touring, because I couldn't tour any more with two little ones. So their daddy, who's also a dancer, Leighton, was still going on tour and just phoning me after the show, which was really bizarre, not to be with the guy.
Ten years ago this year, my sister and I set up Youth Ballet West - we also had a funding cut this year, but I'm hopeful that next year, things will be sorted out. Youth Ballet West is one of only two pre-professional ballet companies in Ireland. There's the Irish National Youth Ballet up in Dublin, and us over here, so we train and teach dancers from all over this side of the country. They go to their normal ballet teacher and then they come to me on a Sunday, so they don't leave their teacher. My sister is the admin and I do all the artistic. I have total free reign to do what I like, which is great. We've done some amazing work. The youngest we've ever had in Youth Ballet West is 13, but normally they'd be 14 or 15 and they stay until Leaving Cert. In Youth Ballet West, we've had dancers from Galway, obviously, Athlone, Roscommon, Tipperary, Ennis, and they come to us for five hours on a Sunday.
What's your ultimate aim for these students?
17 students from Youth Ballet West have gone onto train abroad, predominantly the UK, and one in Holland, so we've had 17 people who've had the opportunity to get further into professional training, which I don't think they would have done without the extra training, the stage experience and everything that the company gave them. We just recently had our show in the Black Box, we had our version of Coppelia, which is a lovely ballet and we pretty much sold out for the two nights. What I'm most proud of in Youth Ballet West is when people come and see the productions, they're just so amazed that there's that level of ballet here in Galway, because people don't think about Galway as a capital for ballet. We do have our own homegrown dancers too and there are quite a few very successful dancers working around the globe. It's just that because they're around the globe, people don't know about them, but we have some fabulous dancers who are in fabulous positions in top companies around the world that hail from small places like here.
We do our annual productions, but also from my background - my daughter had cancer - we do a lot of childhood cancer fundraisers. We bring a little baby version of The Nutcracker to Crumlin Children's Hospital every Christmas, it's called the Mirlitons, and we hand out candy canes to all the children. We've done that for the last three years. We have a campaign in September called light gold? to raise awareness for childhood cancer and the girls dance every year - they do a fairy day, which is also a fundraiser for cancer. They're actually quite involved, and young people helping young people is really really precious. It's just a mind opening experience for them, and they're so wonderful at it. We do the Macnas parade every year. We've been doing that for seven years - they're the dancers in the Macnas parade. I actually did it this year too. I couldn't walk for two days after - I really felt my age, but that's performing to 60,000 people this year, so that's awesome.
My school in Athlone has children from four to Leaving Cert - that runs three days a week. I have another staff member who works with me, Tricia and then I work in my sisters school on a Friday, so I do four days a week, which is plenty for me. I have to be a mom as well, and do the school run, and the swimming and all those things.
Do you dance much yourself?
Not anymore, no. I performed as part of Galway Dance Days two years ago and I did a contemporary piece with two of my dancers. It took place in a warehouse so the audience were really on top of us. I was so nervous - it was just horrific. But I did a really quirky piece that actually everyone loved. It went from comedy to poignant moments. I did a solo to Joni Mitchell's, Both Sides Now - a lot of my contemporary dancer friends from all around Ireland were there and they were all in tears. It was about everything I had been through. I really enjoyed performing, but for me and I was explaining this to a musician friend of mine recently who's a singer songwriter, 'you pick up and play, for me, when I have to perform, I have to remake my instrument; to get my arms back, my legs back, my stomach back. I have to make it before I can put it on. There's a reason ballet dancers train every day. And obviously, I don't train very much any more.
Do you miss that kind of movement in your body?
Well, I teach and I move around alot. And I choreograph a lot. In September, I started teaching adults on a friday night, and I absolutely love it. I've got people who did ballet when they were younger, people who take ballet very seriously and people who've never done ballet in their life. We do a bit of body conditioning as well and I get such a buzz out of it. We have such fun on a friday night. It's just such a buzz. For me, I loved being a performer but I actually really love being a choreographer. It's hard to explain; I prefer to see my work than be in my work. I remember myself and Leighton guested with Youth Ballet West; we did the Grand Pas Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker, and i said to the photographer at the time, Stephen Macken; 'Take some really good pics - this is my last time in a tutu' because getting out in a tutu and pointe shoes is a big deal. I guess it's strange because when you have a career like mine, or Leighton my partner, he worked all over the world too, you have this crazy experience of life that most people would never have the opportunity to have. Then you come back to Galway and you have such vibrancy, just like that, here in this city. I find I go to the theatre here much more than I did in Dublin. I'd never go back to Dublin. I get on the M50 and I get stressed - traffic and everything. It's just so nice here and there's such a cultural vibe. Whenever my friends visit, or the dancers come over, everyone just loves the vibe here. You can have as much cultural vibrancy in a city this size as you can anywhere in the world.
What piece of work are you most proud of?
The very last piece I choreographed for Chrysalis, Thought Once Was was about alzheimer's. Nothing like that had ever been done before in dance - there's been plays about alzheimer's and wonderful films. What was really odd about thought once was was that I had fit young people portraying the mental state of someone with alzheimer's. I didn't know how the audience would perceive it, or if they would even understand what was going on, but the premier at the Black Box was our first very long standing ovation. The audience response was just incredible. People were in tears and it's the piece I'm most proud of. My father died of alzheimer's, he was actually alive at the time in a home and I had watched the very specific way the mind goes with alzheimer's. It's not depression, it's not any other mental state. That piece could have been shown on any international stage and that's the piece i'm most proud of. I'm really really proud of that piece.
What did you love about dancing when you were doing it?
I think it takes a very specific brain type to be a dancer - a certain level of madness, where you drive yourself to your own best constantly. Even when I was a kid in school, I used to get up at 7 o'clock and do a ballet class at home before I went to school, and then go to ballet class and then stretch all evening. It was kind of obsessive. Particularly with ballet, you have to be so perfect - there's a very small handful of people. It's like being a top footballer or a top model - you need to have all the aesthetics and the artistry and the drive and it's really hard to get that combo together. I think I loved the striving for perfection. You're very hard on yourself; I stopped going on holidays when i was 14 so that I could do a class every day. I couldn't miss class. I loved the way when you're at the barre ballet, it's not too complicated, you always know more or less how things are going to go. It's like maybe what other people get from yoga, your brain is just focused on your muscles and how you're executing your technique, but also, there's real freedom in your mind in doing that. I loved that. Also, because I predominantly worked for smaller companies, I always got to dance roles, so I've gotten to dance a lot of the roles in ballet like Sugar Plum Fairy, Giselle, Coppelia. I got to do those parts and I loved the dramatic aspect. In the classical ballets, it's very dramatic. But I really love modern ballet. I find it very hard to contain myself; I'm always outside the box.
What about the pressures of being a ballerina that you hear about - the pressures to have the perfect body, etc?
Most of us in ballet would have been very strict about our bodies - you kind of have to be. Also, most of us would have had a natural physique to go that way. I mean, if you were really, really battling your weight, ballet's not the job for you, and you're dancing eight hours a day anyway. But we are physically hard on ourselves. Having said that, I've had such a positive experience in dance, that I couldn't teach and I couldn't send students away to train in a career unless I believe it's a wonderful career. You read a lot of negativity about ballet, but I loved the Black Swan, I thought it was awesome. You get to meet so many people - I got to travel the world, so many different challenges. I couldn't teach and I couldn't say to parents, 'I think your child is really talented. I think she should go abroad.' if I had a terrible experience. Yes, there was the odd director who wasn't nice but in general, people were lovely. You'll get unpleasant people in every aspect of life. The dance community here in Ireland really looks after one another and they're all really connected. I guess that's because we're a small community. What I love about dance is the artistry, it's the play without words, the way your body can express something. Dance for me is a really good way of expressing emotions, sometimes words aren't right and that's one of the things I really love about ballet - being able to express yourself through gestures.
Who has been your greatest influencer in your career?
When I was 15, I went to a summer school in Longford called Shawbrook - a wonderful place. There was a woman called Marguerite Donlon. She was teaching and there was a choreography competition, which I won, and I made her cry. She was the first person who really believed in me. Maggie and I are still friends. She's one of the best choreographers in the world. She directed her own company for ten years in Saarbrucken. She's just put a piece on the Bolshoi Ballet in St Petersburg. I'm a huge fan of her work and twice, I got a grant from the Arts Council to go over to her in her company in Saarbrucken and be mentored by her. She'd go through all my DVDs with me and then give me notes and then help me create material and change my ways of creating material to help me put more of me into my material. Maggie would have been a huge influence.
Where does the drive come from everything you do?
Too much energy! I'm very similar to my mom, my mom's amazing. She does about a gazillion jobs; running my company is one of them. She does all my admin, all my costumes. I probably get a lot of energy from her. My brother, Paul Hayes, was my producer for years, and he's a theatre manager and had his own theatre company, 'Catastrophe', for years as well. He'd be my huge support. He has a really good overview of the arts. I think that I was really lucky. There aren't many people whose hobby becomes their work. Then to go on and enjoy teaching so much and choreographing.
Passionate, high energy, hard work. I wouldn't live with me. A bit crazy; that's how my children would describe me. I'm not enormously academically educated, but I would consider myself educated in life. I'm interested in the world, obviously with my daughter, Lily-Mae, I'm very interested in one aspect of the world at the moment. I do believe that everything can be fixed and everything can be changed and it requires amazing passion to do so and because of the world I've been in with my daughter, I've met these amazing people that just blow me away in their passion and their knowledge. I think I'm very specific; I know the Youth Ballet call me a hard taskmaster. I would have high expectation of people. I've always had a high expectation of people. And emotional - I cry all the time since having the babies.
What would you like to see happening for dance in Galway?
I think the big issue is funding. When Chrysalis lost its funding, it really was the last of the funding on this side of the country for a professional company. There has to be more outside of Dublin. There's a lot of talent outside of Dublin and we can't just not have art outside of Dublin. I'd love if we got Galway 2020 - that would bring so much to Galway. We need more funding for dance and for funding to be used productively where home grown artists are supported - and that there's some continuity. For someone like myself who received Arts Council grants to train to dance, then went onto dance, then trained to teach, then had companies. You can see on a grass roots level that that's hitting every possibility. I would like to see funding reinstated, particularly for Youth Ballet West. When I had Chrysalis, we always had an apprenticeship scheme between Youth Ballet West and Chrysalis, where two of the youth company would always apprentice with the professional company and it really gave them a feel of what life is like in the theatre and if they wanted to work at that level. In my life in dance, choreography and teaching, it's been a continually changing learning curve.
Your ultimate vision for Galway?
I spent a lot of time in America and I see in America that need to give back - a philanthropy that I don't see over here. In the city I go to in America, Grand Rapids, there are particular names that pop up all the time that are families that take huge pride in giving back to the town and I've never really seen that here. Grand Rapids also has a ballet school, which has its own professional company. They have their own building with a studio the same size as their own stage, which is only used by them. That's wow. That has been supported by the community. It's very different over there. The very rich look after the cultural aspect, which is bizarre but amazing as well. If we had a bit more of that pride and that need to give back here.
A lot of people think of ballet as them and us - it's all yada yada and it's not necessarily. Here In Galway, we've such a cultured audience, but I'd like them to come out to more than just the Arts Festival every summer. If you go to a contemporary play or new music and you don't like it, you don't go, 'Oh I don't like contemporary playwriting'. I think sometimes, if people see contemporary dance and they don't like it, there's that fear of the unknown. We can't keep producing the same playwrights, we have to have new work and it's the same with dance. Obviously, you have your classical ballet, which is high art - your Swan Lake, your Giselle, and that needs to stay as it is. But I feel that for ballet needs to continue to be relevant. A lot of the work that I do at Chrysalis is an evolving art form; we change how we move all the time and I think that's really important in terms of it being a relevant art form. When I worked with Chrysalis and we worked with Bell X1, Declan O'Rourke and John Spillane, and Paddy Casey, it keeps it current.
I think art is so important. If you take the art out of earth its eh. It's something I've always struggled with in my own personal struggle with having a very sick child, is, 'is art important?'. There's so many other things that we could be spending our money on. But I believe that yes, it is, because what's the point in existing if you don't have art? It's so important in every aspect of our own minds and souls. We need to live in something. If you look at dance - people dance for loads of reasons - they dance because they're happy, they dance because they're sad; everyone dances. Even when you're at a wedding and someone says, 'I don't dance', usually after a few beers, they'll dance. We dance, babies dance, so when you take that into a trained environment, it's just a natural development. We're made to dance.