Grace Corry glides through Claire Dix’s portrait of Joan Denise Moriarty, who fought to bring ballet to all corners of Ireland. We Are Moving: Memories of Miss Moriarty screened at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.
There are several culturally expressive art forms unique to Ireland, art forms that tell tales of our past, inspired by everything from mythology to politics, past and present, their methods and disciplines tied to definitive historical tradition. In its aspirations, Irish dancing was one such practise, created and performed by peasants, its style ancient and ritualistic, coveted by the people for centuries.
Ballet, however, had no such gravity in Irish. Ballet, far outside the parameters of a conservatism which dominated the artistic landscape of twentieth century Ireland, communicated a freedom of sexuality, in its inherent celebration of the human body, performed in scenes of love and life which were alien to a young, new State. Not forgetting, it was an art with all the appearance of the ruling class, decadent in its style, movements and gestures, all of which led to a general feeling of hostility upon its introduction, from not only the Irish dancing community but the whole country. The enigmatic subject of Claire Dix’s latest film sought the redefinition of dance in Ireland by bringing a new form of expression, and controversially, by fusing Irish dance and with this strange thing that was ballet.
We Are Moving: Memories of Miss Moriarty tells the story of Joan Denise Moriarty, a radical and prolific figure in the dancing community who sought to revolutionise the Irish dancing tradition that she had been so devoted to. After studying at the Rambert School of Ballet in London, she returned for a holiday to Mallow in Cork, a place she considered home, with her dream of introducing ballet in tow. After a chance meeting with an old friend and sceptic, her dream was prompted into action. “I can’t stand it!” he told her, “Well, what is it? A man chasing a woman around the stage”. From there it was decided. “I remember thinking – I’ll make you eat those words yet. I’m going to one day come back home and I’m going to start a ballet school and a ballet company and you’ll all accept it”. So it began.
What is noted quite early in the film is the economic state of Ireland at the time. WW11 was still in the air, and for the first six months she had not one single student. Undeterred and with curiosity growing in Cork, things were soon underway in a city where there was little to do for idle hands. One by one, young girls and grown men came, her school becoming both a place of learning and a place to escape the realities of unemployment. Revered and feared in equal measure by those she taught, the most important lesson to Miss Moriarty (as she is referred to throughout the film) was teaching the joy of movement, survived by each of the students that shared their memories, and shared some moves. “I’ll die dancing” laughed one eighty two year old friend, twirling around a studio.
Against the odds, Moriarty continued the pursuit of her dream and eventually brought ballet to every corner of Ireland, including the North during times of trouble. The school became the Cork Ballet Company, and with enough members became Cork Ballet Troupe, Moriarty collaborating extensively with Irish composer Aloys Fleischmann and touring the country. This improbability eventually landed the troupe New York with an interpretation of Playboy of the Western World, accompanied by The Chieftains. But this great success, sadly, marked the beginning of the end for Moriarty. On a world stage, her teachings came into question. The Brinson Report, commissioned by the Arts Council in 1985 concluded that her training was not as substantial as she had claimed. After calls for her resignation from the company she had founded, Moriarty reluctantly conceded, falling into a deep depression and all but vanishing from the scene. She died in 1992, having led a life shrouded in mystery, with no evidence of where she really came from, what year she was born, or of any family save her mother, although it is believed she was born illegitimately. Suggested years for her birth have been 1912, 1916 (which her driver’s license says) and 1920 (according to her passport). She never married despite plenty of opportunities, dedicating her whole life to her work, a fragmented lonely life epitomised by her dying will which stipulated that none of her dances ever be performed again, having never properly said goodbye to those who danced them.
Director Claire Dix makes great use of montage in this film, layering music, old show footage and tape recordings of interviews with Moriarty, footed by recollections and dance routines performed by the aged troupe in great humour, brought together by good memories. There is little to no footage of she who taught herself to play the war pipes, an element which serves Dix’s intension of allowing each visual and audio match to “wash over” the spectator, as a memory might. It is a sorry story about an eccentric who gave everything to her craft and to those whom she mentored whose memory has been carefully picked. If you’d like to know more, Ruth Fleischmann, daughter to Aloys, is writing a biography. I would think it’s equally worth checking out.
We Are Moving: Memories of Miss Moriarty screened on 22nd February 2016 as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival (18 – 28 February)