Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Irish Times, 31st August 1989

Definitely not the Bolshoi. Kathy Sheridan visits the Shawbrook School of Ballet, in Co Westmeath, the only residential summer school in the country and certainly the only one on a dairy farm.
It was during the break between performances, as we sipped tea and wine in the shed beside the milking parlour, that I was seized by a powerful wave of nostalgia. It only began to dissipate when I had identified the cause of it: to wit a particular chemical used to clean the milking machines which, judging by the smell, cannot have changed in composition in 30 years.
We had just emerged from what was the culmination of Ireland’s only residential ballet summer school in what may well be Ireland’s only custom-built ballet training studio, located in a farmyard at the back end of Westmeath. As several dozen well-trained cows obligingly presented themselves for evening milking next door, 15 supple young bodies – average age 14 – danced their hearts out for the misty-eyed edification of parents and siblings, each of whom seemed to have borne along about half a dozen guests.
Anyone who has had any dealings with Anica and Philip Dawson are only too keen to confirm what the casual visitor has begun to suspect anyway; that this is no money-spinning racket for a couple of weeks in the summer to supplement the milk revenue. Appalled on her arrival here 11 years ago by the average Irish girl’s poor posture and lack of confidence, Anica embarked on a personal crusade to redress the balance. The Shawbrook School of Ballet is her annual answer for students around the country.
Among the adult there whose daughters have been trekking excitedly back to Shawbrook for the four years since its inception, the consensus was that the Dawson’s hardly break even financially. For the first year, recalled Mrs Pauline O’Brien, mother of Niamh, the fee was something ludicrous like £38; someone else thought that it might have been £20. This year, reflecting perhaps the high cost of the extraordinary development taking root around the farmyard, the cost is up to£80 for the week.
For that, the girls get to sleep on mattresses in a loft; eat food which they all agree is ‘brilliant’ and get to gaze for long intervals on Philip, spouse of Anica, a conservation-minded, dairy farmer, master builder, stained-glass artist, tuck-shop supplier and barbecue administrator. Philip is indubitably a hefty percentage of the annual treat – along with, of course, some highly intensive and deadly serious ballet practice.
An eating area has been carved out of what was a ‘building site’ last year and at the back, building work is in progress which impresses even those who have grown accustomed to Philip Dawson’s Grand Schemes. At this stage the half-built stone edifice could, in fact, be mistaken for an old ruin. But it was built only in the past month using the old stone from the crumbling workhouse in Ballymahon.
This –when completed promises to be a spectacular dining and living area for the students with a huge fireplace, wall-sized windows to one side and Dawson’s own stained-glass fitted into the slits for atmosphere.
So far, the 40-ft dance studio-cum-theatre is the piece de resistance of the whole. Built in a corn store dating from around 1850, it is convertible into a theatre by virtue of its ingenious winch-controlled tiered seating which rises majestically to the ceiling when no longer needed. The dance space boasts sprung maple flooring and a sophisticated light and sound system which Dawson describes as ‘just wiring.’ The labour is almost entirely his own.
In this environment, according to several sets of parents, the girls really blossom. From the first item on the 45-minute programme, entitled ‘invitation to dance,’ with music by Berliotz to the funky ‘sleaze alley’ number with music by Paul Hardcastle (in which sultry, pouting females play the stereotypical passive role to the ‘male’ hounds), they demonstrate astounding maturity and strength before an audience that included Martin Drury, education officer with the Arts Council.
Emotions were high, giggling voluble and relentless as they prepared to scatter from Wexford to Donegal. None of them labour under the illusion that a ballet dancer’s life is an easy one. They have only to turn to local girl Penny Wilson from Longford town, for reminders of the grind. With no residential ballet school in this country where a young girl may pursue her academic studies alongside her ballet training, Anica Dawson’s pupils are shepherded to Yorkshire where for the first few years they live with a ballet mistress whose tyrannical streak is legendary.
For Penny, though now into her third year and living outside of the ballet mistresses’ clutches, the daily grind is unchanged: the day being at 9.30 and goes on to 9.30pm with at two to three hour break in the afternoon. This goes on six days a week. Fees are £360 a term and living expenses go on top of that. But the magical precedents are there. Penny was Shawbrook girl from the age of seven; a previous Shawbrook graduate made it into the English National Ballet Company after only three years . . .
Like, a bush fire, word has spread through the country. In the first week of the summer school, tailored for children from 11 to 13, candidates had to be turned away for lack of places.
Philip Dawson might not have made a profit from the tuck shop but the man who met Anica Louw in the Karoo Desert where she was teaching in South Africa nearly 13 years ago and wanted to marry her there and then has managed to keep his feet on the ground. The ballet school project has developed its own momentum and though it threatens to swamp the cows, he is much too level-headed to jeopardize the family income.

Copyright Irish Times
(Accompaning photo of Anica Dawson with three of her pupils at the Shawbrook School of Dance in Co Westmeath, by William Farrell)

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