On pointe for unique Belfast ballet inspired by The Peace People

New ballet White Doves will take to the stage in Belfast this summer telling the story behind the first march for peace in 1976 and its impact on our future. Jenny Lee finds out more from Co Derry co-creator and choreographer Ruaidhrí Maguire...

White Doves is a new ballet telling the story of the formation of The Peace People
White Doves is a new ballet telling the story of the formation of The Peace People

THE historic events which led to the formation of The Peace People are being woven together using dance and music for a first-of-its-kind performance in Northern Ireland.

White Doves is the first new ballet created by local artists for a Belfast stage and puts Belfast at the centre of its story. A collaboration between Co Derry choreographer Ruaidhrí Maguire and Co Down composer Amelia Clarkson, the production gazes back on our history to look towards the future.

"There is a canon of iconic story ballets set in countries across the world. I think it's important to give Belfast its own story through dance," says Moneymore professional ballet dancer Ruaidhrí, who founded Six Dance Collective with an aim to bring contemporary stories to audiences through ballet.

Co Derry professional ballet dancer and choreographer Ruaidhrí Maguire
Co Derry professional ballet dancer and choreographer Ruaidhrí Maguire

White Doves takes audiences back to the summer of 1976 to follow Mairead Maguire, Betty Williams, Ciaran McKeown and the people of Belfast on their journey towards the first march for peace.

Following performances of his choreography across Poland, Japan and the UK, Ruaidhrí is delighted to be premiering White Doves at The MAC in Belfast this August.

"Irish culture, for me, is based on traditions of storytelling and we have such a rich history worth exploring.

"For a long time at home, we have missed out on important evolutionary periods for dance. That's why it's important to me that the first performance of my work in Belfast is a story about home, created and performed by both local and international artists. We hope this story will reach people who maybe wouldn't otherwise choose dance."

In the year we have marked the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Ruaidhrí believes that the story of The Peace People is more relevant than ever for today's society.

Co Down composer Amelia Clarkson provides a new score for White Doves
Co Down composer Amelia Clarkson provides a new score for White Doves

"Both myself and Amelia were born a couple of years just before the Good Friday Agreement, so we are part of the generation who have grown up in this era and see it in action. Enough time has passed to reflect on the different journeys people have made to get to this point.

"The Peace People story resonates because it was born from normal people and shows that ordinary people do have a voice. Dance transcends language, and this story lends itself well as we can show physically the emotions around this quest for peace through a mix of narrative moments layered with abstract explorations in our dove characters."

He was grateful to get the blessing and support of The Peace People, including Mairead Maguire- Corrigan, during the creation of the work.

"They were very receptive to the idea, especially with the message that we're trying to present – that the journey towards peace still needs work."

In development since 2020, White Doves includes a new score by composer Amelia Clarkson. As the 60th Mendelssohn Scholar, she is fast emerging as a rising voice in new music, with recent performances including those by Crash Ensemble, Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble, the Royal Air Force and at Opera Holland Park.

"Writing music for dance is the most rewarding part of my job. Every single moment of White Doves is shaped and moulded between us, with collaboration right at the heart of the project," says Amelia.

Under the baton of conductor Jonathan Mann, the music will be performed live at every performance by an ensemble of classical musicians.

"Live music is integral. The unique nature of White Doves means I'm using the score to blend two completely different worlds for the audience as they experience the story on stage."

Ruaidhrí trained with the Central School of Ballet in London, before joining Milwaukee Ballet II (USA), Ballet Victoria (Canada) and Baltic Opera Ballet (Poland).

Drawing on his experience as a classical dancer, his choreography uses a highly athletic and intricate movement style to combine narrative scenes from history with abstract bird imagery.

"There will be no tutus in sight. For me, ballet is about storytelling without words: to show emotion through the body's strength and individual physicality."

Whilst the principal male dancer has yet to be confirmed, the leading female dove will be performed by Scottish-Italian dancer Danila Marzilli. Danila was a BBC Young Dancer of the Year finalist in 2019 and is now dancing at Baltic Opera Ballet. Joining the two leads will be a junior company of 26 young pre-professional dancers from across the island.

Ruaidhrí is passionate about passing on his experiences to the next generation of dancers, having led masterclasses across the world.

"I'm proud to be able to showcase the wealth of emerging local talent on stage alongside two seasoned classical dancers. The auditions were amazing – it was great to see how many aspiring dancers there are across the island.

"The three-weeks of rehearsals will be intense, similar to what a professional company experiences as they prepare for a series of performances. I have every confidence in the junior company to embody this story and perform at a really high level."

The 29-year old admits he had envisaged a career in musical theatre, until seeing a video of the great Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta made him pursue a career in ballet.

White Doves is a collaboration between Co Derry choreographer Ruaidhrí Maguire and Co Down composer Amelia Clarkson
White Doves is a collaboration between Co Derry choreographer Ruaidhrí Maguire and Co Down composer Amelia Clarkson

"There were very few ballet opportunities in Ireland, when I got to  go to the National Youth Ballet of Great Britain and the whole world opened up to me and I just worked really hard."

He is just finishing up his sixth year as principal dancer with Baltic Opera Ballet, where this season he danced leading roles in Giselle, Don Quixote and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Ruaidhrí's advice to aspiring young dancers is to "keep working hard, little by little, one day at a time".

"The dance world is changing and celebrating different strengths. Believe in yourself and be yourself. Don't try to be an imitation of someone else. Oh and stretch your knees," he adds.

Whilst he isn't hanging up his pointe shoes quite yet, Ruaidhrí is enjoying choreography and hopes to continue to make new work with Six Dance Collective and bring ballet to new audiences.

"Yes. I would love to show some of the classical ballet works, but I also want to show more human stories – stories that affect people daily, such as relationships and how we look at ourselves.

"One of the main goals of Six Dance Collective is to make ballet a more accessible and adventurous art form. It still has this stigma of being 'uppity' and reserved for the middle to upper classes: but ballet is a wonderful way to tell stories and connect with people through physical representation."

White Doves runs for four performances at the MAC from August 3-5. Tickets are available now at themaclive.com/event/white-doves-a-new-ballet.