Monica Loughman Ballet Bring Giselle to the Lyric

The former prima ballerina from Dublin brings a traditional version of Giselle to the Lyric Theatre

Ballet is the most recent art form to have had the reality TV treatment, via the Big Ballet series on ITV, in which some frankly un-svelte but enthusiastic dancers put on moving excerpts from Swan Lake.

Supporting them – not literally but with advice and, of course, the obligatory mentoring – were dance legend Wayne Sleep and Dubliner Monica Loughman, who is bringing her standard-sized version of Petipa's Giselle to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast for two performances on April 4 and 5.

Dressed in a practical Aran sweater and jeans covering the long slim legs of the prima ballerina, Loughman reveals that she fell into her chosen discipline young but was not a prodigy. 'I'm the youngest of three daughters and mum took us all to ballet lessons,' she says, 'not Irish dance, as she thought it was a bit classy.

'I don't think I was particularly talented when I started at the age of four,' she adds candidly, 'but I had a nice body, lots of energy and was very flexible.' As she says, with ballet it is easy to get hooked.

Loughman's early influences in the form were nothing if not eclectic. 'I was lucky, as it was the era of Flashdance and Dirty Dancing, so culturally it was a good time for dance. But in ballet you can be a swan, it's elegant and you get to wrap your legs round your ears.'

Loughman's 'holy trinity' are Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Makarova. 'I've seen Natalia Makarova dance and worked with her. I was in the pas de trois in Swan Lake in the O2 in Dublin. The woman was quite scary and very disciplined.' Loughman then notes with a smile that Mikhail Baryshnikov is on her bucket list and that she intends to meet him one day.

Loughman's brilliant dancing career began in the 1990s, when she auditioned for the Perm Ballet School, one of Russia's oldest, which dates back to 1870. It is closely linked to Tchaikovsky's output, given that the famed composer was born in the area. 'The director of the school came over to Ireland, at that point the only untapped place in Europe in terms of ballet,' Loughman recalls. 'At 11 I was too young, but the next time they came over, I was picked.'

There was an extra frisson for the young dancer as her second audition marked the first time she'd even been able to do a successful triple pirouette. When Loughman headed to the ballet school in Perm hard by the Ural Mountains, something fundamental altered in her attitude, as she explains.

'Something just changed and I knuckled down. I was at the school for three years and as we were only 200 metres from the theatre, we could attend all the performances. There was this intense feeling of watching three different ballets a week. We got the atmosphere and the smell of performance.'

The appeal of being the star in the middle of all this – the prima ballerina – was, in Loughman's words, tangible. 'The ballerinas received flowers and were the main eye catchers. Here in all parts of Ireland, North, South, East and West, we didn't understand the culture or know what ballet could bring.'

At 16, Loughman got her job with the Perm company and picked up job offers, though luck played a part in the beginning: 'I stumbled into the senior class at 15. They thought I was 17. We all looked the same, I suppose, straight up and down.'

Although she was gaining plaudits for her dancing ability, it was a tough time emotionally. 'There were ten Irish girls in the school but it was very lonely. And if you headed for the top of the pack, you weren't popular, although we're all friends now.'

Loughman reached another stage in her career when she found the starring roles had become a little repetitive. 'I'd got the flowers and the attentiion when I had my first principal role at 24. It was a good experience but doing Swan Lake for the fourth time, it was the same, like putting on a DVD of the performance. I knew it was over.'

So, after her mother died, Loughman returned to Ireland and discovered a renewed enthusiasm for dance. These days the now mother of four-year-old Damien (the son she had with Russian ballet star Robert Gabdullin), is passionate about teaching. She set aside her prima ballerina role for a new vocation: 'I could explain things to people easily and I was really good at teaching.'

The prestigious Monica Loughman Ballet company may compensate for the fact that Ireland, alone among the chief European countries, does not boast a national ballet company. 'I want to set something in motion,' says its founder. 'After all, in the Republic of Ireland around 25,000 young people do ballet. When my company put on four performances of The Nutracker, we attracted 8,000 people over a weekend. There is the demand.'

The production of Giselle that Loughman is bringing to the Lyric Theatre is a traditional version of Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier's tale of supernatural powers, redemptive love, loss and sacrifice

'You will see a very old version as it would have been portrayed 40 years ago,' Loughman adds, 'although the dancers are modern and athletic in their approach. I've danced every role in Giselle, from Myrtle and Giselle to the back corps de ballet. I know every note, every step and that's why I wanted to put it on.'

Monica Loughman Ballet performs Giselle at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from April 4 – 5.