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David Bintley
David Bintley

Photo: Bill Cooper

David Bintley and Birmingham Royal Ballet
"A Tradition of Niceness"

by Patricia Boccadoro

BIRMINGHAM, England, 26 April 2000 - Approaching the Birmingham Hippodrome from the Ring Road, a spaghetti junction of appalling complexity, a maze of modern buildings looming above dark Victorian relics unfolded with frightening indifference. But it was here, in the heart of Britain's industrial centre, that the far-seeing municipal authorities invited Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet, perhaps better known as the Royal Ballet's " second company",to establish themselves permanently ten years ago.

But the world outside vanished the instant I set foot inside the theatre. Here was light and warmth in addition to enormous excitement, and the magic began to work even before the curtain went up. Elbowing her way through the expectant jostling crowds, eager for their tickets, programmes, coffee, sandwiches, and show, the harassed usherette showed me to my seat with a wry smile, "Ah," she said, "it's just one of them days, luv ", which it certainly was. The anticipation of the capacity crowd was at its height for the matinée performance of David Bintley's new ballet, Arthur Part 1, before the closure of the theatre for renovation. Arthur Part II is being planned for the re-opening of the building next year.

Since his appointment as artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet in August 1995, Bintley and his dancers have won the devotion of their public by staging works which not only stimulate and challenge the audience, but also entertain.

"I 'm a maker of ballets, and I want them to reach out to people and make their lives happier", Bintley, an outgoing and approachable person, told me backstage after the performance." I'm interested in what dance can relate, and my ballets always have something to say. I do what I want to do, and luckily it's what people want to see.......most of them anyway."

The director with the instinctive sense of what will please his audience was born in the north of England just over forty years ago, and trained at the Royal Ballet school in the golden days of Fonteyn and Nureyev, Sibley and Dowell. More importantly, he grew up familiar with the works of Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan.

"I was with this company for ten years when it was Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet based in London", Bintley said, "but when I was first asked to take over the troupe, I refused. It was only after a few years freelancing, I realised that the only way to get what I really wanted, the dancers I wanted to work with and the repertoire within which to place my own work, was to be a director. I wanted to take control of my career myself, and although the first year was quite scary, I learned fast."

While the dancers are of many nationalities, the common factor is that approximately seventy percent of them trained at the Royal Ballet school, and those who were not are people who had enjoyed working with Bintley before he took over the company when illness forced Peter Wright to retire.

"When I arrived, the troupe was a little run-down because there was no director, and vacancies had been left at the top that the younger dancers weren't ready to fill. Since I'd been choreographing abroad for many years and had made many contacts, I brought principal dancers with me for immediate impact, to show the troupe the standard I wanted.

The result is that most of the company are here because I asked them, and because they want to be, so a very special atmosphere which can't be manufactured has developed over the years. I feel right here, it's a very supportive company, and despite speculation in the press, that's one of the reasons I'm not in the running for the directorship of Covent Garden."

David Bintley's approach to dance is essentially British in the sense that he likes to tell a story and convey an emotion, creating works around subjects which reflect the culture he knows and understands best.

"I've been inspired by Hardy's novels and works like King Arthur, Edward II, Hobson's Choice. We have a fascinating history, but I'm virtually the only choreographer coming out of the Royal Ballet who is continuing the tradition of Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan. My roots go back to John Cranko whose style remained typically English, even when he was working in Germany , and I'm carrying on because dance here is fairly unique and can't be compared to what is happening elsewhere. I think things have gone a little off-track today, with a drive towards homogeneity, and too many choreographers creating modern works because that's what the critics seem to be clamouring for."

Bintley is not afraid of challenges, and favours bold sagas inspired by stories, myths, and legends, as well as by his dancers, pieces of music, and everyday life, and while his company still perform the nineteenth century classics, these tend to serve more as yardsticks for technique and style.

"We are a classical company working on pointe, using a classical language, and very strong on style, but we don't do endless Nutcrackers' and « Swan Lakes any more , preferring works which have been handed down to us by Ashton, Balanchine, Cranko, de Valois, MacMillan, Robbins and Tudor, together with new productions we mount here", he said. "I always have a jumble of big long-term projects turning around in my head but I've a pretty good idea of what an audience wants, and am aware of how easy it is to bore them."

Boredom must be the last thing his audience suffers from ! Spectators were delighted with Hobson's Choice (1989), based on a comedy by Harold Brighthouse , the full-length dramatic work, Far from the Madding Crowd (1996), the popular ballet, Edward II (1995) adapted from Marlowe's play, and spoiled by his recent success, The Nutcracker Sweeties which revolutionises the traditional Nutcracker, using Duke Ellington's jazz version of the score.

Kevin O'Hare in Edward II

Photo: Bill Cooper

And after the performance I attended, the public was vociferously appreciative of Arthur Part 1, which Bintley told me he'd been planning all his life.

"I was a fan of Arthur as a child. I loved stories of old castles, dungeons, legends, and even though it was very ambitious, I knew there was a ballet there. The problem was that no director would take the risk of combining two full-length pieces on two evenings, and even I couldn't work out where the split in the story would come. But when we wanted to plan something special for the millennium, I thought, ha, I'm the director now, and I went and wrote the scenario in one and a half hours ! That was in 1995."

"Arthur is fascinating, and although it all happened fifteen hundred years ago, the dilemmas are completely modern. My ballet begins with a column of refugees leaving a ruined village, which is only too relevant to today. Dance should be an essential part of our lives, it isn't just entertainment."

David Bintley is a great believer in choreographers leading companies. "Over the past few years", he explained, "there's been a fashion of troupes being led by star dancers rather than by those who have learnt people-management skills, and in many cases, this hasn't been entirely satisfactory. An understanding of choreography is invaluable, be it only in having an eye for the right dancer in the right role. It's necessary to have a real artistic judgement ; every company is a reflection of the person who leads it, and the people they surround themselves with », an oblique reference to his strong staff who have worked together for over twenty years and who not only know their job, but are part of the great feeling the company has, which he described as "a tradition of niceness".

"I've worked with many companies abroad, including San Francisco, and Stuttgart, where I was very happy, but I had three weeks in hell at the Paris Opéra in 1984 or '5. Rudolf Nureyev invited me to create a work for them, but when I turned up, the company didn't because they'd been given the day off, and then, even when they were there, the principal dancers had had a row and wouldn't speak to each other. Rudolf had gone somewhere, and they deliberately set out to cause trouble. Two camps formed on either side of me, communicating by sign language through me ! But worse followed when no one at all turned up for rehearsal the following day, and I sat twiddling my thumbs until the cleaner arrived to tell me the whole lot of them had gone on tour to Venice !

The organisation was non-existent, the bureaucracy unbelievable, and the rules and regulations were like a bad joke. I don't know how Rudolf managed. On the positive side, I met Charles Jude who was absolutely delightful.", said Bintley.

Tours remain an essential part of BRB, both to the provinces, and overseas, and Bintley told me of the pleasure it was to be the first big European company to go to South Africa after apartheid, performing in all the main cities for three weeks, and then visiting the townships for a massive education and outreach programme.

"I want to make dance accessible to everyone, and open it up to new audiences", he told me. "I make ballets which we take to schools so they can become part of children's education ; it validates what I do and I relish the links we have with many areas of Birmingham's life . The city council here lay colossal importance upon the arts , but at the same time, their determination for us to be part of the fabric of the city isn't onerous, and we have happily become a fundamental part of the city's life."

"Birmingham", he boasted, "is a wonderful place to live. It's a city with more trees than people, one of the greenest cities in Europe . I walk to my work, have the Symphony Hall just down the road, yet get squirrels and foxes in my back garden."

As he spoke, I became distinctly aware of the very strong local identity of Birmingham Royal Ballet, and recalled the lively faces and animated conversations of the crowds pouring out of the Hippodrome earlier. The fate of Arthur was a subject that was going to eclipse any other subject of conversation of many households for the best part of the following year, at least until the theatre re-opens with the second half of the story. Smiling spectators left the theatre uplifted and enthusiastic, and few noticed the damp foggy weather, and rain that had been drizzling since morning.

Tour dates :

Royal Opera House, London
May 30 - June 10 2000 : Giselle , Arthur Part 1
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue/The Shakespeare Suite/The Nutcracker Sweeties

Lowry Centre, Salford
June 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 2000 : Giselle , Slaughter on Tenth Avenue/The Shakespeare Suite/The Nutcracker Sweeties

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance from Paris. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for

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