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David Bintley, Artistic Director, Birmingham Royal Ballet

Unapologetic about ballet

by Ana Abad-Carles

January 25, 2005 -- Birmingham

David Bintley, Director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet gave an interview to Ballet-Dance Magazine shortly after the second Rural Retreat organised by DanceEast in the UK. The interview took place in Birmingham, where Bintley was more than kind to give us some of his time to answer questions about the Retreats and to share his views on the present and future of ballet.

Bintley started his career in 1976 with Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (presently Birmingham Royal Ballet) and it was for that company that he started to choreograph professionally. He then moved into the Royal Ballet, where he developed his talent through numerous works for the company though he still managed to create more works for Sadler’s Wells, like his famous "Hobson’s Choice".

After leaving the Royal Ballet, he went on to choreograph for other companies, most notably Stuttgart Ballet, where he created "Edward II". After becoming director of BRB in 1995, Bintley established the company at the centre of the city’s cultural and artistic life thanks to his innovative programmes of community and educational work, adventurous and balanced repertoire, and by providing the city with a company that was open, accessible and dynamic.

AA: When the first Rural Retreats took place in 2003, it was an unprecedented achievement. Were there any causes for concern in the ballet world that prompted the success of the initiative?

DB: I don’t think there was any reason or huge problem that made people come. A lot of the praise must go to Assis Carreiro, because it was really her idea. I think she was so persuasive that you read the list of directors and you couldn’t say no, because all these people were getting together and you just had to be there! She very cleverly put it at the perfect time of the year, because everybody’s got “Nutcracker hangover”… everybody is free. So, that’s why the first one happened, definitely.

How important do you think an initiative of this kind was for the ballet world?

I think, potentially, very important because we offered a powerful and truly international body of people. I’m also hoping that there will be some action taken with regards to some of the things that we discussed at the last Rural Retreat, like the problem that affected the directors in Scandinavian companies, where dancers are given life-time contracts. It’s difficult when you have dancers in the corps de ballet level who are 45 years old… and now they are talking into extending it into 67. This is madness. Given that we are part of a larger Europe now, this is something that could spread to all the companies. I think that at some point we have to come together and, as a body, make it clear that this is not the kind of profession that you could do that in. This is a very physical occupation and whilst I’m all in for keeping people in dance for as long as possible, you can’t have every dancer in the company until they are 67. It’s just not sustainable. We are a company of 60 dancers and if everyone in my company was going to work until they are 45, then, within the next 20 years, I would not have a contract available for anybody, because nobody would leave. The companies that do this are large and that’s the only way you can sustain it. The fact is that ballet is ballet, and it’s a very difficult physical profession.

In Birmingham, you pioneered innovative educational projects, initiatives to increase access to new audiences as well as choreographic schemes. Did you feel during the first Rural Retreats that you had covered much of the territory the initiative intended or that there was still much to be done for your own company?

Oh definitely! Sometimes those things came up in the general discussions and quite often they came up in situations that were one to one. The tremendous thing is that what we do is fairly lonely - it’s fairly isolated. There’s nobody that really understands what you have to do and what you have to cope with. When I go there, and especially the second time, it’s just like being in a room full of soul mates! Every single person is the same as you and has the same job, the same feelings and problems; no matter how different the company is. It’s really fantastic! I did the weekend and I came back and I was just absolutely buzzing. Also, there’s very little ego and that, I think, is the recognition of the fact that those people, without exception, are all extremely intelligent and able to be very vocal for the art form. And we need to be vocal for the art form - we need to be able to say what it’s about, what it means, why people shouldn’t stop grants. It’s not enough to be just nice dancers, but to be able to speak.

It’s important because ballet has often been accused of not being very articulate.

I think it’s fantastic to know that all around the world there are really very clever and articulate people fighting for their art form. It’s not a chance to moan.  It’s good ideas going backwards and forwards. Sometimes they’re big ideas - ways that people raise money or bring the public into contact with the company. Sometimes, they’re very little ideas: little details about how people talk to people and I find that interesting. So it was great!

What were the biggest differences between the first Rural Retreats and this second one?

Hugely different. In the first one we tried to talk about too much, so we didn’t get in depth. Also, a lot of people didn’t know what it was going to be like, so it was much more kind of nervy … This time round it was perfect, I mean, the location, what we got through, the amount of time … The fact that maybe three quarters of the people had done the last retreat made everybody feel just instantly relaxed. Also, last time, there were some directors who were just about to start and there were a couple who were just on their way out. On the whole, this time round, nobody was very new and nobody was on their way out … it was very balanced.

Do you think it would be good to open RR to press or public by means of a forum or a similar initiative?

No, I think it would be a terrible idea. Of course, people want to know what is going on, but the main thing is that you only get a really frank, fresh, open discussion where people have the opportunity to be wrong or to be corrected, if you have privacy. If you didn’t have that, nothing would be talked about. We’re coming from lots of criticism and if you opened that up to the press or any kind of media, they could very easily use it in a very destructive way. I think I could speak for anybody there. I know that in the first retreat people were very anxious about what was going to be released, because we have to be careful in what we say in public. So, no, it would kill it, I’m afraid.

There are plans for other Retreats to cover different areas of work within the world of dance …

Yes, but what we have to make sure is that other areas don’t take the place of the artistic directors’, because I think that, in the end, we are the most important people. It’s up to us to make sure that the training is right. It’s up to us to commission the new work, to develop the choreographers, to keep the art form in the public’s perception … that’s our jobs. So, I think that it’s important that the artistic directors’ retreat is top of the list because as the years go on the effectiveness will increase. It’s already been said that if this is a bi-annual event, we should have more regional meetings, annually. That’s something I would be very keen to do. We have a lot to talk about as well and if you do it in the right atmosphere and circumstances, it can be fantastic. If you don’t, then it just becomes politics. You’ll only get a meaningful dialogue if it is completely removed from the public eye.

One of the key issues in both Rural Retreats has been the fostering of new classical choreographers. Through your own experience, what do you think prompted the gradual slowing down in creativity in the ballet scene?

I think there was a period when it seemed to me that the companies in Britain didn’t have a lot of money to take risks, during the eighties and early nineties. The creative drive of the Royal Ballet became very secondary to the promotion of its stars, so the opportunity for new work dried up. Then, you have this company moving from London to Birmingham, and in its first 5 years here, it did very little new work because they were trying to establish the company.

I suppose it is reasonable to presume that the best way to do that is with a safer repertoire. You certainly don’t want to be building an audience in a city where you’ve just moved to by doing a lot of very risky new work. With all of those factors combined, there was a kind of gap between the end of one generation and what the next generation was able to do. There are quite a few choreographers now: Christopher Wheeldon is doing very well, Mathew Hart started off very well, Christopher Hampson at English National Ballet … I think there are a few people working successfully in classical dance. But certainly, from '85 to '95, it was not a good climate. And then, if audiences do not see new work, they become impervious to the pleasures of it. It just becomes a vicious circle and you end up with Baryshnikov’s "Don Quixote" at the Royal Opera House and you wonder why we’ve arrived at that point.

In the last press release there was a point that said that the gathering agreed to “work in partnership with other companies and organisations to campaign for increased investment in the creative process”. At present arts organisations are being encouraged to do this from governments and European initiatives. What do you think is the reason behind this urge?

I think it’s all so that governments don’t have to give us money! We’ve had that for ages - all that “you’ve got to do more work but, by the way, you’re going to get less money”. It doesn’t work! One of the German directors was saying that in Germany now, they take a ballet company which is struggling and they reduce it from 60 or 70 dancers down to 20 and they make it Tanztheatre. Then, the audiences stop going, because most of it is rubbish, and then the people who are giving the money go and say: “oh, well nobody is interested” and they close it.

I think that common sense by and large prevails in this country, so I’m not that fearful. And yet, we are so easily relegated because of the ignorance of people, because we get labels from the gutter press saying that we’re an irrelevance and elitist and so expensive … You get tired with that kind of thing. But then, governments can do anything they like to us, really. So it’s worrying.

New technologies are changing and reshaping the world on an everyday basis. Considering those things, what are in your opinion the challenges that ballet faces in the 21st century?

Well, that’s a very complicated question in all sorts of respects. I think any art form has to reflect the age it lives in, so the impact of what is happening in the world has to be reflected in what we do. But, perhaps because of my age or my bias, I often say that I can get out a DVD and watch any film and then get the same DVD a week later and don’t even remember having seen it! But, you tell me any performance I’ve ever seen in my entire life and I think I can remember it, including some that I even don’t want to remember. I’ve never had something communicated through mechanical means that would beat performances that I’ve seen and which are gone and that you’ll never see again. That’s the absolute magic and beauty of it. If the whole world came to an end and all the power ran out or anything like that … we’d still have live theatre. That’s a philosophy, rather than a solution… that’s how I feel. I just love live theatre and I know that other people do … it’s getting them there the very first time, that’s the problem. You have to make a sacrifice to get out and to participate. It’s more of an effort than just turning a knob.

Finally, are you optimistic about the future of ballet? What would your wish be for the future of the art form?

I’m very optimistic about the future of ballet. There are more people who watch ballet every week than all other dance forms combined. I also feel that in ballet there is a language, and I don’t think you can say that particularly of many other dance forms that are actively changing themselves all the time. I consider that I work with the same language as Petipa, with Ashton, with MacMillan … If I don’t have dancers who can do "Swan Lake" or "Sleeping Beauty", who haven’t got that level of technique or that kind of technique, then as a creator I’m stuffed, because that’s the language that I work in. I think that it should be highlighted that, interestingly, the Retreat is for ballet, not dance. I think it’s partly the recognition of the fact that the language is the same internationally. Ballet is unique from that respect. The fact that the language has taken us from the early part of the 19th century and it’s been through revolutions and world wars… it’s covered every aspect of life and it still does. That’s a pretty extraordinary language, isn’t it?

Yes, and it’s interesting to hear it because ballet went through a time when it seemed to be very apologetic about itself.

I think it did because there were a lot of foolish people who spoke very critically of it. The predictions of its imminent demise, during the 70s and 80s… Well, what a nonsense! Thirty years later it’s still as strong. All the time going on about “it’s a dying art form”… so yes, of course it got apologetic and almost politically incorrect to even say “ballet”, you had to say “dance”… One of the things that I would like to say is that: “could we not talk about the war between modern dance and classical ballet?” Because it’s so boring and it’s not brought up by people in the profession, but by people on the outskirts - by people who write about dance, by critics, by people awarding prizes and foundations... And when it becomes political, it becomes very dangerous. People should just recognise the difference and admire it and enjoy it!

Indeed. Thank you very much for your time and for sharing your thoughts with us.

Edited by Jeff.

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