writers on dancing


Looking for the New

“The Four Seasons”
Birmingham Royal Ballet
Birmingham, England
March 9 – 12 2005 and touring

by John Percival
copyright ©2005 by John Percival

When David Bintley took over as director of Birmingham Royal Ballet ten years ago, he declared that his intention was to run a creative company, and despite the notorious difficulty of attracting audiences to unfamiliar work, he has succeeded. Of course BRB has its three big Tchaikovsky ballets, its “Giselle” and “Coppelia”, but they don’t hog the repertory. Most performances comprise works created within the lifetime of many supporters, and a good proportion of them specially made for Birmingham. Take this year’s spring and summer seasons, for instance: only one big dramatic ballet, Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet”, and a profusion of mixed bills including four creations plus the first British production of the recreated Nijinsky “Rite of Spring”. Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, John Cranko and Hans van Manen are represented, and Bintley modestly features only one of his own works, a revision of “Les Petits Riens” which he made for the Royal Ballet School in the early 1990s.

Bintley admits that he surprised himself with the discovery that – unlike many director-choreographers – he actually likes running a company. And he has surprised many others by his taste for looking both back and forward. It is thanks to him that apparently forgotten ballets by the Royal’s founder choreographers, Ninette de Valois’s “The Prospect Before Us” and Ashton’s “Dante Sonata” have been reinstated, and his plans for the next couple of years include several revivals from the Sadler’s Wells heritage: “Checkmate” and “The Rake’s Progress” by de Valois, Cranko’s “Brouillards”, “Card Game” and “The Lady and the Fool”, also MacMillan’s “Solitaire”. (Ashton, as you know, has already been richly celebrated for his centenary.) And that’s besides cooperating with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in an ambitious plan to perform, on stage or in concerts, the entire works of Stravinsky.

To create new works, Bintley wants to continue inviting outside choreographers, but he lays even more importance on finding and building up new choreographers within the company – a policy started in its earliest days and continued ever since. All the imminent and current creations arise from that. But there’s a problem: money. BRB’s biggest source of subsidy, the Arts Council, has had to pass on the effect of its government grant being frozen, and with inflation, that is in practical terms a cut. Likewise the funding from Birmingham City Council is cut back. And when the Board and the management are faced with cuts, the cost of new productions has to seem more expendable than other expenditures. So, brilliantly, Bintley has launched the BRB Director’s Appeal to bring in new funds specifically for new work. Before every performance he speaks to the audience and explains that he needs £150,000 a year, so he is seeking a thousand donors to give £150 each. And, amazingly, in the first couple of weeks he’s already got half of his needs for this year. You must remember too that in Britain we cannot offset this generosity against tax.

In this context, note that the spring triple bill includes a new work by Oliver Hindle, a former company member (1987-99) who began choreography as a young dancer and is now a busy freelance dance-maker, also running his own graphic design company. For the company’s 1998 choreographic performance he contributed the Summer section to a jointly made production of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”, and now he has undertaken the other sections. His Summer was based on memories of a hot childhood summer largely spent swimming, so he has added three further sports: tennis for Spring, horse racing for Autumn, and of course skating for Winter. The dances include relevant movements stylised into ballet sequences, and Hindle explains that “one of my influences was how sport is shown on television. I wanted to include an interpretation of techniques such as repeating a moment, changing camera angles, slowing the film down and use of freeze-frame.”

The result is interesting although uneven. The best sections, for me, are Summer with its three women held in swimming poses by their partners, and a gymnastic sequence in Autumn (explained by relating the wooden “horses” they jump over to the imaginary horses of the jockeys). By quick costume changes he secures the effect of a large cast with just seven women and nine men. The dances fit the music well enough, and the audience appeared gratified.

With this came two revivals from the repertoire. In Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” I saw a promising cast making their debuts. Iain Mackay both dances and partners strongly, and needs only a little more depth to his acting of the title role, while Asta Bazeviciúte’s long legs and expressive hands might have been made for the Siren. Then a tumultuous account of Twyla Tharp’s demanding choreography and Philip Glass’s powerful music for “In the Upper Room”: a tremendous experience that brought the house down.



Volume 3, No. 11
March 14, 2005

copyright ©2005 John Percival


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