Interview: David Bintley: A lifetime of outstanding achievement - Part One

Tuesday 10 March 2015 by Graham Watts

David Bintley in rehearsal with Delia Mathews. Photo: Andrew Ross

In 2000, David Bintley was the first winner of the De Valois Award for Outstanding Achievement, the highest accolade in British dance, usually given to honour a lifetime of outstanding service. Fast forward 15 years and the man who was once resident choreographer at The Royal Ballet is still remarkably youthful – and still at the artistic helm of Birmingham Royal Ballet. For four years (until May 2014) he also gave artistic leadership to the National Ballet of Japan, while still running the company in Birmingham.

This year, Bintley celebrates 20 years as the BRB’s director, just as the company, which had previously been the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, marks its 25th anniversary in Birmingham. In this anniversary year, nineteen years since it was last seen in London, Bintley is reviving Carmina Burana , his very first piece for BRB, which will be shown as part of a double bill – with George Balanchine’s Serenade – at the London Coliseum from 19 – 22 March.

Graham Watts went to Birmingham to talk to the evergreen director and choreographer. This first instalment of a two part interview covers his career, the traditions of British Ballet and his views on what makes a happy company. The second part concentrates on the revival of Carmina Burana his views on the critics and London-centric ballet.

Twenty years in one job, although you’ve had another alongside it for a while. How do you keep fresh?
The other job helped. You have to keep questioning if you’re happy in the role and are you doing a good job for the company; or are you there just for the pay cheque and security. Thankfully, I’ve never had any of my masters questioning that.

How did the Japanese job come about?
Strangely enough, it happened through Carmina. I had a great experience when they staged it in 2005 and so they asked me about something new and then Aladdin came about. During that rehearsal period they said their director was leaving and asked me if it’s possible to direct two companies simultaneously. Very cleverly, the question was not initially couched in terms of me directing two companies! My first thoughts were “is this possible”? When I realised they had me in mind, I thought that this was great timing.

I had a great relationship with them. We did co-productions; I took quite a bit of rep over there. My dancers from BRB guested in Japan and their dancers came over to dance with us. It was an “opening up”, which helped both companies a great deal.

Is it repeatable?
We’re getting a partnership going with Houston Ballet and we are thinking of doing a co-production with the Australians. This opening of lines to other companies, working with people from outside; it freshens you up – it makes you look at what you are and gives you a greater perspective on what I would call the business side of it.

Presenting the recent BBC TV programme, Dancing in the Blitz, you concluded by asserting that BRB is the repository of the tradition of British Ballet. Why is that?
I wanted to do a documentary on the war years because they cemented the company in the country’s psyche and it got this strange nation – which is usually such a philistine place – to have such a great respect for ballet, which doesn’t exist in Germany, Italy or Spain, for example.

I wanted to tie this into the legacy here at BRB because I always shaped myself around Madam [the nickname for Ninette De Valois, the founder of what became The Royal Ballet]; as well as around the idea that this company – without the financial or social cushion that surrounds the Royal Opera House – has a strong sense of that same mission.

We still have this resonant idea that we’re not just giving audiences something nice on a Saturday night: it’s an art form. So, I wanted to make the parallel between the company that danced in the blitz and our company sharing that same pioneering attitude. Touring gave an incredible bond to the company during the war and it still makes us the company that we are – very close – everyone at BRB speaks of it as “a family” and its because we spend so much time as a unit out there on the road.

But, it isn’t just about bonding, is it? It’s also to do with BRB being far more responsive to traditional British repertoire. Bringing Miracle in the Gorbals [Robert Helpmann’s 1944 ballet, recreated by BRB in 2014] back is a wonderful example of that but there are many other British ballets that you do that no-one else does. Do you see that as a special responsibility?
Yes. I wanted to see Gorbals and I knew that I was the only person that had the opportunity to do it.

You must take a lot of pride in that. You are effectively restoring lost works of art.
One of the best things that I ever did here was to restore Dante [Frederick Ashton’s Dante Sonata, his response to the outbreak of World War II]. Getting Dante back in at least 95% of the way it was created by Ashton was the same as saving a lost masterpiece. Here was a work that book-ended with Symphonic Variations: one coming right at the beginning of the war and the other at the very end.

We’re up against the problem that those who can remember these ballets are going. Gorbals was plausible only because we had a handful of people who had been in it. Although when we got them together and asked what they could remember – apart for Pauline Clayden and her two-minute “suicide” solo – they couldn’t remember a step! But, then everyone looked at each other and said: “Well, there weren’t many steps in it anyway”! And, of course the point of Gorbals was not the steps but the sense of theatre.

The other thing about Gorbals is that it restores Helpmann to British Ballet.
Yes. His centenary [in 2009] went by without much fuss. I ‘phoned the Royal Ballet and asked if they still had his Hamlet [1948] because I was really interested in that but they had got rid of it, which is really not forward-thinking at all. If you want to eradicate ballets then there are plenty that can be got rid of but a heritage ballet like that with those great designs? I would certainly have kept that.

You’re pairing Carmina Burana with Serenade, which emphasises how carefully preserved is George Balanchine’s repertoire. Why haven’t we done the same with our great choreographers from the early part of the history of British Ballet (De Valois, Helpmann, Ashton, Howard). There’s a tradition there that is in serious danger of being lost, isn’t there…
One very important thing is to be sure that these things are done well. A lot of that is to do with the tradition of a company. I grew up doing Rendezvous, Checkmate, Rake’s Progress and many other ballets by those great choreographers. And we have never lost the tradition of those performances. Sometimes when I see some of the Ashton character stuff being done elsewhere it doesn’t work very well – it looks like 18 year-olds in elastic beards – whereas it’s second nature to us. We have always done it and we pass that on. When we do Fille [Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée] then I do the tips with the latest Widow Simone: because I performed the role and Ashton and [Michael] Soames rehearsed me. These ballets are in our living repertoire. They’re not dusted off and brought out every 20 years or so.

Madam was a huge inspiration to you. You first met her as a student?
I was always fascinated by her and by her ballets. Even when I came to the Royal Ballet School, I was aware of her work and early on in my schooldays, we were doing Satan’s solo from her ballet, Job, and I asked the teacher if we could take our socks and shoes off because I knew it was done barefoot.

So, there we were with our socks off learning the Satan solo and suddenly Madam’s face appeared at the window. I was 17 and I’d never spoken to her before. She was in her 80s but nonetheless still terrifying as she prowled around those corridors in Baron’s Court! She came in and said “it’s all wrong”! Then, she came over, took my hand and started teaching me it – me, not the class! It was like holding the hand of God. She ignored the rest of the class and just taught me the steps.

Were you terrified?
No, I was too interested in what she was saying! And I couldn’t believe that she had come across to me because I didn’t have a very good time at the Royal Ballet School. I can’t remember why she chose me but she just did. She had that instinctive thing of picking something out about someone and then they were “it”. She was like that with me for my entire career. But, she could also do the opposite. She could look at someone, take an instant dislike and be really vile towards them. I was fortunate to be one of those she took a shine to.

You have been linked to the job of directing The Royal Ballet so many times in the past. Is there anything about that job that still appeals to you or has that time been and gone?
I’m not the right person for that job. That place is so big and there are so many vested interests within it. You have to be a manager. Just like Kevin [Kevin O’Hare, the current Royal Ballet director] is now and he’s doing a fantastic job. I’m not sure that it would ever be right for a choreographer to be running that company again because there is too much water under the bridge; too much repertoire to keep alive. It just wouldn’t work.

You were once resident choreographer at The Royal Ballet but now there are several male choreographers with official titles. Is that a good thing?
As Madam one said, a company can only have one choreographer. But The Royal Ballet is a very different company now to the one I was in many years ago. I saw my career path in the mid 80s following along the lines of Ashton and MacMillan but even by that time, the nature of the company had subtly changed without us even realising it. The importance of new choreography had lessened and the emphasis was on different things.

When you started out as a choreographer, did you ever imagine that you would choreograph more full-length narrative ballets than Ashton and MacMillan put together?
Its peculiar how that shift has occured. The advent of a new full-length ballet used to be such a major event: from Cinderella in the late 40s, through Sylvia and Ondine in the 50s and then Romeo and Juliet in the 60s. These were big premieres that didn’t happen very often. But, now you have a company like Northern Ballet that can only perform full-length narrative work and does it very successfully with a great and loyal audience. And to do that you need to keep making full-length ballets, every year. The British tradition can be progressed through these new ballets although the instinct is now to go for full-length and not the short works. But, the history of British Ballet is very much tied up with the one-act repertoire.

It strikes me that one big issue is that dancers have to be capable of performing in such a significant variety of repertoire these days. It must impact upon how dancers are selected?
We don’t have the kind of numbers to play that “horses for courses” game at BRB. Last time I looked The Royal Ballet had 100 dancers. We are nominally 60 although we haven’t actually been at full capacity for awhile, partly because I can’t find people good enough.

We need greater versatility in our dancers, that’s for sure, but I think you can only have a rep that is so diverse. I don’t think you can find a dancer who can comfortably go from doing McGregor to doing De Valois. Choreography is not just about how far we can push people’s bodies. They need to be artists who bring something in that respect. That is in accord with my desire to keep great works of choreographic art alive, being able to do Miracle in the Gorbals and Checkmate, for example, where it is all about expression and feelings.

Is that how you would categorise dancers at Birmingham Royal Ballet?
Being a dancer in this company is about a whole outlook. It means to be an artist, a performer and to understand that it isn’t just about technique.

What’s the secret of a happy company?
I think a lot of that relies on believing that people are just a little bit more important than the business. I think it is partly about having 60 dancers and not 100 because people are close and dancers get chances. You can still be second year corps de ballet and do the Sugar Plum Fairy here. If you’re good enough you can get fast-tracked and none of your colleagues are going to worry about that because they’re all in the same boat.

I’ve also been fortunate in that I have been well supported. I will soon be on my third CEO and I’ve had four Chairmen. I had some issues with one Chairman but my CEO at the time protected me. That’s the most important dynamic.

The second instalment of this interview will be published next week and will focus on David Bintley’s revival of Carmina Burana, his views of critics, revisiting works and the future

Birmingham Royal Ballet, Carmina Burana and Serenade
Thu 19 – Sat 21 March, London Coliseum

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Find him on Twitter @GWDanceWriter

Birmingham Royal Ballet – Carmina burana trailer from Birmingham Royal Ballet on Vimeo.

Photo: Andrew Ross

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