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Putting the 'English' into Ballet

Birmingham Royal Ballet is often cited as being the most English of ballet companies. In 2005, David Mead talked to David Bintley about the nature of 'English' ballet and Madam's influence.

by David Mead 

Published April 2010

There is frequently a very definite ‘English’ feel to Birmingham Royal Ballet’s programming.  There have been many examples but a season in 2005 was typical: choreography by de Valois, MacMillan and Bintley, music by Bliss, Arnold and Reade, and English themes too.  And there is Cranko as well.  He may have been South African, but after moving to England at 19, he continued his studies at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School, later joining the company and working under Ninette de Valois, absorbing her methods and ideas. 

David Bintley explained this ‘Englishness’ was deliberate but for the 2005 season, like all of these things, it came together for a number of reasons.  It turned out to be a whole season of what might be called British classics. 

Leading the way was his own “Hobson’s Choice,” surely the most English of all full-length works.  Bintley has always been an admirer of John Cranko’s work and was brought up performing the likes of “Card Game,” “Pineapple Poll,” “Lady” and “Brouillards.” He explained that he had “wanted to do ‘Lady and the Fool’ for a long time” but that it needed a new design. He explained that “Lady” is quite long for a one-act ballet, around fifty minutes, and requires “a lot of tailored costumes and things” and therefore was going to be expensive.  However, the finances now allow it, so it became a question of how to build a programme around it.  He said “at one point I thought I might do a Cranko programme but then “Brouillards” came in earlier and “Card Game” will come as part of a future Stravinsky programme. 

It is difficult to talk of ‘English ballet’ without the conversation turning to Ninette de Valois, ‘Madam’ as she was widely known.  She was someone Bintley says it seems he was aware of from the very beginning, that day he got his first ever ballet book.  “There she was.  She is British ballet.  You couldn’t help but be aware of her.” 

Of English ballet, he said, “She had literally made the whole thing.  It took somebody of her skills and talent and character to make it.  You couldn’t have done it without any of those individual skills.  It’s what she brought from having been a member of Diaghilev’s company that made British ballet a creative thing, not just a company performing the classics.  The only reason she did the classics was to forge a company that was strong enough technically that could do them but that she could then create the British repertoire on.  She didn’t get them in because she liked them.  She’d never particularly done them with Diaghilev certainly but she knew that to be able to be a good dancer that’s the benchmark.  That’s why we still do them.” 

So what is ‘English’ or ‘British ballet’?  Is it about style, technique or is it something else?  De Valois was very clear.  Speaking on Women’s Hour in 1948, she defined ballet as “a combination of the arts.  It expresses what it has to say by movement, mime, music and scenery” and presents ideas in such a way “as to make a deep impression on audiences.”  In other words it is a complete theatrical package, which she put together by “mining a vein of Englishness” as Clement crisp once put it, extracting ideas and images from our cultural heritage that she could bring to the ballet stage.  She also naturalised the three-act ballet and made it English through such works as “Cinderella” and “La Fille mal gardée,” the latter performed by Birmingham Royal Ballet later in that 2005-6 season. 

David Bintley agreed, saying that, for him, “what characterises the English ballet is that it’s theatrical, even if it’s not narrative, even if it’s not got characters.”  He feels this comes from the great theatrical heritage England has, saying “we have a theatre in this country which I believe is second to none.” 

There is a difference between English ‘style’ and English ‘ballet’.  Indeed, it can be argued that the former doesn’t really exist.  It is often taken to mean Ashton.  Yet MacMillan, for example, is English too but his ballets are stylistically very different.  De Valois was undoubtedly instrumental in the birth of English ballet but she was not afraid to draw from elsewhere.  Indeed, she said, “you can’t stop what comes into a country. You can be influenced by it, but you can’t stop it. You shouldn’t, because it makes everything interesting.”  Monica Mason, speaking in 2004, described how she “made a kind of soup” from different influences, Russian, French, Danish and Italian.  What she did with them was give classical ballet a British accent. 

David Bintley put it another way saying “in terms of technique we are eclectic but it’s an eclecticism that I think forms a vision of what we want our national dance to be.  I don’t think we take from here and there because it amuses us to do so at one particular time.  I think British ballet, given its youth and eclecticism has an astonishing cohesion when you compare it to ballet companies around the World which are much older than ours.” 

He compared BRB to some companies abroad, saying that almost every company takes dancers from all over the World, it often “looks like they come from all over the place.  In this company, which I believe is the true inheritor of de Valois’ vision of a British company, an English company and an English style, that’s not the case.  If a dancer comes into this company they are very quickly absorbed.  They very quickly learn the way we do things.  It’s not because we say ‘do that, do this, do this’, it’s osmosis because we have a very strong sense of our own individuality as a company.” 

Bintley feels that what links ‘English’ choreographers, “although they’re not, Ecuador, Scotland, South Africa, Ireland; I think I’m virtually the only English one, me and Anthony Tudor!”, is the clarity of their work.  “There isn’t the kind of ambiguity that you get in British modern dance or certainly in continental classicism, and there isn’t the determined anti-theatricality of American dance, Balanchine essentially.” 

“So, I think that when you see what we would call an ‘English’ piece, it’s very clear what it’s saying.  Its structure is very clear.  It isn’t stylistically all over the place.  There is a stylistic concentration and there is a purpose in the piece; and there’s no more purpose in a piece of dance than there is in ‘Symphonic Variations.’ It is utterly perfect.  What it says is absolutely clear.  You can have different opinions about whether you think there is a story there or not but it is actually saying something very clear. There’s the movement, the structure, a collection of dances and there’s a great balance to it.  It’s almost like a story.  One suspects that there’s a story there, actually there was originally but it was taken away because it didn’t need it, but the essence of it is till there.  ‘Scènes de Ballet’ again, to me, there is an absolute storyline, an absolute narrative going through it.  We don’t know what it is, we don’t need to, but it’s absolutely there.  Neither of those pieces could have been done anywhere else in the World, they really couldn’t.” 

With ballet and dance seemingly becoming more and more globalised, it has been said that ‘English ballet’ is in danger of disappearing.  Although they may not all be as high profile as himself, Bintley still feels “quite good” about the number of people around who are interested in classicism, learning about and making works in the English tradition, including those BRB dancers who had works premiered by the company earlier this year. 

Returning to ‘Madam’, He said he first met her while at The Royal Ballet School.  “We were doing the Satan solo from ‘Job’ in a notation class.  The notator was teaching us.  Madam came into the room, took one look at it, and said, ‘It’s all wrong, it’s all wrong’ and took over the rehearsal and particularly took over me.  She, as I have often said, took hold of my hand and it was like holding the hand of God.  For me it was a fantastic moment because I’d always, thought I’d never seen these ballets I’d read so much about them, I knew the music, and I took my socks and shoes off for that rehearsal because I knew that it was a barefoot piece.  I guess that must have been one thing that she spotted.  I can’t remember whether everyone had their socks and shoes off.  She sort of took an instant shine to me, thank goodness.” 

‘Madam’ had something of reputation for being quite, formidable, even intimidating.  She was certainly not afraid of speaking her mind knew what she wanted.  Bintley found this although he said that as she got older she became “less like that, although she still could be very irritable, very irritable and unforgiving.  I think for those people that she didn’t like she was probably a bit of a monster.  I was never on the receiving end of that.” 

He said that right from the very beginning she greatly encouraged him to choreograph.  “It was the combination of my enthusiasm for characterisation, for narrative ballet which is at the heart of the English tradition, and my gifts as a performer I suppose, but also as a choreographer.  I was always that package to her.  I was always the sum total of those things.” 

Of course, by the time he was choreographing, she had retired as director of the company and no longer had the power to ask him to do specific ballets in the same way that, for example she asked MacMillan to do “Danses concertatntes.”  In those days, “she was definitely the boss.”  He said that with him “it was [always] much more a suggestion and it wasn’t specific.  She kept on saying I should make English ballets.  She used to say that ‘English ballets should have English themes.’  That’s why there is the little joke in my dedication of “Hobson” to her; “An English ballet.” 

It was the same with feedback, again “not often in absolute specifics but she would generalise.  She didn’t like “Penguin Café” at all.”  He recalled meeting her on the first night of the ballet, which of course was a big success.  “I had been backstage to see some of the dancers and I was coming down the side of the theatre and Madam was walking purposely towards me.  I thought it was to say something nice because I thought I had a hit on my hands.  She didn’t. She said, ‘The music, well it’s not music, but you needn’t worry, the public likes it. So that’s fine.  But the music, you must use proper music.  So there we are!” 

De Valois was always open to new developments and cared about the present.  She encouraged new choreographers and was not afraid to use contemporary composers such as Arthur Bliss, Hans Werne Henze and Benjamin Britten.  In Birmingham this continues and not only through company choreographic projects.  New works are seen as essential to the company’s being.  And recently they have become more contemporary such as Bintley’s own “e=mc2” and Garry Stewart’s “The Centre and It’s Opposite,” which both premiered in 2009. 

Although she retired over 45 years ago and died in 2001, Madam’s beliefs live on and she continues to have an enormous influence on English ballet.  As David Bintley said, she would have liked an English season, and I suspect, liked even more the fact that her ideals and heritage is in such good hands.

This article has been amended from one that first appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2005 issue of “Entrechat”, the magazine of BRB Friends.

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