Awakenings – English National Ballet

English National Ballet has been through a difficult period, financially and artistically. But the arrival of Australian Craig Hassall as managing director promises rejuvenation, Katie Phillips discovers

Earlier this year it was reported that seminal touring dance company the English National Ballet had hit rock bottom. Seemingly in the midst of a financial, artistic and professional crisis, it had a reputation for churning out dusty old classics for box office income, bullying, bitching and being careless with its pennies. Performance numbers plummeted, attendances halved, a new full-length ballet was cut and the arts council had to bail it out with a £2.3 million rescue grant when it faced insolvency.

It was announced in March this year that artistic director Matz Skoog was quitting, the fourth AD to leave the company since 1990 following Derek Deane, Ivan Nagy and Peter Schaufuss.

The sudden departure of former managing director Christopher Nourse, the relatively short run time for interim MD Janie Grace and exit of former chairman Angela Rippon, as well as the redundancies of technical staff, painted a picture of this flagship company at a crossroads.

It was clear that the ENB, currently in its fifth decade and mourning the loss of its founder Dame Alicia Markova (1910-2004), needed someone fresh, new and dynamic to grab it by the lapels and yank it out of its dancerly doldrums and into the 21st century. Perhaps suspecting the ENB was a poisoned chalice, the board came up with an interesting solution – Australia. Maybe someone from the other side of the world wouldn’t know about its crisis stricken reputation.

In February it was announced that Aussie arts entrepreneur Craig Hassall would become managing director of the ENB.

So did he ever get wind of the controversy surrounding the company from the southern hemisphere? He says: “Actually I heard it first through the press, who said something like, ‘He will have his battles ahead of him with the cancellation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and the accumulated loss of such and such amount of money’.

“But for me it was such an exciting opportunity. Even with all the terrible things I heard about ENB, I still thought this company has such validity and potential and a track record.”

Hassall’s introduction to ballet came as special events manager with the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival. And who better to lure a spectator into a love of dance than prima ballerina Sylvie Guillem, who headlined the culmination of the festival at the Sydney Opera House.

Hassall, who describes Guillem as “phenomenal”, remembers this as the highlight of his career to date.

Eight months in and Hassall is steely in his determination that, unlike colleagues and predecessors, he is in it for the long haul. He speaks about the company – its potential, success and future with energy and passion. Perhaps his sparkling Aussie charm and festival spirit will encourage a new era of success for the company.

While sticking up for the company’s original fifties aspiration to take popular ballet to the widest geographical audience, he also seeks to remedy the balance between box office success and creative exploration.

“Of course we’re known for doing the classics – we don’t shy away from that. There’s a place in the market for contemporary cutting-edge black leotard ballet and unashamedly confident classical ballet.

“It doesn’t need to be dusty and old, it can have a contemporary take on it. We can do, have done and will do more contemporary versions of classical works and more modern works that use the balletic forms – it’s all possible.”

Hassall’s role is to make the company secure financially so it has the breathing space to bloom artistically. He is looking forward to working with Wayne Eagling, who takes over as artistic director next month.

“He’s done amazing things with Dutch National Ballet, he turned them around. Artistically, they were in the doldrums and Wayne really put them on the map. He has done choreographic workshops in the past and commissioned new works and I hope to do the same with British choreographers.”

As for the figures that showed performances dropping, since Hassall has been around, they are up again. Performances had declined annually from 145 in 2001/2 to 132, 107, then 92 at crisis time in 2004/5. Now, they are back up to 142 in 2005/6 and are set to increase to around 152 next year. Audience numbers are also rising.

Hassall comments: “Our figures speak for themselves – if people thought what we were doing was dusty and old they would stop coming but they don’t. They come in droves. They love it.”

Hassall is defiant, if not positively chirpy about the financial situation: “When I arrived I thought, this is extraordinary – I am really lucky. When a company hits a crisis moment, which is what the ENB did, the arts council will assess whether the company is viable, whether there is public benefit in having the company in existence.

“And ACE said yes, there is a public benefit. People want ENB because regional touring is so important.

“In fact, they said we believe so much it is viable that we’re prepared to admit additional funding to make it more financially secure.”

The fact ACE is willing to up its funding by such an amount is testament to the fact that they believe wholeheartedly in the future of the ENB. And whereas sister company the English National Opera were given a £10 million handout, they are doing comparatively well.

With cheaper productions of ballet classics doing the rounds on the regional touring route, it would seem the ENB must face stiff competition. However, Hassall gives assurance that the company’s reputation for quality precedes them.

“There are cheaper Russian touring companies doing the same works but the quality isn’t the same. Even if a West End musical goes on tour it’s a scaled-down version, with fewer production values, a smaller orchestra, a different cast and a lesser quality.

“Regional touring reinforces the reason for the company existing, to take classical ballet to the widest possible audience.

“We tour exactly what we do in London to the regions so the same cast will appear in Liverpool as they do at the Coliseum – you can’t ever give people outside London a lesser version, that’s fundamental to the company. Otherwise you’re not ENB.

“If you’re doing it because you want to try and save money, you’ve always got to say, why exist?”

* English National Ballet’s new touring production of Sir Kenneth Macmillan’s The Sleeping Beauty opens at the Mayflower, Southampton on October 20.

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