Dancer, choreographer and artistic director David Bintley has led Birmingham Royal Ballet for 24 years, but this summer that all changed. He tells Neil Norman about leaving the company to pursue more creative projects and readying a diverse ballet family for Carlos Acosta to step into next year
David Bintley is on holiday. Given that he has only recently relinquished his position as director of Birmingham Royal Ballet after 24 years, it is a matter of some importance. “My wife would like me to get out of the house,” he says. “I’ve found a hitherto unsuspected capacity for doing absolutely nothing.”
Few would say he hasn’t deserved it. The former dancer-turned-choreographer-turned-artistic director has a reputation and a portfolio that even his hardest working colleagues would envy. While Tamara Rojo still manages to appear on stage while running English National Ballet and Kevin O’Hare commissions work and has the weighty responsibility of running the Royal Ballet, neither of them actually choreographs new works as well.
One of the reasons Bintley decided to pass on the leadership of the Birmingham Royal Ballet – formerly Sadler’s Wells Ballet Theatre – is because he found he was spending more time in meetings and on administrative tasks than making ballets. The dance world has changed, especially for the major companies, and the burden of responsibility has increased correspondingly.
“One of the things that happened over the past three or four years,” he tells me, “was that I could see a future with me not being able to make anything. Our Ballet Now project used a lot of resources so there were less to put into other new works.”
Not that he is resentful about his initiative, which aims to commission new works with new scores on a scale not seen since the days of Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, but funding for dance is increasingly difficult to locate, as it is for all the performing arts. “When I decided to go I had a creative release. For the past two years I’ve had almost too many ideas. And I love working on scenarios,” he says.
At the very least, Bintley can take comfort in leaving the company in rude health. Having taken over the leadership from Peter Wright in 1995 he has maintained the legacy of its founder, Ninette de Valois, as well as augmenting the repertoire with judicious commissions, revivals of neglected English works and his own ballets.
Many of these are sought after by ballet companies at home and abroad. The big full-length narrative ballets such as Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Hobson’s Choice, Far from the Madding Crowd, Cyrano and Edward II are solid works, prime examples of neoclassical story ballets – even if the critics took time to warm to some of them. And Bintley pays attention to criticism. He went back to Cyrano, for example, following some fairly abrasive notices and realised the music was wrong. So he changed it and tweaked the steps, improving it immensely.
As for the shorter works, Still Life at the Penguin Cafe is a hardy perennial and the subject matter appears to become more relevant by the day. With a musical score composed by the late Simon Jeffes of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Bintley’s ballet took anthropomorphic dance to new levels, several light years away from Frederick Ashton’s Tales of Beatrix Potter.
“It actually began as a reaction to extinction,” he says. “If we don’t care for the animals we end up not caring for ourselves. I’m thinking of developing Still Life into a piece that better reflects the current situation, makes it a bit more urgent. We are now more aware of particular things like the parlous state of the oceans and there is a new young audience who are much more aware and concerned about the state of the planet.”
Bintley was born in 1957 in Honley near Huddersfield. It was clear he was going to be a performer from an early age, appearing in annual productions at his local Sunday school. His sister attended a nearby dance class and at the age of 11 Bintley joined her. “I just saw it as a way of getting on stage more often. I didn’t feel any stigma attached to it – I just wanted to be on stage. Acting, singing, dancing, anything.”
The first ballets he saw were The Nutcracker and Petrushka at the age of 11 or 12 in the 1960s. He would later dance the role of Petrushka to great acclaim. While he did not suffer any parental discouragement, he recalls running into the occasional problem among his schoolmates. This was Yorkshire, after all, where not only the water is hard. He wasn’t, he assures me, bullied relentlessly but there were times when his natural gifts came in handy. “The hardest thing was the attitude of my peers. I could handle myself and I was a good runner. I could do either, whatever the occasion demanded.”
He won a place at the Royal Ballet School and found himself at 17 being taught by De Valois, the uncompromising and intimidating 80-year-old founder of the Royal Ballet who ran the school with an iron fist. Although Bintley says he had a difficult time at ballet school, he was singled out by De Valois. Why did he think she focused on him? “No idea,” he says. “All modesty aside, she did light on people in whom she saw something. People who didn’t fit the usual mould. She liked oddballs.”
Bintley, like many young male dancers of his generation, dreamed of becoming the next Nureyev. It took a while for it to sink in that he was not built for the princely roles. “My idol was Rudolf. He was so much more than just a prince. I wanted to be him until I got to RBS and I realised I was never going to get those roles. I didn’t have the legs. That was a wake-up call.
“But pretty soon the other gifts I had got me a job. My very first choreography was a student version of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, for my school in Yorkshire. It was ambitious, about 25 minutes long, and the real reason I made it was because I wanted to be the Soldier, but suddenly I became so interested in putting things together for my fellow students that the making far outweighed the satisfaction of dancing.”
He entered the Royal Ballet School annual choreography competition as well as performing a solo piece based on Joel Gray’s EmCee from Cabaret for the student’s end-of-year show. He won the competition and it “changed everything”.
In 1976, he was offered a contract to dance with the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, which would become Birmingham Royal Ballet, and choreographed his first work for the company two years later, The Outsider. The touring company of the Royal Ballet, SWRB, gave Bintley a taste of adventure as well as an opportunity to flex his choreographic muscles.
It was here that he came to appreciate the great English works of classical ballet that had become lost or remaindered including De Valois’ Checkmate, Rendezvous and The Rake’s Progress. These were rarely performed but he would attempt to revive them, in addition to De Valois’ The Prospect Before Us, Robert Helpmann’s Miracle in the Gorbals and Ashton’s Dante Sonata. Under De Valois, Bintley was made acutely aware of the British tradition of classical ballet, which influenced his own dance making.
He made a documentary on the Sadler’s Wells Ballet for BBC television called Dancing in the Blitz in 2014, which revealed just how astonishingly brave the company was, taking ballet around Europe at the outbreak of the Second World War and just escaping Holland before the Nazis invaded. It was thrilling stuff and Bintley recalls some interesting tours with the company in the 1970s.
“We went to Tehran just before the Revolution and performed for the Shahrina. We were all kept under armed guard and I remember walking along the corridors lined with men with machine guns and grenades for her protection. The irony is that we performed La Fille Mal Gardeé for her.
“We danced for Imelda Marcos in the Philippines before the balloon went up. They sent us on some weird trips. It was the same thing as the company being sent to Holland just before the Nazis invaded. I guess we were sort of used as diplomatic tools as they were. I loved it. Wouldn’t like to have been shot at, of course. But I have a kind of envy for those times. Life is a little more mundane these days.”
In 1985, Bintley was appointed resident choreographer for the Royal Ballet, which had just been taken over by Anthony Dowell. It was a time of great change and evolution for the company and Bintley is discreetly critical of the regime even though, at the time, he was often regarded as Dowell’s successor as artistic director of the company. He denies any such ambition.
“The first thing is I never wanted to be a director. That never entered my thinking. But not long after I joined the Royal Ballet, Jeremy Isaacs [then director of the Royal Opera House] talked to me about the possibility of my taking over the newly created Birmingham Royal Ballet, my old company. At the time I said no. I simply hadn’t given it any thought, and certainly wasn’t ready. But over the next few years I began to miss the closeness of the Sadler’s Wells Company, where I’d enjoyed a different kind of dynamic and purpose.”
The Royal Ballet was a very different kind of company, he says. “Big names began coming in like Irek Mukhamedov, Sylvie Guillem and the young Darcey Bussell and it was very much about the dancers. It became more star driven. Anthony was building a ‘super’ company, like one of the super groups in the 1980s. It wasn’t a great time for creativity. It really rattled me.
“There was less respect for the choreography; dancers thought nothing of changing the work of Fred [Ashton], Madam [De Valois] or Kenneth [MacMillan]. Also the company was much bigger. It didn’t have that tight-knit family dynamic where everybody matters. I began to feel that perhaps the only way I might recapture that feeling would be to create it by moving into direction.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I was in a production of The Wizard of Oz. I was 13 or 14 and it was in Huddersfield, Off-Off-Off-Broadway. I got £5 for it.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I worked in a supermarket during the summer just before going to the Royal Ballet School. I used the money to buy a record player and the complete symphonies of Mahler.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
You learn by making your own mistakes, although I wish someone had told me 10 years ago how badly the arts were going to be hit by funding cuts.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Madam [Ninette de Valois].
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t hide at the back. Get to the front and be yourself. Be seen.
If you hadn’t been a dancer/choreographer/artistic director, what would you have been?
I probably would have gone into acting. I love history – maybe a TV presenter of history. I’m a performer.
He eventually found that family environment at Birmingham Royal Ballet where he took over from Wright almost a quarter of a century ago. Having evolved out of Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, BRB was his natural home. His respect for Wright remains strong and although he hints that they weren’t always in complete agreement, Bintley was clearly the right man for the job.
The company has proved both enduring and exciting with a strong local following as well as a prestigious reputation abroad. It is also where Bintley has produced his greatest ballets, many of which are based on works of English literature – entirely in keeping with the company’s legacy. He has also ventured into more exotic territory with The Prince of the Pagodas, Aladdin – inspired by his four-year tenure as artistic director of the National Ballet of Japan – and Carmina Burana, his first work for BRB. He was artistic director in Japan from 2010 to 2014 while running BRB. It was an experience, he says, that taught him the values of a completely different culture. He could do it because “the money was available and it was short term. My first duty was to BRB. It was a special circumstance”.
A closer examination of Bintley’s leadership at BRB reveals at least two significant elements. One, that his work is guided by a strong sense of morality that results from his own spiritual belief. Although he says he wasn’t particularly religious as a child, and did not grow up in a churchgoing household, he converted to the Catholic faith upon marrying his wife. It is not something he is evangelical about, but there is a moral spine to his work that is impossible to ignore.
“I suppose in my late teens I started looking around at various aspects of spirituality and religion,” he says. “I had a passing interest in Buddhism, for example. There is a background all the time. I wouldn’t say I do things as a result of my religious views but I have decided not to do things because there were elements I decided I could not address with any conviction.”
While there are few overtly religious ballets in his canon, The Protecting Veil, The King Dances, and Beauty and the Beast are all imbued with Catholic imagery in one way or another.
The second significant aspect of BRB is the diversity of its company. BRB has championed the hiring of black, Asian and ethnic minority dancers long before diversity became such an important focus. Tyrone Singleton, Celine Gittens and Brandon Lawrence are all dancers of colour who have risen to the rank of principal under his tenure.
“Tyrone was the first who went all the way. He was, I believe, the first black British male principal. You can’t produce that situation overnight. Brandon, Celine and Tyrone are all there not just because they’re black but because they’re good. But ever since the move to Birmingham we have played an enormous role in all areas of the city. In 2002, we founded the Freefall Dance Company for learning-disabled young adults. That alongside groundbreaking projects such as Ballet-Hoo, in which we used our art form to challenge and improve the lives of young, disaffected Midlanders, and which was serialised on Channel 4. At BRB we don’t do these things to tick a box or fill a quota, we do them because it’s the right thing to do.”
When Carlos Acosta takes over the reins of the BRB, he will find the groundwork for his aims for ethnic and social diversity have already been laid. But the ballet landscape is changing and Bintley knows it. The days of the choreographer-as-artistic director – much like the old theatrical actor-manager – are drawing to a close. The business side is overwhelming the creative side due to relentless funding issues, larger committees, more frequent board meetings and all manner of management duties that cannot be ignored, but are a drag on creativity.
“This is one of the reasons I am happy not to be the director of a company,’ he says at last. “I haven’t made anything for three years. First, there is no money, second the job has tilted so much towards administration there is no time to make stuff. I have always said there are two different kinds of AD – those that choreograph and those that don’t. At certain times in a company’s history you will need one or the other. At this point in my life I simply want to make dance. I’m happy not to be a director any longer. I don’t want to be stuck in an office again.”
He demurs when I ask what advice he would give to his replacement Carlos Acosta, instead saying: “It’s a great place to have a career. A great company, with a proud history. But above all, it’s a family. I would hope he can see and understand the special nature of the company and preserve it at all costs.” It is, undoubtedly, the right thing to do.
Born: Huddersfield, 1957
Training: Royal Ballet School
• Still Life at the Penguin Cafe (1988)
• Hobson’s Choice (1989)
• Edward II (1995)
• Beauty and the Beast (2003)
• Faster (2012)
• The King Dances (2015)
• The Tempest (2016)
• The De Valois Award for outstanding achievement (2000)
• Commander of the Order of the British Empire (2001)
Giselle is at Birmingham Hippodrome until September 28 and then touring until November 2