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Ballet Now: the Birmingham trailblazer boosting new dance works

Dancers in rehearsal for George Williamson’s new piece Embrace, commissioned as part of the Ballet Now project Dancers in rehearsal for George Williamson’s new piece Embrace, commissioned as part of the Ballet Now project. Photo: Drew Tommons
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Ballet Now will launch 10 new works in five years, pledging to expand its classical repertoire with fresh offerings. Neil Norman finds out more as the project’s debut production, Embrace, prepares to take flight

Here’s a quiz question: how can major ballet companies encourage new works in the classical idiom that bring together choreographers, designers and composers?

Ballets are expensive to mount and major companies tend to rely on a steady diet of the tried-and-tested to ensure healthy box office returns. But companies also need to refresh their repertoires with work that will stand repeated viewing and frequent revivals.

Sadler’s Wells and Birmingham Royal Ballet launch £1m Ballet Now project

Not every company is lucky enough to retain resident choreographers like the Royal Ballet does, which has associations with Christopher Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor and Liam Scarlett programmed alongside the revived works of classics from Marius Petipa, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan.

Enter David Bintley, director of Birmingham Royal Ballet. He has come up with an initiative that should result in 10 new ballets being created for the company over the next five years that will enter the repertoire.

It is a tall order, but Bintley is convinced that he and his collaborators can meet the challenge and deliver on time. A creative consortium including Bintley, Alistair Spalding of Sadler’s Wells, music director Koen Kessels and Cassa Pancho, founder of Ballet Black, among others, will guide the project through the five years of its proposed existence.

“Each of the pieces will be presented as part of a programme,” says Bintley. “They will be placed in a good setting. It will be curated to the best of my ability. Ballet Now will be presented in a similar manner to the work of Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon at the Royal Ballet.”

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s long-term association with Sadler’s Wells has been enormously helpful in the process. Even so, Bintley confesses that he spent a great deal of time “dreaming about it” until the Oak Foundation came on board through its Special Interest Programme and matched funding of £1.1 million from other sources.

Koen Kessels. Photo: Roy Smiljanic
Koen Kessels. Photo: Roy Smiljanic

“All of these commissions came with a bill that was a lot more money than we anticipated,” says Bintley. The Oak Foundation’s contribution put the project on a sure footing.

The five choreographers selected are: George Williamson, Juanjo Arques, Didy Veldman, Jack Lister and Daniela Cardim. Lister and Cardim, the last two inked for the project, are still in the process of finding designers and composers.

The musical aspect of Ballet Now is being overseen by Kessels, music director of both the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden and Birmingham Royal Ballet. His enthusiasm for the project is palpable when we meet at London’s Royal Opera House.

Initially, his role was to come up with a list of composers – in conjunction with composers Sally Beamish and Sally Cavender, vice chairman of Faber Music – who would be best suited for the task of working with choreographers in their individual pieces. It provided a kind of hit list for the dance-makers.

Even so, Williamson, who is the first choreographer to be commissioned and whose work, Embrace, will be first out of the traps, actually came up with his own composer.

“Our lists are fluid,” says Kessels. “It could be that the choreographer comes up with someone we hadn’t thought of. We were very pleased to discover Sarah Kirkland Snider through George.”

It’s not a one-way street. We expect to get work out of the artists for the future repertoire

Not that they are leaving anything to chance. As Bintley states firmly: “It’s not a one-way street. We expect to get work out of them for the future repertoire. We don’t want to give five people a great time.”

It’s a sentiment that Kessels agrees with. Ballet Now is not a playground for amateurs and woolly experiments. “We needed established composers so we could hear their works with a live orchestra well as electronics. I insisted George go to New York to see Sarah to meet and work together.”

Rehearsals for Embrace. Photo: Drew Tommons
Rehearsals for Embrace. Photo: Drew Tommons

Williamson was pleasantly surprised at the reaction to his recommended composer. “Koen liked her as a suggestion,” he says with evident relief. “When you are making a work you need to find a piece of music that fits, but it rarely happens. And I’m not a fan of using 16 different pieces.”

Although he is an up-and-coming choreographer with a revisionist Firebird for English National Ballet and a full-length piece for Lithuanian National Ballet under his belt, Williamson took some time to nail down the subject for his first work.

Embrace is a 35-minute, modern narrative ballet that is classical-based – “it’s bizarre to be described as ‘neo-classical’,” he says, adding that the dancers were not used to working in the style that he is giving them. It seems clear that there are huge elements of autobiography involved in the work, although that is not how it began.

“I wanted to find a literary source but couldn’t find one that matched the ideas in my head,” Williamson says. “So, I went for a more personal narrative combining friends and family. It feeds off ideas about my own sexuality and the collective group and how it affects the individual – the way you let go of the personas you create to be your own personality.”

Williamson has brought in dramaturg Lou Cope to help him shape the piece, as well as designer Madeleine Girling, who has never worked in dance before. “Maddy is a theatre designer, purely. She is going to bring a theatrical element to it and help with telling the story,” he says.

George Williamson. Photo: ASH
George Williamson. Photo: ASH

Other companies that have engaged with Ballet Now include Dutch National Ballet – which Daniela Cardim has worked with – and Queensland Ballet (which Jack Lister has worked with), and their pieces will find a home beyond the Birmingham Royal Ballet repertoire.

In terms of gender spread, two of the five choreographers are female and, so far, two female dramaturgs and two female composers are involved.

The hope is that, if this project proves successful, it will be renewed for a following five-year period or continue developing in some form.

“It would be good if the Birmingham Royal Ballet initiative was successful because it would be an encouragement to take more risks in creating new work,” says Williamson.

It will also prove a lasting legacy – a swansong – for Bintley beyond his own works. Earlier this year, he announced that he was stepping down one year shy of his quarter-century anniversary as director of Birmingham Royal Ballet to pursue a freelance career.

Given that he was the man who started it all, what impact will that have on the future of the project? Kessels, for one, is in no doubt. “The consortium is composed of very strong people. We will miss David in many ways, but the consortium is that strong and engaged that it will continue without him.”

Bintley himself has few regrets. He knows he is leaving Birmingham’s ballet company in good shape and has laid the groundwork for the future through Ballet Now. Wherever he goes at the end of his tenure in July 2019, he can look back with pride at his achievements and a legacy of new and creative classical work.

“I’ve been lucky throughout my whole career,” he says. “We have an orchestra, a company and the wherewithal to get people working.”

Embrace will premiere at Sadler’s Wells on June 15-16

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