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David Bintley: Ballet must embrace business for a secure financial future

While Birmingham Royal Ballet regularly produces lucrative, crowd-pleasing classical ballets such as Cinderella (above), the company is taking steps to ensure it can finance challenging new work. Photo: Bill Cooper
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As a young choreographer in the late 1970s, I could never have imagined ballet in Britain would become an industry – a business with financial targets and fiscal imperatives.

I have lived, performed and managed dance within a generation that has, to a large extent, accepted arts funding by government as more of a right than a privilege. This financial safety net has been slowly but surely disappearing and the bald fact is: it’s not going to come back. Our challenge in the future is to understand what this means and be clear about how we can meet the changes head on.

Philosophically, whether large-scale funding, with its attendant capacity for innovation in dance, is the best way to create ballet is not something I, as director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, have the luxury to debate. Instead, those of us in the industry have to adapt and reinvent ourselves not only as artistic leaders, but as businessmen and women, if ballet is to survive and prosper. We are where we are.

The creation of new work poses risks for any ballet company and there has been perhaps a tendency among some, although not all, to shift uneasily as funding has continued to decrease. This has had a confidence-sapping effect on companies regarding the creation of bold, new works. Investment in talent to create work with rigour, international appeal and professional exposure has decreased. Many of us questioned whether the public wanted to see work outside their classic ballet comfort zone – if not, the dance world might simply need to accept that to survive. Do audiences feel that in a world of greater uncertainty and austerity they want to back a sure-fire winner rather than experiment with their hard-earned cash?

I don’t believe it has to be that way. If we can bring about a fundamental shift in our thinking about the way our art is paid for, we can not only continue to keep ballet alive and relevant but bring it to audiences and communities that have never engaged with it before.

It is possible that we are moving inexorably towards the American model of funding whether we like it or not. In the US, ticket sales and benefactor income have secured tremendous security for companies around the country and allowed a flourishing and – more importantly – financially viable ballet culture to exist.

Tailoring the American model to work in the UK is not without its challenges and it will be a generation before we see real difference. Aside from the monumental change in outlook it will require, within a large country like the US there is a sense of metropolitan individuality in cities such as New York, San Francisco and Houston. This, coupled with a political system of city-wide self-governance, has, over the decades, instilled a fierce sense of civic pride. Both these factors have encouraged ballet lovers to support local artistic endeavours with a sense of civic obligation. Adapting this to areas outside London where influential mayoral and civic artistic philanthropy have largely been untapped since the 19th century is going to be a huge challenge for the newly emerging regional governments of the UK. We need to make the people – both audiences and benefactors – feel ownership of their ballet company.

To embrace this ‘new world’, it is imperative that ballet companies take time to look in on themselves and ensure the right skills are in place to effect change. We shouldn’t be scared of seeing our workplaces flex to welcome skills from industry and finance. These new arrivals in our midst are not the enemy. It is not new staff joining from outside the arts community driving difficult change, it is a volatile and uncertain world economy. We need to recognise that skills brought into ballet from business act as a buffer to protect companies from the worst effects of change – they will make us more effective, flexible and resilient.

At Birmingham Royal Ballet we have felt the positive effects of change over the past 18 months by doing just this. New skills and fresh perspectives have started a process of remoulding the company. At first, this felt shocking. BRB is not failing, nor in danger of becoming artistically bankrupt, but the comprehension of the need to be economically as well as artistically robust and creative has been both a blast of realism and liberating.

Ballet is as vital and relevant, as capable of social and artistic comment as any of the arts, but we must balance our programme to ensure we live within our means. There is nothing wrong with providing audiences with world-class popular ballet in sell-out productions, if those productions not only provide the financial security and opportunities to create more new challenging work but also allow us to continue to reach a more diverse and sustainable audience. I believe the audiences are out there for new work, and we will continue our constant drive to attract them throughout the country, but it’s the blockbuster ballet-goers that will provide the muscular backbone of the future.

While ballet companies need to cultivate more regional association and civic philanthropy, they must also continue to forge partnerships, co-productions and creative endeavours internationally. Shared talent and shared resource will be key to the formation of new work in the future. This is as true for classical ballet as for new work. Joining forces with companies around the globe will provide opportunities for many of the highly talented choreographers, who struggle as freelancers, to bring their huge skills and energy back into a company environment.

For a long time, I have felt that a wealth of talent has been allowed to drift away from ballet. We owe it to our genre to bring them back and give them the support they so richly deserve. International project funding, ballet hires and multi-national touring all have their part to play, but the rewards are there for the taking – creative freshness, artistic and technical development and an increase in audiences as well as project funding.

We are living an unpredictable and volatile world, one where the structures we once relied upon to create great dance have changed beneath our feet leaving us feeling exposed. But it’s also a time of great opportunity to forge a brighter and stronger world for ballet. Our challenge is to not only create a new landscape that works for us, but also to ensure that we can do it quickly enough to meet the changing demands upon us.

If there was ever a time for necessity to be the mother of invention in the ballet community, this is it.

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