David Mead talks to David Bintley about his two decades at the helm of Birmingham Royal Ballet, and his highly acclaimed “Carmina burana”, about to return to the London stage for the first time in eighteen years.
“How did that happen? How did that happen?” muses David Bintley. He says that it certainly doesn’t seem like twenty years since he took over from Sir Peter Wright as Artistic Director at Birmingham Royal Ballet, “So, as I keep telling everyone, I must have been enjoying myself, because it has simply flown by.” He adds, “I suppose the important thing is my board. Are they bored? And the answer is an emphatic ‘no’, absolutely not. And I feel like I’ve just started.
”David reveals that he was first sounded out about a directorship many years previously; about six months after he joined The Royal Ballet back in 1986. But, he says, “At that time, I was just filled with horror. I had never ever contemplated being a director of any kind. Why would I want that? Nine years on, when Sir Peter’s myasthenia gravis led to him stepping down in Birmingham, David, now working freelance, was approached again and asked if he was interested in taking over. “When it happened it was certainly a surprise, but I had the background and that was it really. I said, ‘yes, sure’.”
David says he always had a sort of affinity with the Birmingham, his very first commissioned ballet, “The Outsider” having premiered in the city in 1978, as did his third, “Meadow of Proverbs”, the following year. “And I still do. I really like the city, for all its grotesque spots, for all its hideous architecture at times. And one of the things I especially like is the people; they are so genuine.”
When he took over, David had firm ideas about the sort of repertory he wanted. Sir Peter, he emphasises, was absolutely right to be cautious and ease city in with his new “Nutcracker” and his productions of the classics, which he considers “terrific” and “here for another 25 years.” But while conceding that Birmingham may have a “slightly less big adventurous audience” than there is at some London theatres, he feels it’s far from an out and out conservative one. And although there is a strong following for the classics, “It’s what pays for the other stuff,” he says, he feels he also has to present other works that satisfies those who want to see lots of different things.
To meet their needs, from the off David wanted what he calls a “bigger shopping trolley for outside heritage work.” To that end, the company’s Balanchine repertory expanded greatly, and he obtained works by the likes of Twyla Tharp (whose “In the Upper Room” is now a firm Birmingham favourite) and Jerome Robbins.
But also, he says, “I felt straight away that we had to go onto a more creative level.” That meant new ballets by him and by international choreographers. “The more people like that you have coming in, the more it puts you on the international map.” To that end, David is keen to give opportunities to people who are emerging and just starting to achieve, such as Jessica Lang from America, whose first ballet for the company, “Lyric Pieces”, proved so popular.
What he is not interested in, emphasises David, are choreographers who seek to “turf our technique out the window, or use my dancers for their gymnastic qualities.” Rather he wants artists who “bring something fresh and new in their language, so that my dancers learn, but at the same time are going to naturally and easily work with our company. Artistry is very important.”
Another important thing David wanted to do was to make sure young dancers always had a chance. “I wanted to make that the rock bottom foundation of how we work, and to get people used to the idea that if someone comes in and they can do it, then they should have a chance.” It’s a policy that has reaped rewards. David recalls Tyrone Singleton, now at the top of the company, dancing the lead in “Lady and the Fool” when he was only 17 or 18. And today, relative newcomers like Yaoqian Shang and Miki Mizutani are already getting principal roles. It’s a healthy policy, and if people are right for roles, giving them the chance is not resented, he says.
“Carmina burana”, which headlines Birmingham Royal Ballet’s March season at the London Coliseum was David’s first work after arriving in the city. It’s a piece of music he got to know as a teenager. “I love it. That was a time when I think it was used for Old Spice adverts and so on. It was this incredible, popular, successful, classical piece.” David says that ever since the early ’70s when he first started to choreograph, he really wanted to use it. “But who’s going to give me that kind of orchestral force to do something like that? Well, the answer is that if you get to be director of the company, you can give yourself the opportunity!”
He deliberately went for the big impression. “I thought, opening night here, no tutus, no swans, no fairies, nothing like that. Let’s start off with a girl in high heels and a little black dress, and a ballet that involves the whole company and really open with a bang.
The gamble paid off. “Carmina” was a big hit. David remembers the first night. “It was almost hysterical; not just at the end of every number, but at the end of every verse. It was tremendous; and it has become something of a signature piece.
David continues, “At the time, it was something the company really grabbed hold of because they had never done anything quite like that before, with that amount of force and in such an extraordinary setting. It’s always been something that they have really, really taken to. It always goes down very well and it gives them an opportunity to work with bare feet, high heels and to do something that is a little more contemporary.”
Making “Carmina” was a really interesting learning curve, says David, although he was never intimidated by the fact that the music was well-known. “It was more suddenly realising what this piece actually was and how simple it was and questioning how I was going to find a language and structures that pertain to it and work with it. I don’t think I’ve ever sat there and thought, ‘This is a song form. This is the same music three times in a row. How do I approach that?’ Because it can’t be a stream of consciousness.
David continues, “One of the things I really like about the piece is the way I arrived at solving those problems. With minor variations, for instance, the first priest number is the same number, but I just change the front every time. I really only came across solutions like that as I was working on it. But it’s interesting. I know, at one point, I wasn’t doing that and had gone on to start to use different material on the second verse chorus. And it just wasn’t working, it just didn’t feel right, so I had to back track and find the solution.”
The only daunting thing, he recalls, was how to handle the opening. David and designer Philip Prowse came to the conclusion that there were only two ways: with the entire cast on stage, or just one person. “I asked, ‘What would be the least likely thing you would expect to see to something like this?’ I can’t remember how the conversation went, but we literally said, ‘It should be a girl’s solo, and maybe this is Fortuna, because that’s what it’s about’. It seems so simple now, but at the time it was, ‘How do I do this massive piece of music?’”
It’s a solo that is indeed startling and, as David says, is “absolutely the last thing you would imagine to that music.” And it’s one where the power of the music and dance is enhanced by the surrounding blackness. As he observes, “There are no leaks, no wings to capture orchestral light off. And it is terrifying for her. There she is in some pretty killer high heels not being able to see very much at all. It’s very intimidating.”
David recalls the staging was discussed a lot. “Very quickly we got into the whole pop culture thing, and the idea about it taking place over a Saturday night, Sunday morning,” he says. “We talked about yobs on the streets and the yobbish quality of the music.”
“Philip doesn’t so much design these things, he does the strange black and white cartoons,” David explains. “Then he makes it with the material, so there are all these strange characters.” He says Prowse suggested, at one point, having all the men like the gluttons all the way through, including all the yobs in the street in their Hawaiian shirts. “At that point I said ‘enough’. But I like that about Philip. He is extreme. He does go too far and he pushes you.” When he got the first sketches, David says he remembers asking, ‘What are we doing?’ “Certainly from being a teenager I’d not imagined my “Carmina” would end up looking like that.”
And it does look startling. Prowse’s designs include huge crosses fly in above the stage, the second time appearing to drip blood. There’s a group of fat, balding men looking to devour a roast swan danced by a showgirl, yobs in Hawaiian shirts and a huge heart surrounded by astrological signs. Double meanings are everywhere.
Although the ballet goes along with the themes in Orff’s cantata, David sort of inverts them. His village green is not the usual idealised one, and the Court of Love turns out to be anything but. He explains that the idea was to have three seminarians who have turned their backs against faith, spirituality, everything, and thrown their lot in with sex, drugs and rock and roll. The moral, he says, is that you are then just casting yourself on fortune’s fate, and at some point the wheel comes full circle and you get tossed aside. “I remember Philip railing against religion. A lot! He was fine with it, but I absolutely wanted to make the point that it is a morality play. So we had our cake and ate it!”
Parts of the “Carmina” are based on David’s personal memories. An early scene features washing hanging on the line. “When I was young, everybody’s garden was full of washing. And we played amongst it, hid among the sheets,” he says. “The second bit is a 1960s youth club, where you all went along with your own records, and there was a record player. The boys usually sat on one side and the girls all sat on the other side. Again, that is autobiographical. And the little blonde girl who breaks your heart is too. But the rest of it isn’t, although I may have been in some of those situations, drinking in the street…
The audience response to “Carmina” is usually great, but is the ballet a favourite piece of David’s? “It is and it isn’t,” he says. “It’s a long piece, and there are bits in it that choreographically I’ve never been that happy with, but I can’t think of ways to absolutely make it perfect.” Laughing, he adds, “There are always five or six places in it where I’m going, ‘oh no’…
”For David, the ballet is a one-off piece with a language of its own, and one that couldn’t be developed into another. “It’s a bit like “Penguin”, and I think the success of the two pieces have similarities. “Carmina” seems to go well and seems to work no matter what the dancers throw at it or take away from it at times. And in both cases, I have a great deal of affection towards them. Both came at really important times in my life; both have a longevity, which is always gratifying. Every time “Carmina” comes back it’s great; and every time, so far, it works.”
In London, “Carmina” is paired with “Serenade”, a ballet David agrees still looks incredibly fresh for one now 80 years old, and one that has a breadth and that sweep that the best of Balanchine’s work in America typifies. He freely admits it is a particular Balanchine favourite. “How could it not be? It’s a wonderful piece. It looks improvised almost. There’s something about him having to make that ballet on not very good dancers [it was originally made for students] that makes it so wonderful when it is on really good dancers, because it still has this freedom, this simplicity and this joy, but it’s also beautifully planned. There are some really wonderful moments.”
“Pairing Balanchine with “Carmina” always works,” David continues. He feels it has something to do with the neutrality of the Balanchine, which means that audiences do not have to make any kind of readjustment. “And I guess “Carmina” is quite a masculine work. The men seem to feature more than the women. So “Serenade” is a good balance, I think.”
Looking ahead, David’s next new ballet, “The King Dances”, in which he re-imagines the very beginnings of ballet, when the 14-year-old Louis XIV of France danced the role of Apollo the sun god in “Le Ballet de la nuit” and when men were quite literally, the kings of dance, premieres in Birmingham alongside “Carmina” in June.
In 2016, the company will be marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a season featuring a number of ballets related to the Bard’s work; a season that will culminate with David’s new, full-length “The Tempest” to music by fast-rising British composer Sally Beamish. The season will also see the return to the company’s repertory of John Cranko’s “The Taming of the Shrew” after many years’ absence.
And Birmingham Royal Ballet seems to be in a good place in general right now. The company’s studios and offices have just undergone a top to bottom refurbishment. “It’s really transformed the place,” says David. And although finances are getting harder and harder, he says that the company has received more money for touring, so are changing the pattern, taking on more.
What really excites David, though, is that the company has lots of young dancers capable of holding the stage. In “Nutcracker”, three did wonderful Claras, he says, while Yaoqian Shang danced Sugar Plum in only her second year in the company. And he says there are some great men in the lower ranks too; dancers such as William Bracewell and Brandon Lawrence, and Edivaldo Souza da Silva, from Brazil, still in his first year but who David says he has great hopes for.
And he reveals, the company may even be getting a little bit bigger. “The demands are so great now, we are very rarely running at full capacity with dancers, so I think we might just expand a bit and get nominally to 62 dancers. We have 40 “Swan Lakes” next season – in eight weeks.”
Perhaps best of all, is the particular atmosphere Birmingham retains. David says, “You know, a lot of people who go from this company to anywhere else, they lose something. I’ve not spoken to a single dancer who hasn’t said that. It’s not a question of them wanting to come back having felt they made a mistake, but there’s something very special about this company. I’ve not really come across it anywhere else.”
Birmingham Royal Ballet performs “Carmina burana” and “Serenade” at the London Coliseum, 19th to 21st March 2015. For tickets see www.eno.org or call the box office on 020 7845 9300.
“The King Dances” and “Carmina burana” can be seen at the Birmingham Hippodrome from 17th to 20th June 2015. For tickets visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com or call 0844 338 5000.