Interview: David Bintley: A lifetime of outstanding achievement - Part Two

Sunday 15 March 2015 by Clare Evans

David Bintley in rehearsal with Jenna Roberts and William Bracewell 
Photo: Andrew Ross

This year David Bintley celebrates 20 years as the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s director, just as the company, which had previously been the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, marks its 25th anniversary in Birmingham. To mark the occasion, Bintley is reviving Carmina Burana, his very first piece for BRB, which will be shown as part of a double bill – with George Balanchine’s Serenade – at the London Coliseum from 19-22 March.

Graham Watts went to Birmingham to talk to the evergreen director and choreographer and this second instalment of his interview concentrates on the revival of his first major work for BRB, on making mistakes, the reaction of critics, his views of the London bias of critics and the future.

The first instalment published on 10 March covered Bintley’s career and his views on the traditions of British Ballet.

It is 19 years since Carmina Burana was last performed in London although it has been performed around the world in the intervening years. It’s a huge production and you need a full-scale orchestra. I imagine that there are very few places that you can stage it?
It’s tight and we have versions where we can take scenery away. In London, it’s nice because we’re doing it with the full orchestra and chorus. It was last toured in Japan and Atlanta, early in 2014. The only time it has been done as just the piano version was in Birmingham and some smaller regional theatres. Anywhere else I insist on having the full production.

It wasn’t so well received by the critics, first time around in London. Does that bother you?
I hope London critics will have changed their mind about it because there were some stinkers, I can tell you [laughs]! However, I’m pleased that there was a big distinction in the reaction of the public and the critics. The public reaction is that it has run for 20 years!

Not a single BRB dancer was nominated by the critics for this year’s National Dance Awards. Does that bother you?
I think there is a London bias among the body of critics. I don’t feel it for me as much as I feel bad for my dancers. We have got some fantastic dancers here but they don’t get the same attention as those performing with the two companies that are wholly or largely London-based.

Do you think that recognition depends on performing in London?
I’m afraid that our options for performing in London will become even more limited because we’re going to lose our season at the Coliseum. We’ve been there for five years but we can’t go in 2016. At the moment, we don’t know if we can find another venue. We already use Sadler’s Wells but we needed the Coliseum to present the really big works and the Royal Opera House is so expensive.

Do the critics influence you?
I don’t generally read criticism because I’ve seen what it has done to other people and I know what it did to me at one point.
What did it do?
I started answering the critics in the next piece and I quickly realised that this was daft.

How much of the choreographer’s journey is about learning from mistakes?
A lot! You can’t get anyone to edit someone else’s choreography. I wouldn’t have the temerity to suggest to another choreographer where he or she may have gone wrong. All a choreographer can do is choose the right voice to listen to. Beyond that it’s just about experience and knowing where you went wrong.

What’s your biggest example of learning from a mistake?
It has to be Cyrano [originally made in 1991 and revisited in 2007]. The first time around, I didn’t read the reviews but it didn’t work for me and I knew exactly what had gone wrong. I came to the original production with a new score, which had been the basic problem.

When I came to redo it, I looked at what critics felt hadn’t worked. I knew it wasn’t right but I wanted to understand why from the perspective of others. I read everything that had been written about the original ballet and was amused that some critics said that the first act was rubbish but the 2nd and 3rd were better while others argued that the opening act was quite good but then it got worse from there on! Everything that someone liked, someone else didn’t.

But I didn’t need to read the criticism to know that I had over-complicated the story and I knew that I had followed Rostand’s narrative [Edmond Rostand published the play, Cyrano de Bergerac, in 1897] too closely. But, more than anything I knew that I didn’t have the right music for the subject. I’d tried to bale out of the original music during the process but was persuaded by others to carry on.

But, out of that experience you produced a resounding success at the second attempt?
The difference between an abject failure and a rip-roaring success is often very small. It also happened with Sylvia [originally choreographed by Bintley in 1993 and reworked in 2008/9]. The first time around, I made a conscious effort to ignore time frames but the audience – especially the younger audience – became confused about what was going on. So, when I came to revisit the ballet, I decided to make it clearer that events go back in time.

Is it important to attract young people to ballet?
Young people are more likely to turn naturally to contemporary dance because they feel closer to that. It’s not such a “them and us” thing although we try to break that down a lot with our education work. Ballet audiences are generally an older group and we have to accept that. Our main challenge is to attract that older audience. We need to reach out to the 30+ age-group that has never thought of going to a ballet. Time and again we get people who come to a ballet in their 30s and 40s who have never been before and they suddenly love it. They become passionate immediately.

What about the future?
I have a few new works in the pipeline. We are planning on making a good celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (in 2016) and I have a new full-length ballet of The Tempest coming up. Shakespeare is in the air but there are less subjects from his plays that can be done in ballet than one might suppose.

Three years ago I came across Sally Beamish’s music and thought that she could write a ballet. I hurt my knee and was laid up for a week. I listened to her music while reading The Tempest and it just worked so well in my imagination. The impetus was Sally’s music. I just felt that there is dance in here. I went through two other ideas before deciding that The Tempest would work.

I am talking to Matthew Hindson about the possibility of a new full length ballet after E=MC² and Faster. When we first worked together, Matthew wasn’t interested in a full-length ballet but now he’s very much up for it and I’m looking for an idea that will suit his music. It’s crucial to match the right subject to the composer.

You seem to be a natural on TV [Bintley recently presented the BBC documentary Dancing in The Blitz]? Do you have other plans to extend this part of your career?
We are following up Dancing in The Blitz with a new documentary on Louis XIV and his role in the creation of ballet; and I’ll be doing it in parallel with my new piece on Louis – The King Dances – which will have its world premiere in Birmingham as part of a double bill with Carmina Burana, in June 2015.

Tell me about your attraction to Carmina Burana?
I found the music when I was doing a course at the Gulbenkian, in 1976. They had a great music library where I went every lunch hour and listened to recordings. And that’s where I found Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Of course, Carmina is what it is; I was a 17 year-old boy and I just loved it. I wanted to choreograph it from that day onwards but of course no-one was going to give me the opportunity to do something that big until I got my own company!

I needed to make an impact with my first evening as Director of BRB. The company hadn’t done that much new work and so it was important to start off bravely with something that would make a splash.

It also engaged the whole company and that was an important statement for me. It needs a big cast and we had the local choir on board. I got Phillip Prowse to design it and I knew that he would give me something that would be unexpected. It was a fantastic success with audiences from the word go.

One lovely memory of that evening in 1995 is that I overheard someone backstage say that I’d changed the company overnight. There was certainly a sense of that because it was so different to what they had done before. And, crucially, it was theirs – they had made it. There was also the excitement of having local musicians and the local chamber choir. It gave a sense of artistic achievement to Birmingham and that was great. We also got some local Councillor saying that it was appalling and shouldn’t be allowed on stage, which always helps!

Given that you have a tendency to revisit choreography, how will the version to be seen at the Coliseum differ from that premiere?
Nothing is different apart from the people on stage. It took a while for me to get hold of it but it’s one of those pieces that if you get the right cast, I’m happy.

Fortuna [the lead female part] is such a challenging role!
Some dancers get her straightaway, some grow into it but others never get it, even though they may be great dancers.

The biggest issue for me was what to do with the tremendous musical opening of O Fortuna. I didn’t know how to open it and I thought – with that music – you have either got to have one person on stage, or 500. So, I turned to what would be the last thing I might think of to represent this most famous piece of music. That’s how I conceived a girl’s solo and then I thought that this is Fortuna. This is the character. I must have created one of the hardest solos by putting the dancer in a pair of stilettos and a blindfold and asking her to dance in a single spot with nothing around her.

It has a tremendous impact. From the word go that solo – and that first scene – has grabbed the audience. They usually go crazy although in Japan it was greeted by silence! They just didn’t know what to make of it.

What is your funniest memory of Carmina down the years?
There was a great moment in Atlanta, last year, when the lead boy is stripping off and he gets down to the Calvin Klein’s. To any audience that isn’t familiar with the work there is always the feeling of when will he stop? Will he go the whole way? It’s literally the whole house holding their breath and in bible-belt Atlanta it was absolutely silent and then when the trousers came off, one lady said loudly [Bintley imitates a heavy southern drawl] “Oh, you gotta be kidding”! [He laughs]. She must have been thinking that everything was coming off! It was fantastic.

Birmingham Royal Ballet, Carmina Burana and Serenade
Thu 19 – Sat 21 March, London Coliseum

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Find him on Twitter @GWDanceWriter

Birmingham Royal Ballet – Carmina burana trailer from Birmingham Royal Ballet on Vimeo.

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