A prospect with knobs on: David Brintley

The artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet believes the future of ballet lies in changing people's attitudes about what ballet can and should be. And where it should be too. Shape of Arts to Come
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The Independent Culture
Sitting in his office backstage at the Birmingham Hippodrome, David Bintley talks quietly, thoughtfully, convincingly. There can be no doubt that he is a man in the right place at the right time. In three years since becoming artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet he has brought what was already a very respectable troupe to be Britain's best ballet company: the liveliest repertoire, the highest number of new works, excellent dancers, enthusiastic audiences.

But he wants a lot more yet: no less than to alter the whole way the possibilities of ballet are perceived in this country. "We've got to make it more serious, bring a change in people's mental attitudes," he says. Most people, he knows, take a narrow, blinkered view of what ballet can and should be.

During his career (he is 41, and was already active in dance from his early teens) he has seen people writing off ballet as a spent force when modern dance arrived to attract much of the media interest and create a new audience of young people. But now, he reckons, there is greater discernment, people can spot cliches in some modern dance too. "We have to show we can affect that younger audience, can deal with subjects and themes that have an appeal to them."

He is delighted to be doing this from a base away from the London centred view of things. "The years coming up are going to be the best time for these cities - Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds. I never felt I was part of a community in London, and it's a pity not to be where you can shape what happens." In Birmingham he is closely involved in many other activities: working at the Repertory Theatre on a new production of Pajama Game; serving on a panel to choose public art as part of the Broad Street development; forming links with a local chorus for his Carmina Burana and with the University of Central England's theatre design school to work with the company's new choreographers.

Also, he says proudly, he has been in half the city's schools as part of BRB's education programme. "Education is one thing the city asked for when they invited us here - and it's happening, with knobs on." Unlike the Royal Opera House manager who notoriously spoke of just paying lip- service to education, he obviously loves it.

And when asked what development he would most like to see within ballet generally, his immediate answer is "I think I would like to see teaching get better at every level across the country. We've got to find a better and more efficient way of teaching, and of finding kids to teach. We don't just want white middle-class little girls who go to ballet classes. We need to make it more acceptable to people and extend participation at all levels. That's the way you're going to attract talent - future choreographers as well as dancers."

He reckons he has now got BRB "more or less where I want it to be. There are sixty dancers, which is enough for big ambitious productions but not too many for this friendly, all-family atmosphere which the company has always had. That's something rare. When I audition people, I never say `She'll make a useful corps de ballet dancer.' I try to amass the most interesting and versatile dancers I can, and develop them so they know talent, enthusiasm and hard work will be rewarded."

He works himself pretty hard too: this year he is putting on three one- act ballets of his own and collaborating with Galina Samsova on a new production of the old classic Giselle, while also busy preparing for his biggest venture yet: a ballet about King Arthur that will occupy two full evenings. He explains this unprecedented length with the simple question, how can you tell that story in less? Set for premiere next year, this involves the same collaborators for music and design as his acclaimed Edward II.

But BRB is certainly not going to become a one-man show under Bintley. This year he is acquiring works by two of the best-known international choreographers, Twyla Tharp and William Forsythe. "I want them so that our audiences can see for themselves, and also for the sake of giving our dancers that experience. But in a way it's easy to get the big names, everyone knows who they are. I would like also to build a long-term relationship with some middle-range names. When Lila York does a ballet for us and goes back to tell people in New York this is a marvellous company, and Stanton Welch tells people the same in Australia, that's great for us."

That is in addition to the choreographic projects in which he gets dancers in the company to try their hand at choreography as a joint venture. Last year's Vivaldi Four Seasons was so successful that Victor Hochhauser (not noted for rash experiment) is presenting it at the Coliseum this summer with Bintley's Carmina Burana. "And I hope some of these dancers will develop to do their own independent works for the repertory,"

So is he neglecting the company's "heritage" ballets among all this activity? "We must always have great love and respect for the past," he says, and judging by the frequency with which the name of Dame Ninette de Valois is on his lips, he is in no danger of forgetting the Royal Ballet's founder. In fact his reconstruction of her long-forgotten ballet from 1940, The Prospect Before Us, is one of the works BRB is bringing to Sadler's Wells next month.

Knowing Bintley's awareness of dance history, it is impossible to avoid thinking that an analogy with the Stuttgart Ballet must be in his mind: the way that company (from a city smaller than Birmingham) sprang to world fame on its first trans-atlantic trip under John Cranko's direction. And before I leave, he quotes something which Cranko's long-time ballerina Marcia Haydee wrote when she had become Cranko's successor as director: "Our past is not without significance, but the future is more important."