Arts: A delicate balance

In the final part of our major series on the state of the arts in Scotland, Nadine Meisner looks at how Scottish Ballet has pulled back from the brink to enter into a partnership with Scottish Opera
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The frou-frou art of ballet and the dour population of Scotland might seem completely at odds, except that both images are untrustworthy cliches. In fact, ballet's historic links with folk dance are at their most obvious in Scotland's traditional dances, and the kilted figures tiptoeing and beating their neat feet between swords seem to coexist quite happily with 20-stone men tossing the caber at the Highland Games.

So it should be no surprise that the Glasgow-based Scottish Ballet has been serving Scotland's large and small theatres for 30 years. Last week it announced a new artistic director, Robert North, an American once prominent in England as a dancer, choreographer and director with London Contemporary Dance Theatre and Ballet Rambert. He arrives in Scotland after heading a company in Verona where politics mean chaos in the arts as well as in government. "In Italy," he says, "there are now 57 different parties and it's just a joke."

The parties in the Scottish elections may be refreshingly few, but the arms-length principle of British (and so far Scottish) arts funding is not as non-interventionist as it appears. Scottish Ballet has been through unsteady times in the past two years. It had part of its money withheld when the then artistic director Galina Samsova and the board clashed with the Scottish Arts Council. Samsova wanted an expensive, enlarged company, performing the big classics audiences love; the SAC argued this could not be afforded and was determined to make its client companies more cost-effective. A steering group, charged with devising money-saving strategies, mooted an arrangement in which Scottish Ballet and Scottish Opera would share an administrative staff and an orchestra. Meanwhile, rumours were flying that the SAC's secret agenda was to transform Scottish Ballet into a more economic contemporary dance ensemble, to join the six other subsidised contemporary dance groups, and that ballet would therefore be deleted from Scotland.

This was scaremongering. In fact, the SAC defined its vision for Scottish Ballet as "a dynamic, perhaps smaller, classically based company, with its own distinctive character which would serve a wide range of audiences in Scotland". But it also said it would release the balance of the company's 1997-8 funds only "once a new chair and board have been appointed."

Enter a new chair, a new board and an interim artistic director, Kenn Burke. The merger with Scottish Opera is steaming ahead and Norman Quirk, as managing director, represents Scottish Ballet in this process. The idea of sharing musical resources has been ditched, on the grounds of impracticality during touring. But the companies will have the same administrative machinery: a Joint Services Company with Ruth Mackenzie from SO as designate chief executive.

Will ballet become the poor relation? "The funding of both companies will be ring-fenced," says Quirk. "There won't be an opportunity to rob Peter to pay Paul." He claims that a made-to-measure opera and ballet home in Glasgow will further facilitate equality. The new building will stand on the site of the opera's existing headquarters, next to the Forth and Clyde Canal, which is being upgraded as part of a pounds 45m millennium project.

Scottish Ballet's core funding of pounds 2.1m has remained static for three years. "But," Quirk insists, "we can work with the present level. We now have a new artistic director and we will be looking to new programmes to bring in more money." "Evolution not revolution" has become the pep- chant in Scottish Ballet's offices, and Robert North should slot in smoothly. He is the man to make ordinary middle-of-the-road look worryingly marginal. He is to dance what Classic FM is to classical music.

Literate in contemporary dance as well as ballet, North applied for the post because "Scottish Ballet advertised for someone to take over a classical company, but not a company that did only classical repertoire, and that was perfect for me". He will create modern works using the company's classical foundation, and will invite other choreographers to do the same. He is supremely aware of the need to expand audiences, especially among young adults. How? "The first way to do it is to make sure that the music has rhythm and attraction. I like things to be fresh and new, but I like music to sound like music and dancing to look like dancing. I understand the thrill of the cutting edge, but that's for the small avant garde, not for the mainstream. These days, there is a polarisation which says, well, we can have the classics, but if we do new work it should be way out, so that no one can understand it."

North, whose own programming will not be visible for a year because of overlap, is vague on detail, however. Will he preserve the powerful and distinctive dance dramas created by Scottish Ballet's founder, Peter Darrell? Will he cut the numbers of dancers (currently 36)? Not yet, if ever. Will he discard the large-scale classics, but keep the smaller ones such as Bournonville's Scottish La Sylphide? Probably. But what is most likely is a doctrine of pragmatic flexibility; he will test the terrain and adjust his steering accordingly. "Not that we're going to sell out artistically, but we're going to have to take the roads that work. It's a fine line."

If artistically everything is sweet agreement, concerning the Joint Services Company things could get sticky. North thinks that for the ballet to keep a separate identity, it needs some administrative autonomy. "Otherwise you spend a lot of time trying to get marketing, for example, to look after the ballet, but just then they've got to concentrate on the opera."

Quirk says about the merger: "We are really hoping for this to be a new model for ballet and opera to sit side by side." But to me it sounds like New Scotland's own Covent Garden. Will Scotland take to its easy-viewing, classical-modern product? Would it really prefer a fully fledged classical company, as intended by the previous directorate? Ballet-lovers in Scotland complain that they pay their taxes, but they rarely see traditional ballet or English companies. There is little cross-border touring because there is little Arts Council funding for it. Scottish Ballet's London season in June will be its first in 20 years. And the signs are that this divide is getting worse. Will devolution merely reinforce isolationism?

What Next for the

Arts in Scotland?

Paul Gudgin, director, Edinburgh Fringe Festival

"Hopefully there will be a rush of creative energy. New ventures must be allowed to flourish in order to help shape a new cultural identity."

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Scottish Conservative arts spokesman

"We have developed a comprehensive cultural strategy in order to improve links between the arts and the tourist industry."