Comment: Are foreign ballerinas the shape of things to come?

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The Independent Culture
JUST AS Covent Garden's new executive director Michael Kaiser was congratulating himself on turning press comment from negative to positive, the papers are suddenly full of stories about the problems of ballet. First the Royal Ballet's Viviana Durante supposedly gets dropped during rehearsal and definitely gets dropped from the Japanese tour. Then English National Ballet's director Derek Deane defends his company's lack of English leading dancers by claiming that the shape of the British body is to blame: stocky, broad-shouldered, too much bosom or bum.

So was Durante too heavy for her partner, Bruce Sansom? Not so: Durante - Italian, not English - is sveltely beautiful. But the two dancers had not worked together for some time, and Kenneth MacMillan's ballet Manon is full of seriously difficult lifts, which were not going too well. In the hectic last-minute pre-tour atmosphere, tempers became frayed and the Royal Ballet's director Anthony Dowell announced rather snappily that the passionate ballerina's performances on the tour would now be given to other dancers.

As it happens, they are an Australian member of the company and a Cuban guest ballerina. So does this bear out Deane's comments about the lack of good British dancers? Not entirely, but even if we assume (and I think we can) that everyone will kiss and make up before the company's next engagement, a summer season at Sadler's Wells, who else is announced for the two big productions there, Giselle and Ondine? Darcey Bussell and Sarah Wildor are English, so are Jonathan Cope and Sansom, but Sylvie Guillem, Leanne Benjamin and Miyako Yoshida come from France, Australia and Japan, while the other featured men are the Russians Igor Zelensky and Irek Mukhamedov, the Cuban Carlos Acosta and the Argentinian Inaki Urlezaga.

And this is a company that used to insist on recruiting only British dancers. European Community rules would make that illegal now - but most of the names mentioned come from much further afield. That is true also of Deane's choices for the inaptly named English National Ballet, but that company has always been eclectic. I remember that once when I shared a flight with them from Monte Carlo, as the dancers divided up for immigration control, one of them called out "So, we do still have some British passport holders!"

But the practice of looking abroad for dancers has become far more widespread. Birmingham Royal Ballet, Scottish Ballet, Northern Ballet Theatre and Rambert Dance Company all have a high proportion of imports. So, incidentally, do leading American companies, but not those in Russia or France. So is it a question of physique, training - or both?

Some agree with Deane that British bodies, pear-shaped and thick legged, do not suit present tastes in ballet. But we managed to get good English dancers in the past.

Selecting the right physiques for training is part of the problem. One reason why China has begun producing first-rate dancers is that teachers from the Central Ballet School can travel the country picking out children with the best potential and offering them free residential education. And experience has taught them to look for girls from one region, boys from another, where the average body shape is different.

Latterly, the Royal Ballet School has taken to seeking out pupils around the country - partly in the hope of finding more boys and more students from ethnic minorities - but the results have not appeared too great. Both Derek Deane and Birmingham's David Bintley have said they have difficulty employing many graduates from what is supposed to be our leading dance school, and although Anthony Dowell has kept his mouth shut about Royal Ballet recruitment, his actions speak louder than words.

What happens to the pupils once they get into the schools is also vital, and it is far too soon to forecast what effect the Royal Ballet School's new Australian director, Gailene Stock, will have; the word is that she knows what changes she would like in curriculum and staff, but has realised it will take a time to bring them into effect. Anyway, can teaching make all the difference?

Deane himself, in spite of his complaints about British physique, implies that it can when he boasts about one dancer who arrived "very pear-shape" but was streamlined and given new muscular definition through English National Ballet's training programme. Besides, the schools in Saint Petersburg and Paris have the reputation for helping their female pupils to develop long, slender legs.

So, given determination, care and time, we ought to be able to produce good English dancers again. But we have made things harder for ourselves by a change in taste. Tall and slender is the watchword, with Bussell and Guillem being the exemplars. But that introduces another problem, since there are few good male dancers tall enough to partner them. And Margot Fonteyn, held up by Deane as the ideal, was not tall; and she was definitely "woman-shaped", even rather cuddly in her early years.

It is supposed to have been George Balanchine at New York City Ballet who introduced the mode for taller dancers. That belief ignores the existence of a really tall dancer in Beryl Grey during the Royal Ballet's early years, and also the fact that Balanchine, while bringing forward several beautiful, tall women, always had ballerinas of different shapes and sizes in his company, so that, like a painter with a wide palette of colours, he could make his ballets in a variety of styles and modes.

Which rather puts paid to Deane's pushing for one ideal shape. Look at the contrasted bodies we saw in William Forsythe's Frankfurt Ballet, which just had a great success in London. Or witness the varied dancers now performing exciting new ballets at the Paris Opera. Or think back to one of the best dancers who worked for English National Ballet in recent years, Trinidad Sevillano, who was really tiny but moved big and had great depth of emotion.

My experience is that the important thing is to combine of a variety of dancers - provided that they are good - with an interesting repertoire. That is what matters. So Deane's remark that he has "never shirked tackling mediocrity" is much more to the point. If he concentrates on that, rather than suggesting ideal body types, nobody will be able to argue with him.