The Royal Ballet is as popular as ever: audiences increased last year by five per cent to 87 per cent of the Royal Opera House's capacity. So who is responsible for the crisis? Many blame the Royal Opera House itself. Dame Ninette de Valois was thrilled when the ballet company she founded in 1931 was invited by the Opera House in 1946 to move in with the Royal Opera. The idea was that the ballet and opera companies would not be run separately but jointly under the aegis of the Royal Opera House. The arrangement worked well for decades, but what de Valois could not possibly foresee was this would be a marriage for better or worse, for richer or poorer. Now, almost 50 years later, the ballet company has become the battered partner, brutalised for not making a bigger contribution to the household budget.
The Royal Opera House has a budget deficit of pounds 2.8m, which a spokesman says arises out of an inability to meet sponsorship targets, particularly in the last five or 10 years of cuts in the Arts Council subsidy. The Royal Opera House needs to make money, and bluntly, opera makes more money than ballet. No one will say how much more, but with the average opera ticket almost double a ballet one - pounds 63 to pounds 27 - indications are that it is a lot more. So the Royal Opera House has been showing a bias towards the opera company to address the deficit, and freely admits it. 'We are not happy about the situation,' says Keith Cooper, public affairs director, 'but the opera has fulfilled a role in the recession.' Jeremy Isaacs, director of the Royal Opera House, has cut ballet performances for the new season to 97 (as opposed to 160 performances for opera). Even if you add in 45 ballet performances on overseas tours this year, there is a shortfall of 18 performances, equal to the entire run of Baryshnikov's Don Quixote last year. Isaacs says he will try to achieve parity of performances but in the present financial circumstances, the only thing he is likely to try is the patience of ballet lovers.
With little spare cash, the Royal Ballet has decided largely to recycle last year's programme - including, incomprehensibly, Don Quixote, the glamorous new production that flopped. The company has cancelled the new Forsythe ballet and rolled over to next season an important new production of The Sleeping Beauty. However, the designer Maria Bjornson will not be available next year, so the production is going ahead anyway and will have its glittering premiere not in London but in Washington on 7 April during an American tour. British fans are irked that American audiences will see an important new ballet before they will and aggrieved that the management is so casual about their loyalty. There will be no new full-length productions and only four new short ones. The Royal Opera, on the other hand, is staging seven new productions this year. The Royal Ballet management is also accused of complacency. With Ashton and MacMillan creating ballets season after season, it seems it didn't foresee the need to develop new choreographers.
MacMillan was not well enough to make a new full-length ballet in the last years of his life. When he died last October, he left a chasm, which the Royal Ballet now realises is deepened by the shortage of good choreographers on which it can call. As a result, a small national tour is being set up in the spring to give new choreographers a chance to show their work. But the Royal Ballet may have left it a little late - it is crying out for mature choreographers, not developing ones.
One area in which the Royal Ballet can claim credit is in bringing in foreign stars, notably Irek Mukhamedov, Sylvie Guillem, Zoltan Solymosi and Jose Manuel Carreno. It is widely agreed that they have added lustre to the company, and have galvanised other dancers into giving better performances. Dancers have welcomed them, saying they have learnt a lot. However, the drawback for company dancers is that the foreign stars have blocked the path to promotion. 'It does mean that the nuts and raisins will never rise to the top of the cake,' lamented one dancer. Some of these stars have shown extraordinary commitment to the company, especially Mukhamedov, the former Bolshoi star, who has invited some Royal Ballet dancers to join his small touring company, giving them a chance to perform pieces not often seen in the West. Even the notoriously aloof Sylvie Guillem is said to be warming: she played bridge with company members during their Paris stop last summer.
One of the 'nuts and raisins' that has made it to the top is the gifted Deborah Bull, who was made a principal in 1992. After the first flurry of excitement, it dawned on dancers that promotion is only half the battle. A mere six roles were found for Bull last year, even though her Swan Queen is the most magical in the company. With this year's programme a near- facsimile of last year's, Bull and many talented soloists will be sitting at home at with their feet up. 'The Royal Ballet is not short of talent and could have more stars if only it nurtured them properly,' says one observer.
Many people feel that the man who must accept responsibility for the company's artistic drift is Anthony Dowell, director of the Royal Ballet. One of the best English classical dancers of the Sixties and Seventies, he was appointed artistic director in 1986. There was a brief honeymoon in which he lifted dancing standards, but things soon started going wrong. 'He's lost direction,' says a source close to the company. His reign is distinguished only by its missed opportunities. The Tales of Beatrix Potter, for example, one of last year's big new productions, was criticised for not being properly thought through. Adapted from the film choreographed by Frederick Ashton, it was never intended for the stage. 'A choreographer should have been brought in to develop the characters and devise a dramatic thread.' Nevertheless, it was a box-office hit.
Some feel that another of Dowell's lost opportunities was choosing Mikhail Baryshnikov's pedestrian version of Don Quixote, the worst possible choice for what was intended as last year's leading addition to the repertoire. The right choice would have been Nureyev's fine version, but Dowell is said to have been disinclined to deal with a difficult and ailing Nureyev. Dowell had hoped that popular success would make a mockery of the bad reviews, but in the end, audiences stayed away from many of the 18 performances that did not have star casts. One night there were so many empty seats that the house had to be filled with people waving complimetary tickets.
Darcey Bussell and Viviana Durante are two home-grown stars but there are fears they are being overworked, pitched into roles that don't necessarily suit them without being provided with more intensive coaching to ensure they are not compromised. But Bussell is a star attraction. People come especially to see her, and there is undoubtedly pressure to cast her.
Dowell himself blames the crisis on the recession. 'Last year was really dreadful,' he says, 'but at least we're still in business.'
But for how long? The grim fact is that the new season looks a lot likethe last. There will be more performances of Beatrix Potter, Don Quixote and Mayerling as well as some of last year's new short ballets. So if you want to see a big new production from the Royal Ballet this season, go to America in April.
New season begins at the ROH (071-240 1066), Sat, with a mixed programme including 'Herman Schmerman' by William Forsythe and Kenneth MacMillan's 'Different Drummer'.