DANCE / Go wild in the Black Country: Just when it seemed that his skills might be lost to Britain, David Bintley landed the plum job at Birmingham Royal Ballet. Anne Sacks met him

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The Independent Culture
IN AUGUST 1995, David Bintley will become artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, taking over the prestigious national touring company from Sir Peter Wright, who is retiring. Everyone has been telling him that he's perfect for the job. But Bintley, a blunt, headstrong Yorkshireman, is bemused: 'I find it curious that people are saying that as a Royal Ballet insider I'm the right person for the job when I've always felt an outsider.'

Bintley, 36, is a prolific choreographer who has created a wide range of narrative and plotless dances for the Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, including four full-length ballets. He has also been a distinguished dancer in such character roles as Widow Simone in Frederick Ashton's La Fille mal gardee. Still, Bintley is having a wry chuckle over his appointment, because, he says, he has never been regarded as 'Royal Ballet material. I was never one for standing at the barre with legs and feet looking pretty.'

His relationship with the Royal Ballet has been difficult from the start. As an 18-year-old from Huddersfield, he was virtually ignored at the Royal Ballet's Upper School in Richmond, London - until he won the prize for choreography at the end-of-year show. 'Suddenly there was a flurry with everyone asking who this person was because no one had ever heard of me.'

His first job was with Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet (now BRB), but by 1986, he was married with a young son. Tired out by 10 years of life on the road, he became the resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden. His career as a choreographer looked set. So he thought. So everyone thought. But Bintley was becoming more and more unhappy. Kenneth MacMillan was the Royal Ballet's principal choreographer, and Bintley felt marginalised. His self-esteem crashed. Nothing seemed to make him feel better, so he decided to leave. His first year as a freelance choreographer would be OK, he reckoned, because BRB had commissioned Sylvia, a full-length ballet, from him. After that he would look abroad for offers. So he resigned.

Then in October 1992, Kenneth MacMillan died unexpectedly, and Bintley was asked to stay on for a while longer. He agreed. He left the day after the premiere of Tombeaux in January 1993 with the applause still ringing in his ears. He had had another hit. But there was also the suggestion that he had left the Royal Ballet without a choreographer for the first time in its history. Things turned nasty: there were rumours that he had stormed out because his request for Kenneth MacMillan's title had been turned down. Bintley denies this. 'I had already made up my mind to leave before Kenneth died. The rumours were rubbish. I had to leave for my own good. Besides, Tombeaux was full of bile and resentment and it occurred to me that I could not stay after creating a piece that reflected all the negative things I was feeling.'

He was planning to settle in the United States or Germany, but has now been tempted back to the Royal Ballet by the challenge of a top job. Until he moves to Birmingham next year, this angry but engaging young man will be fulfilling commitments in Stuttgart, Boston and Johannesburg. His future looks bright; fences have been mended. Besides, I ask him, over tea at the Birmingham Hippodrome, home of the BRB, was Tombeaux really that bitter? It seemed extraordinarily serene to me. 'It was full of emotions but those emotions were for me.' He pauses. I'm about to ask the next question, when he adds: 'Those feelings were contained, they were not for the audience.' Throughout the interview Bintley speaks passionately of things about which he cares, then pauses and offers an afterthought.

He is not dramatic, but is more a sort of Ray Illingworth figure: a straight-talking Yorkshireman who is unafraid to make radical decisions, because he believes they are right. Like his plan to stage double bills when he takes over because he does not go along with the orthodoxy that they are unpopular. And he plans to make the programmes more adventurous, packing them with new works.

'I have to go for it and do wild things because I believe BRB is one of the few companies that have the money and the daring. I have to be more adventurous, even if I last only three years and empty the theatres.' A pause. 'I'm not going to be told that the only things people will watch are Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty because that is not right.'

English ballet has lost its way

in the last 20 or 30 years: its traditional lyricism has become mixed with Russian athleticism. Does he agree? 'Of course I do. The Russians come here and they are feted; New York City Ballet comes here and everyone says this is how ballet should be. Then the same people say the Royal Ballet can't do Ashton properly any more. They can't have it both ways. Let those companies do what they do and let's retain the English way and appreciate the differences.' Perhaps this is why everyone thinks Bintley is so right for the job. As a choreographer, rather than a dancer, he can re-cultivate the national style. His beliefs, he says, are the same as those of his predecessors - Peter Wright, Frederick Ashton, Ninette de Valois. 'Continuity does not mean conservatism. I will draw on my Royal Ballet roots and update them.' A pause. 'We are a long way from what I would like to see here and it is something that I will go towards.' What does he mean, exactly? 'English dance as personified by the Royal Ballet in the late 1960s is not so much a technique but a philosophy. Ashton used dance to convey a message. The point was not the technique but how the technique could be used to express something. This is unlike the Russian style, which is illustrative - and frozen in time.'

So can this outspoken rebel recapture the spirit of English ballet and take it into the 21st century? He smiles. 'I can see the headlines now: 'New hope for English ballet'.'

BRB: Plymouth Royal, 0752 267222, 5-9 July; Manchester Palace, 061-242 2503, 12-16 July; Bristol Hippodrome, 0272 299444, 19-23 July.