It's a simple case of lost principals

Contrary to popular belief (and management spin), it's not just the Royal Opera that's in trouble. Its sister company the Royal Ballet is too. John Percival and Nadine Meisner weigh up its chances of survival
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The Independent Culture
At Gerald Kaufman's parliamentary investigation last year into the situation at the Royal Opera House, Vivien Duffield, the theatre's deputy chairman, leaned into the microphone and stated that artistic levels were "higher than they have ever been before". She must have a short memory.

The official line is also that the Royal Ballet meets the highest international standards. This runs counter to our experience, namely that the best companies abroad offer more excitement and skill. Besides, companies with the highest international standards are not usually so careless as to lose one leading man, followed by five others in the space of a few weeks. It suggests a malaise within the Royal Ballet, and the departures are a symptom of this.

Perhaps he is too upset, perhaps he doesn't want to be confrontational, but the company's director, Anthony Dowell, won't talk to us. Usually he is understanding when dancers leave for a career change. But this exodus was just too much: first the Japanese dazzle-artist, Tetsuya Kumakawa, then the others, who on 20 November handed Dowell their resignations shortly before curtain up in Belfast. The "Famous Five" (Stuart Cassidy, Michael Nunn, William Trevitt, Gary Avis, Matthew Dibble) were not exactly famous before their carefully orchestrated announcement that they and Kumakawa were forming a large British-based company, with orchestra, a female corps of 24, and generous financial backers.

Twenty years ago, Dowell, a far more famous dancer, took indefinite leave to join American Ballet Theatre. "When you get to a certain point," he had explained, "unless you have new ballets all the time to keep you stimulated, it's very hard." How were the Royal Ballet to replace him? "Things go on," he said. "They are not going to stop without me."

However, today's story is not about one individual leaving for new challenges with an established company. Reasonably contented dancers do not collectively jump ship for what is, after all, an uncertain venture, even if they have been promised lavish salaries. "It says a lot about where the company is at the moment, that they are prepared to make that break," says Bruce Sansom, one of the only two leading men (with Jonathan Cope) remaining from last year. "The company is not as creative a force as when I first joined 15 years ago. They have not been creatively pushed in the way I imagine they would have liked."

How will the Royal Ballet fill the present gap, given that the available talent is nowhere as strong as in Dowell's performing days? Moreover, as Sansom points out, the Royal Ballet's apostolic succession, that link through generations which has contributed to its style, has now been broken. "When I started," says Sansom, "I learnt from the company's principals. You either accepted what they did or you didn't, but it became part of your memory bank." The company's young men will instead have to look to outsiders, although the Russian star Irek Mukhamedov has been relegated to guest status and, inexplicably, the gifted new Cuban recruit, Carlos Acosta, has few roles so far.

Things, though, might have been even worse. During recent pay negotiations, at least 20 dancers thought of quitting. The new ROH chairman, Colin Southgate, and his Board, as part of a funding deal with the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, tried to impose savage new terms of 36 weeks annual employment, with longer hours and little or no overtime. This actually widened the gap between the dancers and the rest of the ROH employees; and they would also be worse off than their opposite numbers in Birmingham Royal Ballet and English National Ballet.

The Governors of the Royal Ballet, an independent board established by the company's Royal Charter to safeguard its interests, saw the danger of dancers haemorrhaging away. They pressed hard to preserve full-year contracts. Aware that some dancers were so upset they wanted the company to break away from Covent Garden, their chairman, Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, commissioned a feasibility report into this last-resort measure. Fortunately, the Governors managed to convince the Opera House Board (described by one insider as staggeringly ignorant about ballet) to let go of their business ethics, and accept that what might, on paper, make good commercial sense, bore no relation to how a ballet company must operate. So now the dancers have a good settlement, with concessions which will facilitate more broadcasts - if TV companies are willing to take this up.

But that is only a first step in a recovery plan that needs to overhaul radically the artistic direction, managerial structures, and whole ethos of the ROH. Enter Michael Kaiser, the new executive director, who started last month. Much hope is invested in his ability to cure financially sick arts companies - most recently, American Ballet Theatre. He also has the rare distinction of being genuinely enthusiastic about ballet, as well as opera.

The dancers apparently believe he will take their interests to heart. His chief aim is "a return to putting the artist first" and he looks forward to "a much more aggressively creative period in a supportive environment" - which would be a welcome change from the ballet's boringly cautious programmes over recent years. He believes a bold repertory can be made viable by stirring up public excitement. He also has ideas for dropping ticket prices on certain nights ,and for free performances in the ROH's new studio theatre. But even this shining white knight rides in with one disadvantage - namely that all his experience has been in the United States, where tax laws favour donors, and sponsors are more numerous.

Another big question is whether Dowell, as artistic director, and Anthony Russell-Roberts, as administrator, can help give the ballet fresh life. For years, they have presided over its decline, sanctioning fewer performances, and a repertory focused on over-exposed pot-boilers to pull in the crowds. Dowell is a shy, insular figure, when the Royal Ballet needs an inspirational and publicity-conscious leader. Russell- Roberts now talks of a broader range of new and existing works. Mark Baldwin and Michael Corder are creating pieces for the next months; Christopher Bruce and Siobhan Davies have also been approached. The improved stage facilities of the new theatre will allow more programmes and premieres annually, although for financial reasons, full year-round performances are not expected until the 2001- 2 season. Another benefit will be the Studio Theatre with about 400 seats, where young choreographers will be tried out, without much expenditure on designs.

Crucial will be reform at the Royal Ballet School, traditionally the source of new recruits. If standards have slipped, part of the blame lies at the roots. It is significant that David Bintley at Birmingham Royal Ballet now recruits most dancers from outside.

A question mark remains with the ROH Board's decision to create a new post of overall artistic director. If the chosen candidate is an opera person, Kaiser will need to redouble his efforts for the ballet, which has long been treated as the family's tiresome junior member. It also remains to be seen how much power either Kaiser or the new artistic director will have, with a chairman who has shown a very hands-on attitude and a deputy chairman (Vivien Duffield), with the view that important donors as herself should be entitled to representation on the board "as a quid pro quo".

Is the Royal Opera House to be the bauble of the ultra-rich who can buy into its control, or a genuinely public property with an adequate subsidy? We have seen too much harm done by boards of amateurs operating in their spare time, meddling with the work of professionals who are paid to be accountable, focused and knowledgeable. Until the Government sorts this out, the fundamental flaws will remain. We risk losing the opportunity to put the Royal Ballet on the path towards regaining its glorious standards.