Lure of the old, shock of the new

Louise Levene on the pick 'n' mix approach our ballet companies take to filling their dance-cards
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The Independent Culture
Balanchine once likened creating a ballet to concocting a recipe. Formulating a mixed bill is more like planning a dinner party. Should one experiment or stick to old favourites? Should one opt for a varied menu or theme the evening? How much will it all cost? Will anybody come?

Rambert Dance Company and the Royal Ballet have both issued invitations in London this month (to the Coliseum and Covent Garden) and much thought has gone into selecting interesting and popular dishes. In an ideal world planning the perfect dance menu would simply be a matter of taste; in practice there are far more mundane considerations, not least of which is box office, as Christopher Bruce, artistic director of Rambert, is all too aware: "You construct what you think will be your ideal programme but, when you've chosen, you have to ask whether it's possible from a technical point of view, whether it's financially possible." Once upon a time, so we're told, audiences were happy to sample the unknown and dancegoers were hungry for premieres. Now, an evening of untried work would be box office suicide. "The all-new programme is the marketing manager's nightmare," says Bruce, who has luckily been blessed with a talent for creating works that combine popularity and artistic excellence.

Current audience favourites are Swansong and Rooster. Both are on the GCSE syllabuses, both have appeared on television and Rooster has the easy appeal of being danced to the Rolling Stones. "I wanted the Coliseum programmes to have a celebratory nature to show off the whole company, pay homage to the past as well as the present. Next time we come I'd like us to look completely different to show our versatility." Yet there is more to a balanced evening than mere stylistic variety. "The audience does need the range of experience in an evening." Bruce hates monotony - "three works which actually feel like you're seeing three different versions of the same work."

It's been 15 years since Rambert last staged a full-length piece. Contemporary dance audiences have long been trained to enjoy short works. The Royal Ballet, although it had its roots in variety, progressed to whole-evening works in 1934, and for many years the one-act and three-act repertoire co-existed happily, but today mixed bills are perceived as less popular. Keith Cooper, the Royal Opera House's infamous marketing supremo, insists that short works can fill the house just as efficiently as a three-act story ballet but acknowledges that tickets for mixed programmes can be almost half the price.

However, there has been no need to cut prices for the Royal Ballet's next mixed bill, an unusually showy offering packed with pas de deux that showcase stars like Darcey Bussell, Igor Zelensky and Irek Mukhamedov. Teddy Kuma-kawa will dance Le Corsaire and Sylvie Guillem will flaunt her audacious technique in Grand Pas Classique and her bosom in Versace's transparent designs for Herman Schmerman. Keith Cooper, whose notoriously direct manner contrasts so vigorously with the beige politeness of the ballet company hierarchy, is eager to take the credit for this starry line-up. "I had my influence on that. We had a very poor summer last season. I felt that I was able to shout a bit and bang my foot."

The last non-gala performance of Le Corsaire was back in the pre-Anthony Dowell days of 1985 by visiting flash-dancer Fernando Bujones. Cooper is conscious that Le Corsaire and other showy divertissements go rather against the grain with the Royal Ballet: "They have shied away from it. They feel you keep those pieces for a real gala occasion but the summer is not the time to put on new contemporary work."

New ballets can be very difficult to sell at the best of times and the audience is sometimes right to be cautious. Monica Mason, assistant director of the Royal Ballet, admits the odd failure: "One of the most difficult times is when a new work goes in the middle of the programme and it doesn't quite come off so the evening sinks in the middle - like a souffle." Worse still is when the menu is thrown completely off balance when the advertised work fails to materialise - Michael Clark and William Forsythe have both failed to deliver of late. When this happens, Mason and Dowell have somehow to open a tin and rustle something up in the remaining rehearsal time: "One of the most difficult things is when you've got to do a patchwork job," Mason says. "That's something that one dreads most of all."

Selling a pig in a poke is no easy task either. When asked to devise his mixed bill from hell Keith Cooper doesn't hesitate: "One that was all new work and where the choreographers gave you no indication of what music, designers or dancers they were using. We sell up to 30 per cent of our seats to our mailing list in advance, so we'd be going out some four or five months before the first night with no information." The Opera House's mailing list is its most powerful weapon in the fight for audiences and Cooper is keen to show off the canny omniscience of his BOCS box office computer system, which logs the name and address of every credit card purchaser. Should he wish to contact Balanchine lovers from Haywards Heath with a preference for aisle seats, he can do so at the touch of a button. "The biggest part of our marketing effort is exploiting our own database. We have much more active promotions here than people realise."

A well-targeted mailshot may help to fill the house but what sold yesterday does not automatically sell tomorrow. Monica Mason knows that a work's popularity can never be guaranteed. "At one time we used to think that Dances at a Gathering was a sure-fire hit, but you have to discover exactly when it's the moment to say 'Enough's enough'. Because if you play it too much, it can be the kiss of death." Even Cooper knows that focusing on purely commercial considerations can be dangerously short-sighted and is very anxious that golden geese like the Christmas hit Tales of Beatrix Potter are given a rest.

Christopher Bruce shares these fears for Rambert and is concerned that Rooster shouldn't be done to death. "It's so valuable to have a work like that but you do have to be so careful it doesn't become a millstone." That point hasn't yet been reached with Rambert's current favourites, and both Rooster and Swansong are on offer next week - in tandem with new work. For the time being this is the wisest strategy. "I'm combining new work with old so that the risk is dissipated," Bruce says. "I'll do things this way until the audience is really with us, a solid audience. Until then we can hedge." Tight funding may have made him circumspect but whether they are dancing old work or new, Bruce is determined that his company display "humour and humanity and convey the sheer joy and exhilaration of movement. That is what Marie Rambert loved and that's why she would have loved this present company."

n 'Rambert', London Coliseum, 9-13 July (0171-632 8300). Royal Ballet mixed programme, Royal Opera House, London WC2, 25, 26, 29 July (0171- 304 4000)