One step at a time

London City Ballet is dead. Long live City Ballet of London! After a year that would drive a lesser man to drink, Harold King is back - on a new footing
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London City Ballet was famous for two things: regular touring and regular threats of closure. The ballet world, although kindly disposed towards this hard-working troupe and its indefatigable artistic director, Harold King, started to view this biannual whinge as mere "shroud waving". Until one day last June when the curtain fell for ever on London City Ballet.

All in all it's been a pretty bad year for Harold King. His brother died in January, his friend the dancer Jack Wyngaard had a fatal heart attack aged 37 in May, King was diagnosed with TB, the Princess of Wales withdrew her patronage, the main sponsor pulled out in June and the bank froze the company's account. LCB's numerous creditors included one H King.

As he tucks into his chopped liver, he consults the catalogue of woe that he has scribbled on the back of an envelope. "For a long time we seemed to struggle on to the next crisis and the next. Some people understood, but there were also those who said, `Oh, they're crying wolf again'." He admits he had got rather used to being rescued. "I did lull myself into a false sense of security - that there would always be someone to catch me."

Not this time. King was obliged to break the bad news to his long-suffering dancers. "I had to fly up to Aberdeen and tell them `You've just given your last performance.' I can sniff money out anywhere but it's impossible to do it in a few days." King, owed pounds 9,000 by LCB, was in a bad way financially. "I was completely done in. I contemplated selling the odd statue and jewellery. In the end a ballet critic gave me a cheque for pounds 500. I nearly fell off my chair."

This ability to conjure blood from stones is testament to King's enormous personal charm, but it is also an indication of his remarkable powers of survival. After a year that would drive a lesser man to drink, Harold King approaches Christmas with a new ballet company, City Ballet of London; new funding; a Christmas season of Matthew Hart's delightful Cinderella at London's Peacock Theatre; and big plans for the future. "It's been an opportunity in a way. Of course we've lost a lot of dancers. One girl's gone to Dutch National Ballet, another to ENB, one gave up to have babies, another's on a cruise ship on the Caribbean, one boy is doing pantomime. It's a new company now. I have no doubt it's going to be infinitely better than the previous company. Some of the dead wood has gone." The new company members are signed up until the end of February, when he hopes to have new funding in place and that new contracts can be signed. He has his beady eye on Lottery cash. "I don't want this to be a flash in the pan. You can't live hand to mouth."

No matter how successful a ballet company becomes, it can never really hope to become entirely self-sufficient. The large cast and full orchestra demanded by the classical repertoire make survival purely on box-office income virtually impossible. "If we wanted to be viable in that way we'd have to have extortionate seat prices and do Swan Lake all year. You cannot run a ballet company or an opera company without a financial cushion in place."

In an ideal world, King would really rather not do Swan Lake all year, but although he yearns for a neo-classical company he is also a realist. "There's a huge resistance to triple bills out there, but I'm sick to death of seeing the classics."

Tough. Box-office tells a rather different story. London City Ballet's productions of three-act classics did solid-gold business in smaller venues like Guildford and Bromley. "The Arts Council take the view that people should travel to their nearest city but people want to support their local theatre. OK, you're not going to get Irek Mukhamedov and Darcey Bussell, but a lot of people might be rather daunted by the Opera House and be frightened to go through the door." Too often the only glimpse a small town gets of live ballet is a couple of old has-beens in tights and a clapped-out pianist. Harold King is contemptuous of this degradation of a fine spectacle: "It's wrong to do `highlights from' with a piano. To sit and watch the Don Quixote pas de deux to piano is a joke. It will frighten people off. It's all about the orchestra, the scenery. You can't short-change people and expect them to go back. Our audience has always had value for money"

City Ballet of London perform `Cinderella' at the Peacock Theatre, London WC2, 16 Dec to 4 Jan. Booking: 0171-314 8800