Royal Ballet's faux pas

Dance Bites tries to build regional audiences for modern dance. But is it really working?
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After years in the doldrums, the Royal Ballet are bristling with public optimism. They have a luxurious new home waiting for them in the redeveloped Royal Opera House; a go-getting American executive director, Michael Kaiser, famed for his nifty pas de deux work in raising collapsed ballet companies back on their feet; and New Labour status as reformed toffs, flinging open their doors to your average person on the street. Perhaps Kaiser is indeed so adept he can get money to pour out of taps. But he will also need to sort out the Royal Ballet's many other problems: their inaccessibility to most of the tax-paying country; their stuffy image; and the shortage of talent to choreograph the future's repertoire.

Now in its sixth season, Dance Bites is the Royal Ballet's attempt to address these problems. Each year, for a fortnight, the company divides into two and performs in medium-sized theatres round the country. This replaces their previous, exorbitantly expensive touring to large cities, with full company, orchestra and stage sets. Dance Bites was also conceived as a cost-effective way of killing two birds with one stone: not only to travel outside London, but to encourage younger choreographers by showcasing their work. In the estimation of the company's administrative director, Anthony Russell-Roberts, it has been a success. In my estimation, it has been ineffectually implemented and counter-productive.

Superficially, Dance Bites is the pluckily ingenious scheme of an organisation strapped for cash. And it is preferable to the earlier custom of flinging novice choreographers on to the grand Royal Opera House stage, to make their mistakes in a blaze of publicity. But from what I have seen, audiences for Dance Bites have dwindled. Past programmes have often featured work not ready to be shown to a paying public, while the glossy trappings of live music and stage design looked inappropriately extravagant. This present tour is stricter in choice of choreographers, and more sober in presentation. But I still doubt that it will win audiences to the cause of modern ballet.

This is because of a mismatch between the product and the consumer. Russell-Roberts says: "It would be an insult to regional audiences to suggest they were less sophisticated than in London." As someone from a village in Cumbria, I agree. Moreover, during the past few decades, the most avant-garde choreographers have regularly toured the regions. "We are aiming at a public who would appreciate new choreography, leavened with a masterwork like Ashton's Monotones," he says. "We state clearly what the programmes are."

But the modern-minded audiences, who buy tickets to see Siobhan Davies, stay away from Dance Bites. What Dance Bites attracts are the blue-rinses and the ballet-pupil bun heads who expect recognisable classicism, technical bravura, and melody. They expect this because they see the name Royal Ballet.

True, the publicity says "Dance Bites" in bigger lettering, but that doesn't prevent individual theatres from plastering large "Royal Ballet on Tour" stickers across the posters. So the right audience doesn't come and the company's marketing has failed to redress this. Given that many of the towns have colleges and universities, where are the students?

I saw this year's two Dance Bites programmes in Northampton and Cambridge. In Northampton, the familiar item was a revival of David Bintley's Galanteries, a tastefully calibrated suite of dances to Mozart. In Cambridge, everything was overshadowed by Ashton's Monotones, as seamlessly serene, pared down and strange as its Satie music. Darcey Bussell's long, poised lines folded and stretched beautifully in the plastique of the second trio to Trois Gymnopedies.

Bussell led Mark Baldwin's Towards Poetry, performing a quirky pas de deux with Nigel Burley and a long solo that displayed her yawning jump. Her deliberate, challenging air of narcissism slotted into the piece's eccentric atmosphere, but what significance lay behind it all remained a secret between Baldwin and his composer, Julian Anderson.

William Tuckett's Love's Fool, in which Luke Heydon's modern-day Cupid gives office romance a helping push, was entirely clear thanks to the programme note, although the overall effect was two- dimensional. Much of the movement concentrated on the feet, so it was frustrating that these were hidden from many by Cambridge's appalling sightlines.

After Galanteries in Northampton, the radicalism of Cathy Marston's Tidelines was a shock. Choreography, design and music confront each other prismatically. Peter Sculthorpe's score superimposes layers, and mirrors reflect the dancers' silhouettes. Sometimes they just stand around, sometimes they move in eddying and interfacing patterns, echoing the back projection of coloured liquids.

Jonathan Cope and Chloe Davies perform an entrancing pas de deux of unexpected but beautiful lifts which ends the piece abruptly and inconsequentially as if Marston couldn't think of a way of rounding off. Ashley Page's trio Soft Underbelly went through the variations of combining one woman and two men fluently and unremarkably.

Michael Corder's Masquerade offered no surprises either, although it had an articulate freshness and exuberance, enhanced by Anthony Ward's ravishing acid-drop costumes. Using Stravinsky's suite from Pulcinella, Corders plotless dances retain a sense of the commedia dell'arte characters. This brings nice choreographic contrasts and allows Peter Abegglen and Mara Galeazzi to be bright and teasing as Harlequin and Columbine.

This year's Dance Bites focuses more on proven choreographers. But even established talents can produce misses. The task of watching experiments en masse can make muesli seem attractive. This heavy-duty programming is best suited to a small, low-profile performing space where the duds can come and go discreetly. And the good news is that this will happen, with the Royal Opera House's new studio theatre.

Gossip claims that this is the last Dance Bites. Russell-Roberts says he doesn't yet know but if medium-scale touring is to continue, the Royal Ballet should take half a leaf from the English National Ballet's book. ENB's artistic director, Derek Deane believes in pragmatism. "I see them as an opportunity, actually, to increase audiences by reaching people who might not normally go to the bigger theatres, but who are prepared to go to smaller ones." Catchily entitled Tour de Force!, his two programmes, (starting later this month), reverse the Dance Bites balance by splicing familiar extracts with a dash of the new - in both cases provided by the company's Christopher Hampson.

With a smaller subsidy than the Royal Ballet, the ENB has tighter box- office considerations but Tour de Force! certainly attracts full houses. "I want to create audiences, not alienate them. You've got to mix and match programmes to entertain as well as challenge," is Deane's recipe. "Programmes of ballets they've never heard of are not going to get people in. You've got to create interest, not use the occasion as a glorified choreographic workshop." He denies that he is referring to Dance Bites but I, for one, don't believe him.

Dance Bites tours to Cornwall, High Wycombe, Dartford and Woking. Tour de Force! runs from 22 Mar to 10 Apr