The Royal Ballet - what's the big idea?

Commercial paranoia has driven Britain's premier dance company into a spiral of artistic timidity. Sophie Constanti wonders if there'll ever be a truly contemporary repertoire at Covent Garden
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The Independent Culture
A few weeks ago, the Royal Opera House held its annual press conference to announce the opera and ballet programmes for 1995-96. Jeremy Isaacs, who will retire in 1997 when the building closes for redevelopment, mumbled something about ROH tickets being "affordable because... well, people afford them".

Nicholas Payne, for the Opera, delivered one of his famously unabridged dispatches. But then Payne, unlike Anthony Dowell, director of the Royal Ballet, actually had a few things worth wittering on about - like the second installment of the ROH's Verdi Festival and new productions of Michael Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage and Hindemith's Mathis der Maler.

And the Royal Ballet? Now resigned to its second-class status at the ROH, the company is offering a 1995-96 season dominated by Dowell's productions of Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake and Peter Wright's Giselle. That these three warhorses featured heavily in this year's schedule is sadly illustrative of the artistic stagnation and dearth of new choreography within the organisation.

One could argue that these aren't particularly good times for British dance; that the enterprise spirit of the Eighties has been replaced by a slump in creativity affecting contemporary dance as severely as ballet. But lack of new work at the Royal Ballet has become a chronic problem. Even diehard traditionalist critics voice their concern. No longer do they merely bemoan the passing of some glorious era in the Royal's history: nowadays they are as likely to stress the worrying absence of new choreographic blood. In 1986, Dowell took charge of a company that, during the Sixties and Seventies, sold itself on great dance partnerships (like his own with Antoinette Sibley), and a healthy store of Ashton and MacMillan ballets, but didn't give much thought to nurturing the choreographers of tomorrow. It didn't need to. After MacMillan's departure to American Ballet Theatre in 1984, David Bintley - already established as a creator of competent, if not exactly thrilling, dances for Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet (now Birmingham Royal Ballet) - was eventually appointed resident choreographer at Covent Garden. Yet prior to Ashton's death in 1988, the Royal Ballet had slipped into decline; one of Dowell's first tasks was to improve the standard of dancing.

A new generation of principals - Darcey Bussell, Viviana Durante, Adam Cooper, Deborah Bull, Stuart Cassidy, William Trevitt, Zoltn Solymosi and Irek Mukhamedov - now leads a company whose modern sensibility is being wasted. These are dancers who can rise to the danse d'ecole challenge posed by the classical repertoire; who relish the intricacies of Ashton's ballets; who can be entrusted with those of Balanchine's; and who are able to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the explicit drama of MacMillan's Mayerling or Romeo and Juliet. But they look hungry for new work, too. The introduction of William Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated and Herman Schmerman was, perhaps, an attempt on Dowell's part to feed that hunger and update the company's imageThose who view Forsythe - the American director of the Frankfurt Ballet - as the most dangerous Euro- enemy to be let loose on English ballet classicism recoil from the turbulent athleticism and jagged phrasing of his quasi-deconstructionist choreography. But the addition of Forsythe's work - most recently, Firstext/ Steptext - to the repertory has been a valuable experiment in that it has urged the dancers toward heightened states of bravura performance in which technical skills are pushed to extraordinary limits.

Forsythe, however, is not the answer to the Royal's search for new choreography. He recently pulled out of an agreement to create a piece for the company because, as he explained in a fax to Dowell, he felt he could no longer work with dancers outside his own ensemble, and because his main intention was now to "diminish hierarchical authorship and create a company of interdependent artists". But maybe Forsythe recognises that, however well Dowell's dancers wear his choreography, it doesn't really suit them.

Dowell's run of bad luck at the hands of hot properties like Forsythe and Michael Clark - who failed to deliver his first Royal Ballet commission last December - is a warning against the folly of trying to solve a long- term problem with quick-fix solutions. It might also account for the Royal Ballet's 1995-96 season being so full of safe bets: revivals of MacMillan's Manon and The Invitation and Ashton's Les Patineurs, Illuminations and Tales of Beatrix Potter; a barely disguised repeat of the "Stravinsky Staged" programme in which Danses Concertantes and Ashley Page's Ebony Concerto (new in April) have been replaced by Balanchine's Apollo and MacMillan's Sideshow pas de deux; the full-length version of MacMillan's re-staged and re-designed Anastasia, and the grand total of two new works - one by the American choreographer Twyla Tharp, the other (a one- act ballet) by company member Matthew Hart.

Dowell's commitment to in-house choreographers - such as Hart (the youngest), Ashley Page (the most experienced) and William Tuckett (the most inconsistent) - seems both genuine and steady. But so far only Page's work - such as Fearful Symmetries to music by John Adams - has added a more assuredly contemporary dimension to the repertoire. Dance Bites, the company's small- scale touring project, launched in January 1994, provides an opportunity to try out new works in regional venues. So far, it has been a disappointing showcase whereby regular fare is used to bolster flimsy efforts neither intended nor destined for the Covent Garden stage. Christopher Wheeldon and Emma Diamond - both Royal Ballet School-trained - have been invited to create short pieces for Dance Bites '96, which is indicative of the low level of risk entertained by Dowell for too long.

While Jeremy Isaacs accepts that ballet is marginalised at the ROH, he justifies its subservience to opera by quoting lower box office receipts and an average paid attendance of 83 per cent for ballet as against 87 per cent for opera. Best attendance figures, ie those in the region of 95 per cent, form a convenient but questionable defence for the endless round of Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake; triple bills, as we are forever told, don't sell - as was demonstrated last March by Birmingham Royal Ballet's decision to replace two of only three scheduled performances of a mixed bill with more Coppelia. As a result, a new ballet, Libramenta, by BRB's single choreographic hope - Oliver Hindle - received just one showing. Birmingham audiences, like those across the rest of Britain, may be happier with Peter Wright's Coppelia than with Hindle's one-act mood piece danced to a Bartok score. But as critics Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp wrote, some 20 years ago, "too conservative tastes are brakes upon the future of choreography - as they are upon all the arts".

No one is asking the Royal Ballet to jettison a dance heritage that can be traced back over more than three centuries, but unless new choreography is brought into the repertoire with conviction there can be no useful or relevant place for Britain's foremost ballet company in the modern world.

n Birmingham Royal Ballet's season at the Royal Opera House (0171-304 4000) runs to 27 May.