These days, as ballet companies anxiously rummage through their address books for choreographers, the canny would-be creators are those who opt for the idiom of classicism rather than over-subscribed contemporary dance. If they have talent to boot, then they will be bombarded with grovelling propositions; they will make themselves a tidy living; they may even grow rich.
Christopher Hampson isn't there yet, but all his one-act pieces for English National Ballet have shown a singular, confident accomplishment. With his fourth, Double Concerto, premiered in his home town of Manchester in November, he scored rave reviews. "I was really pleased that people had seen in it so much that I'd put in: the humour, the sarcasm, the tenderness and subtlety, which are all in Poulenc's score."
It says a lot about Hampson's potential that cash-strapped ENB has been prepared to nurture this one tyro choreographer since he joined as a dancer in 1992. "I did their workshops and Derek [Deane, then director] guided me, giving me small gala bits to do and slowly building me up." Double Concerto is his first for the whole company, his previous ones being for the smaller touring ensembles, and precedes his new production of The Nutcracker, opening in October. But his central London debut came earlier, with the outstanding Canciones for City Ballet of London, followed by A Christmas Carol at the Royal Festival Hall for Christmas 2000.
Hampson (known as Hampy) ceased being an ENB dancer two and half years ago. "Every minute on stage was such fun," (His nasal voice emphasises selected words.) "but the commissions were starting to come from outside, and I found that choreographing was becoming addictive. So I said to Derek that I had to make a go of it, just jump and see. And I thought, if it all goes pear-shaped, the bod's still in good condition, I can still go back."
Tall, very skinny and almost 29, he had hoped he might bulk out with less physical activity. His hobbies are eating and drinking fine wine, when he finds the time between cigarettes, and he launches into a eulogy of Alsace food and wine savoured on travels with his partner, who lives in France. Yet still he towers skinnily over Sarah McIlroy and Jan-Erik Wikstrom, a Swede recruited by ENB's new director Mats Skoog, as they rehearse their Double Concerto pas de deux at the Coliseum. Hampson asks McIlroy to speed up a sequence containing profile arabes-ques. "Yeah, it looks more dangerous," he observes approvingly as her stripy legwarmers slice into sharp shapes and balances. "And it feels it," adds Wikstrom, who has to do all the grabbing and supporting.
"I always knew I wanted to do a piece with a sense of occasion for the company's 50th year," he explains later, tucking into a cheese omelette and chips. "And because it's my first commission for the full company, I wanted to use the full company. So the ballet stands at 40 people, which is the most I've ever used." The designer of Double Concerto is Fido, aka Gary Harris, a former ENB dancer who designed Hampson's previous pieces, plus his Saltarello for the Royal New Zealand Ballet in January 2001.
I remark on Hampson's range, from serious, plotless work to the family entertainment of A Christmas Carol. "I'm well aware I'm just starting out, and there is an element of taking each commission as an exercise to challenge myself," he says. Equally diverse in his musical choices, he is a music obsessive, a piano player, a listener who finds inspiration in music.
He is immensely proud of A Christmas Carol, which got a critical panning. "We were going it alone, myself and Muppet [Ian Comer, the co-director]. We approached Raymond Gubbay who decided to back it. We did a pitch to the Royal Festival Hall. I was throwing myself in at the deep end, getting a company together and an orchestra, and making sure they were paid. We created a brand-new show in four weeks at a major London venue, which I think is phenomenal and a credit to the company."
He loves classical technique, although using it isn't a deliberate choice. "My training is classical, and therefore it's the language I feel I can express the most in. But I try to expand all the time." Some ballet can look dated, he agrees. "It's got to get relevant, and quick. But it does have a natural regeneration. There's much more to plough in the field of classical ballet, there's plenty to move forward. And the bodies of dancers today are exquisite, they can do so much more."
Gerald Scarfe will design The Nutcracker. He has worked in opera, but never ballet. Hampson, on the other hand, has danced in four Nutcrackers, including André Pro-kovsky's for Northern Ballet Theatre when a child. He has five or six possible approaches in mind. "I feel that the choreography over the years has strayed massively from the music. The climaxes are acutely wrong, the subtleties are in the wrong place. And because I don't have any big cultural chip on my shoulder, I feel I can come to it fresh." He thinks that the original scenario's failure to hang together is one reason why the ballet lives on. "Producers are constantly trying to make sense of it from different angles. I think the answer is you can't, but you can have a damn good try." After Nutcracker comes Romeo and Juliet (to Prokofiev) in 2003 for the New Zealand Ballet.
He talks volubly between the mouthfuls of food, sudden quick smiles and cigarette puffs. This is a person of great gregariousness (helpful in a ballet company), an even temper (no tantrums) and an excited passion for things. He caught theatre-fever as a young boy, although his family had no connection with the art-form. He started ballet classes at six because the little girl opposite, who was his friend, did. "She stopped because she couldn't skip and I carried on, but we're still good mates." He entered the Royal Ballet School at 11.
His contemporaries there were a vintage lot. They included David Dawson, dancer and choreographer; Matthew Hart, dancer and choreographer; Cathy Marston, dancer and choreographer; and Christopher Wheeldon, now a celebrity as Great Creative Hope for New York City Ballet, the Royal Ballet and more. At one time at the RBS, Hampson won a prize composing the music for a Wheeldon piece – which also won a prize. Likewise, Hampson's first choreography at school won a prize. "And that was a complete shock. So the next year I did two and they won first and second prize, and then I carried on at ENB in their workshops."
Who's talking about a creative drought in ballet? Maybe after all these years, it's coming to an end – the class of 1992-3 is well on its way.
'Double Concerto' appears with Balanchine's 'Apollo' and 'Who Cares?' at London Coliseum, WC2 (020-7632 8300), 14-16 JanReuse content