Does dance need celebrity?

Victoria Beckham is being courted by English National Ballet to be its public face. Lyndsey Winship asks if - and how - she could help
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The Independent Culture

The news that English National Ballet is in talks with Victoria Beckham brings some celebrity sheen to what is sometimes seen as a quaintly traditional art form. The association has been called a cynical marketing move by some, but Victoria has "a true love of ballet" according to ENB, and some solid dance credentials, having trained at stage school as a teenager.

However, in our fame-fuelled culture, what the dance world is really missing is some celebrities of its own. "We have some really good dancers, but we don't have these fantastically sexy, crowd-pleasing, hero-worshipped stars," says Richard Shaw, a former marketing manager with both the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet, and now a TV producer.

When Mikhail Baryshnikov performed in London recently, the ecstatic screams from star-struck audience members only served to highlight how few current dancers can provoke that kind of reaction. Of course, Baryshnikov is a legend. He comes with history, political intrigue, dashing good looks, star turns on celluloid and a recent stint as the lead character's boyfriend in Sex and the City to his name.

Ballet's other legends, like Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev, also came with dramatic life stories - defection to the West for Nureyev, his stage partnership with Fonteyn who was 20 years his senior, and her marriage to the Panamanian politician Roberto Arias.

Today's equivalents at the Royal Ballet are probably Darcey Bussell, the English rose, and Carlos Acosta, a street kid from Cuba whose father sent him to ballet school to keep him out of trouble. Acosta made the ballet Tocororo - a Cuban Tale, based on his life story, which broke box-office records at Sadler's Wells (and returns for a second run this June), and featured in a BBC documentary last year.

That's high profile for the dance world, but it barely makes an imprint on popular consciousness. With so much competition from the popular arts and mass media, some people are resigned to the fact that there'll only ever be a core audience for a minority art. But you only have to look at the recent surge in the visibility of jazz to see how quickly things can change. A couple of years ago no one would have predicted the rise of Jamie Cullum, but one aggressive marketing campaign and a few kind words from Michael Parkinson later, and he's a megastar.

The truth is that, in the fame game, tabloids, television and to a lesser extent radio are essential allies. And they are three media in which dance, as an ephemeral form with no CD or book or canvas to sell, does not flourish. But over at the Royal Opera House, they don't feel they're doing too badly.

"For one particular show like Mayerling, which has a total of nine performances, the capacity audience is 18,000 people, a target that is generally met with ease," says the Royal Ballet press officer Simon Magill. "You could argue, why does a dancer need to be famous beyond [appealing to] the number of people who can physically come to see them perform?"

Which is all very well for Covent Garden, but the dance world, and the country, is bigger than that. Not all theatres can fill their seats so easily. Susie Crow, of the Ballet Independents Group, points out that Fonteyn and Nureyev built up a large following when they were touring the provinces, something that star dancers just don't do these days. "Does Sylvie Guillem ever do the Sunderland Empire?" she asks.

Shaw sees another good reason for increasing the art form's exposure. "In the running of a large ballet company, the critical issue is repertoire unfamiliarity among audiences," he says. "It's an enormous problem. There are six ballets that sell, and everything else struggles at the box office. Star casting can counter issues of repertoire-unfamiliarity like nothing else, and, if for no other reason, I think that's why [nurturing celebrity] is a good idea."

This is even more crucial in contemporary dance, where new works are usually performed every season. Contemporary dance tends to trade on a choreographer's reputation rather then a dancer's abilities. Dance UK recently launched a Name The Dancer campaign, trying to counter the anonymity of dancers on stage and in promotional materials.

The founders of George Piper Dances, ex-Royal Ballet dancers Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, understand the power of personality in a mute art form. Nunn and Trevitt intersperse their works on stage with video diaries revealing the rehearsal process, backstage banter and the boys' knockabout charm. And they're fully aware of the power of the small screen. In 2002, the pair made a documentary entitled Ballet Boyz, and they haven't been able to shake off the tag since. "It became very clear that we had to keep using the name Ballet Boyz, because we were much better known from having appeared once on TV than from having spent 12 years in the Royal Ballet," says Trevitt.

But he is pragmatic about the need to court publicity. "Unless you're Joaquin Cortes and you're going out with Naomi Campbell - the sort of thing that gets you in the papers - you have to get people into the theatre. I see it as just another part of the job. It's the way the world works, you can't avoid it. To get a big audience, you can't rely on the dance mafia."

So, assuming Campbell's not available, how far are Nunn and Trevitt willing to go? "We've done Ready Steady Cook and a naked edition of Attitude magazine. That's quite a long way to go." The pair are working on a new four-part TV series to be broadcast in June, including a programme they made with Justin Timberlake's choreographer. If that doesn't get the viewers in, nothing will.

Another contemporary choreographer/ dancer, Akram Khan, is realistic about the world he works in. "In contemporary dance I think publicity is looked at quite negatively. People look at it as if you're selling your soul. I was told so many times: you shouldn't become big so quickly, you should take your time. Basically, that I should struggle [to be a true artist], and I don't believe in all that rubbish."

"It was great was when we did the South Bank Show documentary and I got into a cab and the driver said, 'Aren't you Akram Khan?' And I thought that was just so lovely. When I was working with Peter Brook in the theatre world, people know you, but the dance world is so isolated. When I go to these awards - to the South Bank awards where I was nominated three times - it's funny because nobody quite knows who the dancers are."

Even though Khan did 300 interviews worldwide last year, that only gives him a limited profile. And extra time for publicity duties isn't something dancers have much of. "A dancer's time is spent rehearsing from 10.30 in the morning to 6.30 at night, and then, if they are performing that night, they're on stage until 11pm," explains Magill. "All of this happens six times a week for the rest of their dancing lives. This does not afford a dancer the time to do the 'big sell' in press junkets or in a media blitz to promote a new production. Performing in the evening cuts out celebrity appearances - dancers are not seen at the opening of a film or a glitzy first night or a club or restaurant, because they are working themselves at that time of night."

Bussell has made some appearances on the celebrity circuit: she lounged in a leather basque at a motor show, and has popped up in episodes of French and Saunders and The Vicar of Dibley, but she was actually off work, injured, at the time of the recordings.

For similar reasons, there's no scope for a Dance Idol when it takes 10 years of training to reach professional standard. And you can't follow the example of West End theatres by hiring in a Hollywood star. "A Hollywood actor can't just drop in and become a soloist in Swan Lake," says Neil Nisbet, editor of the contemporary dance website Article19. "Although the prospect of Al Pacino in tights would almost certainly be a big draw.

"Dance needs a serious image overhaul," he continues. "Famous faces are not the solution. Dance needs large-scale, sophisticated promotion. Sadly this means a huge increase in funding, which is not going to happen any time soon."

Magill has his doubts for different reasons. "If the artist is prepared to put themselves 'out there' for celebrity gain, they have to take the knocks that come with it and I am not sure that we are prepared to let our dancers make that sacrifice."

So, while potential wunderkinds like Alina Cojocaru and Lauren Cuthbertson are busy darning their shoes, perhaps a popular champion such as Beckham is the best bet to get dance on the public radar. At least she knows what an arabesque is, and she was apparently very interested in hearing about ENB's education and outreach work. Posh on pointes - who knows? It could be coming to a town near you.