Happy returns

The last time David Bintley created a piece for the Royal Ballet was in 1993, and he resigned shortly after. Now he's returned with Les Saisons, and, as he tells Nadine Meisner, it feels good
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Maybe if he had entered the room in a tutu and tiara, David Bintley would have looked more like the ballet person he is. Instead, holding his briefcase, he might have been one of those repair-men who carry invoice-printing laptops as well as spanners. On closer inspection, though, the logo on his shirt spelt not Bosch, but Birmingham Royal Ballet - an endearingly proud advertisement for the company that he has directed for eight years.

Here he is, at the Royal Opera House, creating his first Royal Ballet commission since the sombre, beautiful Tombeaux (1993), following which he resigned as the Royal Ballet's resident choreographer. Les Saisons is named after its score by Alexander Glazunov, famously composed for Marius Petipa, but rarely used since. (The only other versions that come to Bintley's mind are John Cranko's and Ronald Hynd's.) The choreographic schema will adhere to Glazunov's musical one, although zephyrs, naiads and suchlike have been excised. Les Saisons arrives just 18 months after The Seasons, confusingly also by Bintley, but set to the Verdi score. "I definitely won't be doing the Vivaldi," promises Bintley, "I've heard it in too many pizza restaurants."

So no Seasons threesome; instead, Les Saisons will be the final part of another, unplanned, triptych that sounds rather like Balanchine's stylistic juxtapositions in Jewels. Bintley's last ballet, Concert Fantasy, and The Seasons were respectively dedicated to Russian and Italian ballet, and Les Saisons will have a French feel. "In the first two pieces, I made a conscious effort to imprint the Russian and Italian styles in the steps and port de bras, but this one is more a flight of fantasy, my idea of the French manner, romantic with a flavour of the old school."

He may no longer be used to choreographing on dancers who might simultaneously be committed to performing the same day - BRB enjoys concentrated, performance-free blocks of rehearsal - and he may find the Royal Ballet stage manner rather self-contained, but he's pleased to be here. Bintley is a Yorkshireman. Ask him a direct question and he'll point his long nose at you and give a direct answer, or, at least, one conveying that impression. So, David Bintley, why did you resign from the Royal Ballet?

"OK," he says, "I'll tell you exactly, because no one has got it quite right. There was a parting of ways, between where the company was going under Anthony [Dowell] and what I wanted. This happened over two to three years, until I realised that I had become the kind of individual I didn't want to be. I was desperately unhappy and not a nice person." How did this happen? "I could see that I didn't have much input into the repertory and therefore I didn't have much contact with the dancers. And there's no point in being resident choreographer if you don't work with people.

"So I felt a sham. I felt, this is wrong; I'm turning into a really unpleasant person, frustrated and embittered. So I resigned. It was hard to do. When you seemingly have this great job with this great company, people think you must be mad."

In the end, though, it was the best thing that happened to him. "It pushed me towards what I needed to do, which was to direct. Being a director means that you not only have contact with dancers but you actually shape everything they do - their pay, their attitude - and help them to become aware of how valuable they are." In heading BRB, he had a clear agenda: "I wanted to make a company that would be like the old Royal Ballet, when Fred [Ashton] and Kenneth [MacMillan] were creative. Choreographers would know that the dancers were hungry for work, and would feed off that."

He recently had to retrench on new work, because of BRB's accumulated deficit. The haemorrhage was partly caused by the company's wholly nomadic existence over 18 months - "the more you tour, the more money you lose" - while their Birmingham Hippodrome home was being redeveloped. But the debt is being repaid and Bintley is feeling optimistic enough to announce new material for the 2003-4 season. This includes a full-evening Bintley Christmas narrative, Beauty and the Beast.

Whaat? In the large quantity of his full-evening ballets, only two, in my estimation, have been complete successes: Hobson's Choice and Edward II, both based on existing plays. He has proved far more adroit at short ballets, both with narratives (eg The Outsider), semi-narratives (Still Life at the Penguin Café) and without (Allegri Diversi). Why another? "Because British choreography has kept that whole tradition going, and because I must. I spent my life as an actor-dancer, and that's terrifically important to me. Even my plotless ballets have a motivation or image behind every move. I'm trying to elicit an emotional response - that's what dance must do. And it means that I get to collaborate with composers on commissioned scores."

For Beauty and the Beast, he has enlisted Glenn Burr, a Canadian whose music he discovered, as a revelation, on a CD conducted by a former colleague, Bramwell Tovey. About two-thirds of the score was written "with us communicating over the phone, which I've never done before, normally I'm right at the piano". Like Glazunov's Seasons score, Beauty and the Beast has enticed surprisingly few choreographers. (Wayne Eagling staged a version for the Royal Ballet, as did, more recently, David Nixon for Northern Ballet Theatre.) Bintley has been mulling over the possibility for 23 years. He has, of course, seen the Cocteau film: "My piece isn't influenced by Cocteau, but it approaches the story with the same seriousness."

The origins of Beauty and the Beast go back to the classical tale of Cupid and Psyche. "It's one of the archetypal stories, virtually every culture has a version of the bridegroom-beast," explains Bintley. "It's about girls taken from their families for a first, often unhappy, sexual experience in the arms of someone they have effectively been sold to. In the later versions, it got prettier, it became a cautionary tale to women about how to behave, be nice, be virtuous. I've gone back to the original, but I've also put my own twist on it."

At 45, Bintley is no roly-poly, but he has lost the lean, hungry look of his youth. Does he still do class? "No, no, no," he laughs. "I never even did class when I was dancing. I never had the body. If I did class, I just fell apart." I'm not sure if he's joking. Doesn't he miss performing? "No, not at all. I have no aspirations to be on stage." Yet I'll never forget his character - or, as he prefers, "actor-dancer" - roles, especially Petrushka, a tragic assemblage of broken, flailing limbs, and Widow Simone in Ashton's La Fille mal gardée. Through the comedy and drag, he reached the core of Widow Simone's heart.

He must do it again: I'm not asking him to put on a tutu and tiara, just the lovely green dress of Widow Simone.

'Les Saisons', as part of triple bill: Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000), from 21 May; 'Beauty and the Beast', Birmingham Hippodrome (0870-730 1234) from 1 December