David Lister: These grand titles used by arts groups can mean very little

The Week in Arts

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The English National Opera was once attacked in a newspaper article with the rather delicious headline: "It isn't English. It Isn't National. It Isn't Opera."

I thought of that headline this week as another similarly named company, English National Ballet, celebrated its 60th birthday with a performance of Cinderella in London. Of ENB's nine principal dancers, just two are English. The Czech ballerina Daria Klimentova danced Cinderella at the anniversary performance. None of that necessarily matters. The arts glory in internationalism.

But it is fair to ask occasionally just what these grand titles of our grandest companies actually mean, and what their identities are. Names of artistic companies send out a message, often of egalitarianism or populism or sheer class. Sir Peter Hall reckoned that he captured all of those aspirations with the Royal Shakespeare Company, royal and Shakespeare being words cherished by all true Britons, and company a word cherished by all who work in the arts.

The National Theatre (which for decades was uncertain whether it was the British national theatre or English national theatre, but now at last has Welsh and Scottish counterparts) for many years did not tour. A famous episode of Yes, Minister had the minister threaten to make it a permanent touring company so that it could be "truly national". It now fulfils most of the criteria for being a national powerhouse, though is less a champion of new home-grown writing than the Royal Court, which itself has a title buried in obscurity and at odds with its radical image. (It opened as the Court theatre in 1888 and the word Royal was added a few years later. There was no Royal Charter, it just felt like a good idea at the time.)

If that's all a little confusing, it is even more so with English National Ballet and English National Opera, the two companies which manifestly try to express their purpose in life through their names. English National Opera does not tour, which makes a mockery of its name, though it does sing in English and employ overwhelmingly English talent. English National Ballet certainly does tour, and at affordable prices, but it's hard to see quite how its largely foreign stars make it an English national company. One can certainly argue that a national company doesn't have to be a showcase for national talent, but it would be nice to hear the argument being made some time, and the criteria that a publicly funded national company has to fulfil made clear.

Then there's the added confusion of the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera. The Royal Ballet has by common consent the best dancers yet does not tour at all in the UK. Neither does the Royal Opera, despite both companies receiving lavish public funding.

Now that the Culture Secretary has started a major review of arts funding, he could start a review alongside it of arts company names and what those companies need to be to earn those names and the money that comes with them.

On the fringes of male company

I wonder if today's performers on the Edinburgh Fringe are friendlier than their illustrious forebears. Jonathan Miller recently told this paper that he and his colleagues from Beyond the Fringe, who made their name in 1960, didn't all know each other when they started doing the show. In fact, they didn't all seem to know each other that well years later. When Dudley Moore died in 2002 I asked Miller for his thoughts about the man. He surprised me by saying, "I didn't really know him very well." But, I said, after doing Beyond the Fringe together in Edinburgh then in the West End and then on Broadway, you must have got to know each other. Surely you and Dudley and Alan Bennett and Peter Cook had personal chats when you all went out for a meal after a show. He paused. "Do you know," he said, "I don't think we ever did all go out for a meal after a show."

Things would have been very different if the Beyond the Fringe quartet had been women. It's hard to imagine four females working together for years and never having a chat.

Good with his hands as well as his feet

Sometimes one is present at an arts event that is so stunningly good, it stays with you for days afterwards, and it is hard to think of anything else. The Bolshoi Ballet's final production on its visit to London was just such an event. Don Quixote, a ballet renowned for showmanship, breathtaking leaps and spectacular virtuoso performances, starred the company's two best young stars, 21-year-old Ivan Vasiliev and 24-year-old Natalia Osipova. They both exuded sex appeal, charisma and enough talent to bring the crowd at the Royal Opera House not just to a standing ovation but almost a screaming one. They had real chemistry together, flirting in performance and at the curtain call.

Indeed, it was during the curtain call that I witnessed something I have never seen before. As roses were hurled on to the stage in appreciation, Vasiliev, walking to the front to take his bow, nonchalantly kept catching them with each hand. If Russia ever decides to start a world-class cricket team...

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