Dancing without direction: If it is English ballet, why does it rely on Russian technique, asks Chris de Marigny

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The Independent Online
'I FEAR for the future of British dance if we can't start producing the quality that classical ballet demands.' Thus spoke the director of the English National Ballet, Derek Deane, after hiring only one of the 100 dancers he had auditioned at the weekend. His remarks, which also included a lament for the dancers' lack of 'physicality', reference to 'things that are fundamentally wrong with the way they use their feet and legs and backs' and an allusion to 'physical damage' caused by training, caused uproar in the ballet world.

But do his criticisms have any justification? Or is he, maybe, trying to offer an excuse in case his company receives bad reviews for its next production? The English National Ballet has, after all, had a rickety reputation for many years. It is not especially English, because it has always had a large proportion of foreign dancers, nor is it deservedly 'national'. What it has done over 30 years is to popularise ballet with lavish productions and an eclectic repertory.

The key to Deane's remarks, however, probably lies in the style of ballet he favours. He has said that he is teaching Russian-style technique to his dancers. This emphasises strong, acrobatic physicality. Although the Russian style has become increasingly popular in this country, it is not a style that has been traditionally taught here, and there are only a limited number of teachers available to teach it. Even when it is taught, it favours only certain body types: long- limbed, long-muscled Slavic ones. The effects of this kind of training on shorter dancers with rounded muscles can sometimes be unfortunate.

The question is whether the Russian style is particularly desirable in the British context. Its growing popularity worldwide has resulted in an increasingly homogenised international version of classical ballet. It is often characterless, lacking individuality and national flavour.

Britain preserved the national character of its ballet perhaps longer than most. Its classical features are well exhibited in the works of the late Frederick Ashton, which stress intricate, small steps, musicality and personalised phrasing. Even the Royal Ballet has in recent years moved over to Russian methods with the appalling result that it can no longer perform Ashton's work as well as it could during the Fifties and Sixties.

The English National Ballet is known to favour tall dancers. The Royal Ballet, in contrast, is a company of relatively short dancers, with the exception of its star, Darcey Bussell. The difficulty for the English National Ballet is that its preference for tall dancers effectively 'edits out' those who are short but none the less talented.

The preference for the Russian style and the tall dancers it requires means that the English National Ballet is limited also in its choice of choreographers. Great companies train for style and the style is set by the artists. The English National Ballet seems to have tackled things the other way round, trying to select its artists to suit its style. When the great choreographer George Balanchine was asked to set up a company by Lincoln Kirstein, his reply was 'first a school and then a company'.

New York City Ballet, the company the two men created, is acclaimed as one of the finest in the world. The English National Ballet under Peter Schaufuss did take the first tentative steps in setting up its own small school, but until it finds one or two choreographers of great merit to work with, its hope of establishing a strong stylistic identity must be faint.

It may be - though this is no real excuse - that this was not a good time of the year to hold an audition. This is the season when dancers are trying to get into the best companies - the Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet. The English National Ballet and German companies are often only the third choice. Mr Deane might perhaps ask himself whether he is seeing the best.

Even so, there may be more than a grain of truth in what he said. There has been a general concern about training standards in ballet for some time. Last autumn, Dance UK, the body that represents professional dance companies in this country, held a three-day conference on the subject, which was attended by leading directors, dancers and trainers. It emerged, however, that the main problem was the high rate of injury sustained by professional dancers rather than the standard of training itself.

There will always be good and less good schools, and some downright bad ones. It is the responsibility of organisations such as the Royal Academy of Dancing and the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing to set the syllabus and train the teachers. There is an argument for saying that the whole system needs reviewing: in this country anyone can open a dance school, unlike in France where government approval is required. Dance, like sport, can be demanding and physically dangerous. Do we need a national regulatory body to protect our youngsters?

There is another obstacle in this country to ensuring the future supply of well-trained British dancers: this is the discretionary grant system. Local authorities are not obliged to support dance students, so talent is not the only criterion on which dancers are selected for training. Whether you receive advanced dance training may well depend equally on where you happen to live and whether your local authority will give you a grant (most do not). Effectively this restricts the pool of dancers to those who have parents willing or able to pay the fees. Were there to be a potential Margot Fonteyn out there today, she might never get a chance to dance.

In condemning the overall quality of ballet training as he did, Deane may not have selected the right target. There are serious questions about the way Britain trains its dancers, but there may also be a question for the English National Ballet to answer: perhaps the best dancers do not even want to audition for the company in the first place.

The writer is editor of 'Dance Theatre Journal' at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance in London.

(Photograph omitted)