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A right Royal mess.

As John Donne pointed out so memorably, "No man is an island." Nor is any dance company. Dance companies are uniquely international. To be sure, famous orchestras and their conductors travel the world with name soloists, major theater companies make occasional guest forays, and peregrinating opera stars are perennial canaries of passage. Yet the international nature of dance is bound into the web of its nature. Every company, large or small, is unique, not simply in personnel but even more so in repertory. It is this uniqueness, this special fingerprint that gives each a defined place.

As a result, if any dance company is in trouble or dies, the whole dance world is affected. And if that company is universally accepted as one of enormous stature, any trouble it may find itself in will doubtless send tiny ripples all over our relatively small pond. And fight now Britain's sixty-seven-year-old Royal Ballet is in trouble.

Next year will mark the half-century of its debut in the United States, then billed by its impresario, Sol Hurok, as the "fabulous Sadler's Wells Ballet." The company was a young one, and yet in The Sleeping Beauty on October 9, 1949, it impressed New York City with its authority and stability as an institution. Indeed to some extent it became if not a model than an inspiration and even an ideal for America's then-emerging national companies, New York City Ballet and Ballet Theatre. Immediately after the Prologue to The Sleeping Beauty Mayor William O'Dwyer leaned over from his box at the old Metropolitan Opera House to assure Ninette de Valois, "You're in, lady!"

And here is what the press had to say the morning after that giddy night. John Martin wrote in the Times: "It is with a great feeling of comfortableness that one relaxes before an aggregation of dancers so sure of themselves technically, so impeccably rehearsed and so unified in approach." Then there was Walter Terry in the Herald Tribune: "The organization's production of the three-act Sleeping Beauty captures in its settings and in its stage effects much of the majestic beauties from the unlikely fantasies one sees in the extravagant ballet lithographs of an earlier age." And John Chapman in the Daily News brought everything down to earth: "These dancing Britons are splendid. I have not seen such precision among a foreign ensemble since the Tiller Girls came from overseas many years ago and inspired the Roxy Theater and Radio City Music Hall wenches."

I did not see the Sadler's Wells Ballet wenches that October night, but I knew the company like the back of my hand from its London performances, which as a then-emerging critic I followed assiduously. Actually, the company wasn't as good as America seemed to think it. But it got better. In fact, it got so much better that in 1976, when German critic Horst Koegler was preparing his Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet, he was able, without much fear of contradiction, to write, "The Royal Ballet is now considered among the foremost ballet companies of the world, and because of its large and supremely balanced repertory and its wealth of highly personal first-class dancers, many people consider it the leading company in international terms." Few would subscribe to that view now, only twenty-two years later.

The Royal Ballet's troubles today are twofold. First come its artistic difficulties, some of which date from the appointment of Anthony Dowell as its artistic director in 1986, and the comparative neglect of its heritage repertory, notably the ballets of Frederick Ashton. Then, as more or less a separate issue, come all the absolutely disastrous difficulties confronting its parent presenting organization, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Opera House's relationship with the British government, and the rebuilding of the theater itself at the cost of $350 million, which has temporarily rendered homeless both the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera.

In July 1997 when the curtain fell on the Opera House at a farewell gala, the company began a period of wandering that will not end until the rebuilt Covent Garden opens, hopefully at the end of next year, just in time for the next millennium. But the Royal Ballet managed to give 150 performances during its first year of wandering, a dozen of them in New York immediately after the closure. It also gave a summer season in London at the London Coliseum, of which I caught the last three performances, and where it seemed in much the same variable shape as we saw during its most recent Met season. It's still a decent company, but not one of the world's best, and the product of the Royal Ballet School has, in recent years, been rather disappointing in quality and even quantity.

Yet all this fades in the face of the ghastly problems facing Covent Garden's beleaguered board of directors and management. With a deficit already standing at $21 million, they have been widely accused of--to put the matter baldly--incompetence and fiscal irresponsibility. Now the chairman of the board, Sir Colin Southgate, has announced all opera and most ballet performances will be canceled until December 1999. This, as I write, was subject to union ratification, which if not forthcoming could well lead to the end of the Royal Opera, as such, and conceivably even the Royal Ballet.

However, the Royal Ballet, even under the present draconian plans, will give an already planned season at the refurbished Sadler's Wells Theatre in July 1999 and will go ahead with a planned Asian tour next April. It will probably also provide small, limited-company provincial tours, which it calls "Ballet Bites." But the company is in a bad way economically and, if the closure goes ahead and the Opera House opens as planned, the Royal Opera in the future will give only 100 performances a year and the Royal Ballet only 120. This is markedly fewer than before and will have an incalculable effect on the company's range and standards.

Other issues are whether Dowell will survive as director--Wayne Eagling, director of Dutch National Ballet, has been suggested as a successor--and who will run the Royal Opera House. Michael Kaiser of ABT has just been appointed executive director of the ROH. Quite a few knowledgeable people in Britain are suggesting that another American will become its artistic director. But let us hope that after all this mess is resolved, the Royal Ballet, traditionally America's favorite non-American company, will emerge refreshed, renewed, and reheartened.

Clive Barnes is a senior editor of Dance Magazine.
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Title Annotation:survival of Royal Ballet in doubt
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 1, 1998
Words:1088
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