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David Bintley: a rebel for tradition.

When David Bintley, artistic director of Britain's Birmingham Royal Ballet, was a very young dancer and an aspiring choreographer, he created some ballets in workshops at the Royal Ballet School that were seen and admired by Sir Frederick Ashton. "He's the only one," Ashton repeatedly said, in recognition of Bintley's blossoming choreographic talent.

Peter Wright, who was then artistic director of Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet (now Birmingham Royal Ballet), also believed that Bintley had a gift. In 1978, eighteen months after Bintley joined the company, Wright gave the twenty-year-old dancer the opportunity to choreograph. The result was The Outsider, a ballet that dealt with prostitution and murder. "It was X-rated and had a really stupid story," Bintley says, "but the steps were actually pretty good." Good enough to launch his choreographic career.

Today Bintley is not only one of the preeminent British choreographers working in classical dance and the spiritual heir to Ashton, but the successor of Wright in Birmingham. One of his primary goals is to continue the English classical traditionofdance embodied in the work of Ashton.

"There's a side of British dance that is being lost," Bintley says. "I'm talking about the pre-1970s English dance, the kind of English classicism that was most influenced by Ashton. A large part of what Fred did and what Fred was about is not being followed up by current choreographers. Classical dance is being sidetracked into this pure, physical thing, which is perceived to be new and exciting to many people. It's happening everywhere. But this emphasis on extreme physicality is a dead end, because you can only go so far before people start falling apart."

As former resident choreographer of both Sadler's Wells and Royal Ballet, Bintley is--as Ashton was--a traditionalist who believes in the energy, beauty, and infinite variety of the classical dance vocabulary. His body of work, some forty ballets, is mercifully free of the ugly, contortionist excesses indulged in by many choreographers today, and reconfirms the power and poetry of classicism.

Bintley was born thirty-nine years ago in Huddersfield, England, on September 17--Ashton's birthday. An affable and unpretentious man who bears more than a passing resemblance to Robin Williams, he was a stagestruck youngster who saw dance as a way of making it to the other side of the footlights. "I learned ballet, tap, modern everything," he says. "But ballet was the one thing that got me. And then the goal was no longer to just get onstage. It was more important to become a good classical dancer and to make it to the Royal Ballet."

By the time he began attending the Royal Ballet School, he had already begun choreographing. "I knew from an early age that I wanted to choreograph," he says. "So I made pieces and danced in them. When I went to the Royal Ballet School, I was known as somebody who was interested in choreographing. Then I won the school choreography competition, and suddenly I was someone with a voice." He was also making a mark as a character dancer. In June 1976, he had a huge success as Coppelius in the school production of Coppe'lia. Three months later, he was a member of Sadler's Wells.

During the next decade, Bintley emerged not only as a choreographer of distinction, but as a superb dramatic dancer. In 1984 he received the Laurence Olivier Award for Dance in recognition of his performance as Petrouchka. Although he has not officially retired from the stage, the last major role he danced was Widow Simone in La Fille Mal Gardee with San Francisco Ballet in 1963.

Bintley has always derived more satisfaction from creating ballets than from being in them. Fortunately for him, Wright recognized and encouraged his talent. "He gave me my first chance," says Bintley, "and then he regularly gave me more opportunities and offered advice." Bintley was appointed resident choreographer of Sadler's Wells in 1983.

He choreographed his first work for Royal Ballet in 1980 and was resident choreographer from 1986 to 1993. Word is that his parting from the Royal was less than amicable; all he will say is, "It was time."

In 1988 Bintley established a relationship with San Francisco Ballet when he set an earlier work, The Sons of Horus, on the company. Since then he has choreographed three striking and diverse world premieres for SFB. Although one would be hard-pressed to define the Bintley style--it seems to transmogrify, Zelig-like, from one piece to the next--these three pieces offer a kind of microcosm of the range of his work.

The Wanderer Fantasy, to Liszt's orchestration of Schubert's piano score of the same name, is a pure-dance piece that seems to spring organically from the music. Job tells the epic story of the biblical character. The Dance House, which was seen in New York City when SFB performed at City Center in November 1995, is informed by a poem from a German medieval dance-of-death woodcut, and is Bintley's response to a friend's death from AIDS. The narrative is implied rather than literal; although the central character is a death figure, the inspired choreography and imagery are propelled by ideas and feelings rather than by a linear story. Audiences can see in the piece whatever they choose.

Although these three Bintley works are very different from one another, each is rooted in classicism. "Right now classicism seems to have its back against the wall," he says. "There's a perception out there that we're not moving with the times. In the extreme, there are some people who say that classicism is dead. It's completely unfair and untrue . . . in a hundred years people will still be watching classical ballets."

For Bintley the codified classical vocabulary is the springboard that provides the freedom to explore any music, theme, or dramatic idea. "At this point in my work. I'm not so bothered about language," Bintley says. "Right now I'm more interested in the things that I can say in my ballets; the language is dictated by the subject."

Those subjects are often daring, provocative, or unusual, as he has demonstrated from The Outsider through The Dance House and beyond. "Still Life" at the Penguin Cafe', probably Bintley's best-known work, is a morality tale about endangered species that is original, delightul, whimsical, and ultimately very poignant. The Sons of Horus is based on the Egyptian embalming ceremony, and Metamorphosis is a dance version of the Kafka story.

His full-length works for Birmingham Royal include The Swan of Tuonela, set to Sibelius's music and drawn from various Finnish legends, and Hobson's Choice, inspired by Harold Brighouse's very British comic play of the same name that deals with class, repressed feelings, and one determined young woman. Among his full-length pieces for Royal Ballet is Cyrano, based on the Rostand play. Last year Bintley choreographed Edward II for Stuttgart Ballet, a piece he says concerns "how the sexual politics between the gay king and his wife Isabella plunged a whole continent into war."

Whether Bintley is choreographing on a grand scale or in miniature, whether a piece has an intricate plot line or is plotless, there are certain characteristics intrinsic to his ballets, no matter how different they are in style and substance. Each shares a riveting theatricality, strong visual sense, intelligent craftsmanship, emotional resonance, and prominent roles for dancers. His insistence on showcasing individuals is refreshing at a time when an increasing number of choreographers are turning out group works that focus on the creator rather than on any single person onstage.

"It's important to choreograph roles for dancers," Bintley says, "and a role is more than just a physical presence. It's also mental presence. If you deny that, then you deny individuality, you deny thought. Certainly this was very important to Ashton, and to most choreographers twenty or thirty years ago, including Balanchine. Their ballets were about something. That doesn't necessarily mean that a ballet had a story or a narrative, but that each role meant something."

Balanchine, like Ashton, is one of Bintley's heroes and influences. "I like what Balanchine brings to the English style," he says, "the speed and the openness. We must give that to our classical dance. Plus, of course, Balanchine was a great musician, and music is very important to me."

That is apparent in Bintley's choice of scores and composers, and in the ways in which he responds to music. He is the son of two piano teachers, and his musical knowledge is considerable, his taste eclectic and adventurous. Although he has choreographed to Mozart and Delibes, he is particularly fond of twentieth-century music, having created ballets to scores by Shostakovitch and Stravinsky, by Darius Milhaud and Andrzej Panufnik, and by British composers Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton, Malcolm Arnold, Benjamin Britten, Simon Jeffes, and Gustav Holst.

What Bintley likes best, however, is commissioning new scores. In February Birmingham had a big success with the premiere of Far from the Madding Crowd, based on Thomas Hardy's novel to a score by Paul Reade, composer of Hobson's Choice, one of Bintley's most popular ballets. He has also collaborated with composers Aubrey Meyer (Choros), Wilfred Josephs (Cyrano), Peter McGowan (The Sons of Horus), and John McCabe (Edward II). "I'm constantly looking for people whose work interests me, because there's nothing like new music," Bintley says. "You have to keep moving forward. It's more fun to work with someone, to be able to say that this entire piece is ours, and to know that the score isn't going to be done by somebody in Germany or France or America next year, as a symphonic piece can be."

Bintley's mission in Birmingham is to carve out a very visible spot for his company on the international dance map. Sadler's Wells, which used to be known as the touring company of Royal Ballet before it moved into the Sadler's Wells Theatre, changed its name and took up residence at the renovated Birmingham Hippodrome in 1990. "There is no room in London for four classical companies," says Bintley. "We were stuck in Sadler's Wells, which is a shoebox. And Birmingham said, 'We want this company.' They redid the theater for us and spent millions on new studios--we have the best studios in the country. There's a renaissance going on in Birmingham right now, and that's one of the reasons I decided to come here."

Bintley, now beginning his second year as artistic director, is determined that this company of sixty dancers will forge its own special identity, separate from the Royal. "We now have our own board," Bintley says, "and we're completely independent financially from the Royal Opera House. Our ties to the Royal Ballet are emotional, historical. We share a heritage in the works of Fred and Kenneth MacMillan, and we share the Royal Ballet School. But there has been a rivalry between these two companies, and now that Birmingham has more of an identity, I think the rivalry will grow.

"I'm most interested in developing our own rep," he continues. "We have the chance to make a really creative contribution. They can't do so much of that at the Royal Opera House now, because they're stuck with tourists and corporate businesses that want to see Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. So it's really difficult for them. We have those ballets too, but what's most important to me is creativity in the classical mode, and creativity that is going to be appealing. The company hadn't had that much creativity in the past few years because it had to establish itself in a different town. So I wanted it clear from the start that this would be an important part of who we are."

The 1996-97 season will feature world premieres by Bintley and James Kudelka. Bintley's piece, which receives its first performance on September 26, is called The Nutcracker Sweeties and is set to Duke Ellington's arrangement of the familiar Tchaikovsky suite. The ballet will be accompanied by a seventeen-piece big band.

Last season Birmingham presented three world premieres: Bintley's Far from the Madding Crowd, his new production of Carmina Burana, and a work set to Mozart's Mass in C Minor, created by eleven company choreographers. "I wanted to do a program of new works by the kids in the company," Bintley says, "but they're all very inexperienced. So I thought a big collaboration would be of more interest and would be more viable. It was an absolute smash success. Now there are at least eleven people in the company who would like to do a ballet for the company.

"There are lots of issues that this has raised which are fundamental to how we operate in the future. We are thinking of doing some small-scale performances in smaller theaters in the Birmingham area. I am more concerned with the mechanism of discovering talent and nurturing talent than I am with simply finding somebody with talent who can make ballets for the company . . . because the opportunities [to choreograph for the company just now] are limited."

Bintley looks forward to his second season with great anticipation: "On a technical level, the company I have now is very strong and terribly exciting. I wouldn't trade these dancers for any others. I think Birmingham Ballet is uniquely positioned in every way to become the best company to work for in this country."
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Title Annotation:artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet
Author:Flatow, Sheryl
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Biography
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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