Sir David Bintley 2020
- Denilson Almeida Afonso
- Sir David Bintley
- Annette Buvoli
- Harry Churches
- Jessica Clarke
- Helen Crawford
- Dame Monica Mason
- Hanna Park
Sir David Bintley
former Director, Birmingham Royal Ballet
Interviewed by David Bain
Zoom video conference, October 07 2020
David Bain, our Chairman, welcomed members to our third Zoom meeting and welcomed David Bintley as our guest suggesting we take his career from the start and look at some of the highlights, how he got into ballet and the Royal Ballet School (RBS). David said he was stage struck from a very young age. As children they went to Sunday school where the church held an autumn bazaar when all the kids from Sunday school did a show. They got pews and put planks across, taped up the copy of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, put car headlamps on broom poles and that was their theatre. So, from the age of four, the highlight of David’s year was getting up on those boards and performing, mostly singing. His sister went to the local dance school where they did a bit of everything with ballet, tap and jazz. She was on stage regularly, and he thought this is what I have to do and that’s why he went with her and took dance classes at the same school. Aged 11, he saw his first ballet, the Nutcrackerwith John Gilpin, at the Bradford Alhambra, and at that point ballet became a big thing for him. He was told he wasn’t very good and people said he would never make it which was like a red rag to a bull and David determined that he would get into ballet. He went to several really good teachers, and travelled around to get good training, with the single ambition of getting into the Upper School as he was too late for White Lodge. Once at the School he had 18 months of complete misery, trying to reconcile himself to the fact that he was a long way behind the others and he thought perhaps the prophets of doom had been right. He knew then he wasn’t going to be the kind of dancer he dreamt of being. Perhaps those first months weren’t a complete misery but it was an awakening coming from a regional dance school, he was way behind those who’d been training for longer, and it was tough at the School which was very competitive. He had a bad injury within a couple of months of joining, when his meniscus went, so he was in hospital before Christmas and was only back for the spring term but by that point he’d been written off as a lame duck so his first year didn’t end happily though he got back into class with extra resolve to work even harder.
When did choreography start? David said it started before RBS. At his final regional school he had a wonderful teacher, Dorothy Stevens, who was high up in RAD. She got him into the RBS with the other two boys from his school. David told her he wanted to make a ballet – in reality he wanted to be the star - and he made The Soldier’s Tale to the Stravinsky score. He became so interested in making the work, with no prior knowledge or experience, tackling a difficult score lasting 25 minutes and becoming fascinated by how you make a ballet. That was where it took off and never went away. Being the star became of next to no interest. It was the making of the piece that was fascinating. He only had two steps, and designed and lit it himself. It must have been mystifying to the parents of the 300 little girls and other two boys but that was the beginning for him.
His next piece at the RBS was for the Ursula Moreton choreographic competition. It was that choreography that got him noticed. But before that at the end of the first year all the kids did a show, and at that show he did a number, the MC from Cabaret which he’d done 30 times before at dance festivals and with it won the Sunshine Festival. Suddenly David turned from a nobody with a major injury into a performer. Kenneth MacMillan judged the Ursula Moreton and gave him the prize which changed the course of his life as certainly he was on the rubbish heap before those two things. At the time you had to look a certain way with feet just so but then it was acknowledged that there was a different route into the Company. When David joined it had just become Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (SWRB) and had moved permanently into the Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Peter Wright had seen him in the end of year performance, which was Coppelia with David as Dr Coppelius. and recognised him as someone he wanted in the Company. Even at the age of 18 David was playing old men and never stopped!
Ashton was around at the time. The first time David saw Fred was when he came to a choreographic evening in what is now the Gillian Lynne Theatre. David had been trying to make a 10-minute piece, again to a Stravinsky score. Rehearsing it while on tour was difficult as they were too busy with nine shows a week, involving three different programmes, and everyone was tired so he couldn’t get people together. He said to Leslie Edwards that they would have to pull out but Leslie said ‘no, you can’t’ so he did a number called Minstrels to Debussy which lasted less than two minutes and was a duet for Denis Bonner and himself as Commedia dell’Arte characters. He made it over a weekend. Mike Beckett did the set and costumes and they performed it on a Sunday. It was a particularly earnest choreographic group, a lot of long pieces and everything was very serious, and in the end David’s was just a two minute piece but it was fun and a bright spark in an otherwise very earnest evening. Fred came into the dressing room afterwards and said ‘I like it but it could have been a bit longer’.
Ninette de Valois was also around. They were in a Benesh class when the teacher decided to teach the Satan solo from Job, and David was so happy to learn it; he was very taken by pictures of Helpmann and Dolin, and asked if they could take off their shoes as that was the way it should be. Suddenly Madam’s face was looking through the studio door window. The teacher looked rather nervous, Madam came in and took over the class and the teacher became redundant. The idea of it being a Benesh study session went by the board and Madam took David’s hand and started coaching him in the solo. It was his first meeting with her and he thought it was like holding the hand of God. She was a god and hero, the reason why any of them were there and are here.
At Sadler’s Wells his first main stage choreography was The Outsider. It’s so long ago and David doesn’t know what he was thinking back then. He decided on something gritty and a narrative piece as that was how he felt, and wanted to make it on his great friend Stephen Wicks who joined the Company at the same time. Lois Strike was the star, playing a Parisian prostitute. At the time David was very into Camus, had seen the film The Tenant by Polanski, found a strange score by a Czech composer, and chucked it all in and stirred it up. Rather than just two, he now had four steps which got a good work out and it made a bit of a splash as it was full of seedy characters, and the dancers enjoyed doing it as there was nothing else like it in the rep. A dismayed elderly lady from Bournemouth wrote saying it might be very nice to do but not nice to watch! But it got him noticed and he didn’t want to make a nice dancey piece, not that he could have done with only four steps!
He was dancing in the Company at the same time and talking of those highlights David said he was very fortunate as he’d already graduated doing Coppelius so he began doing principal roles immediately. He also did Widow Simone very early on, normally you wait till you’re older for that, but he was 18 or 19, putting on wigs, wearing dresses and sticking on warts. It was great as they were featured roles even though they were character roles. He was useful to Peter Wright as a character dancer from the word go and that is great as if you are carrying the show that’s a great sense of responsibility. He got to dance with really wonderful people. At the age of 22 he was Galina Samsova’s mother! He was also mother to Margaret Barbieri and Marion Tait. One of his Swanilda’s was Brenda Last. She was quite funny. Birdie is a trouper and knows how to sell a show. She was in the Company when he first joined, and then she went to Norway and came back to guest as Swanilda when David was Coppelius. She told him that in Norway there was a bald character dancer who was a wonderful Coppelius as all his gestures were so small, but he was able to underplay it wonderfully and was still able to bring out subtle nuances in Act II. David was in awe of Birdie and when she said let’s do that he agreed. They rehearsed and pulled everything back and made it subtle. But once on stage the first thing she did was look him in the eye and the acting had never been bigger and it continued to get bigger still until they were like Helpmann. She was so sly!
David played Widow Simone before doing Alain. There were several terrific Alains - David Morse, Brian Bertscher and Denis Bonner - but they were more short of Widows. He was very lucky because Marion and David Morse helped him a lot as did Ron Plaisted who was one of the original Widow’s in the 60s but no-one told David to put elastic on the slippers. With lots of props and interaction with others, he came out absolutely hyper, flying down the stairs, he kicked Colas and because there was no elastic his slipper went sailing off over the chicken coop and the remainder of the scene he did with only one shoe!
His next choreography for Sadler’s Wells was Meadow of Proverbs. He had lots of ideas, a few more steps, and it was a step forward choreographically but it had too many ideas, and was a bit manic, though it had more of a shelf life. Inspired by Goya, Meadow of Proverbs was from two Goya paintings, and David put them together and each little dance had a proverb behind it, some made up, some from Goya himself, and they danced it to Milhaud. The critic Nicholas Dromgoole said he was either a madman, a genius or a terminal optimist, David thinks the latter was most accurate! The first piece he was really proud of and was a real step forward was Night Moves and Homage to Chopin where he dropped a lot of the literary background rather than cramming all his ideas into these short works. With Night Moves he really made a conscious decision to go down a more classically influenced route whereas previously he’d made works more influenced by contemporary dance. Jiri Kylian was an influence, but the Frank Bridge Variations made him focus more on a classical language so it was a real decision time for David. Asked when Peter offered him a full-length piece, David said it was more that he was pushing for it. He recognised you can’t get characterisation and complex narrative into a shorter form. Most of his work at the time was more abstract in nature and he realised the only way of using narrative was to do it in the larger form. So, he needed a full-length work and his first was The Swan of Tuonela – perhaps the greatest ballet score ever, a wonderful collection of Sibelius pieces which gave him a narrative structure. Everything that he had learned and made strides in in terms of the one act vanished once he came to full length works and he became a beginner once again, not understanding how you carry a whole evening which he realised when the intervals kept coming and he had to go away and come back again among the audience. You can run away in a one act work, but with a full length work you keep coming back. Even now, watching one of his full length works, David wants to be on his own in the first interval. You need to be two-thirds of the way through before forming an opinion on the structure. He was shell-shocked by it and even after the event a full length is such a big beast and can take several years to get it right to you, the dancers, the audience and the critics’ satisfaction, which is almost impossible. Certainly, with The Swan of Tuonela he didn’t get it right on the first night, but you have to stay with it and come back to it and then it goes on tour and you can’t escape. People have paid for a good night out and it all falls on your shoulders. Immediately after that the SWRB went on tour to Australia and New Zealand and the Far East and David said he couldn’t go as he must get away from it and gain some perspective away from the people involved. So, he went on sabbatical to the USA and Canada. It was just about far enough away to get it and the trauma it caused out of his system.
Shortly after this he became Resident Choreographer for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. David said he had seen the world and wasn’t sure where things lay for him, was rather mixed up, and it was perhaps that which Peter recognised and the idea certainly helped to keep him there. It was wonderful and gave him direction – ‘I know where I’ve been and what I’ve seen and where I am now’. It came at the right moment and before a run of work which was quite successful and more formative. He took steps forward, and made Choros to his first commissioned score which was also traumatic, but all great learning curves for him and on a path that he wanted to go which was necessary and important for him.
In 1986 David was invited to join the Royal Ballet. The idea wasn’t in his head but Anthony Dowell asked him to be Resident Choreographer and it was a difficult offer to turn down. By then he had done 10 years with SWRB, his wife had retired, they had their first child, he’d been a year on the road without them and it seemed the right thing to do at that time, and it was. He didn’t ask or jump but was poached. Highlights of that time: David had great friends there as he’d been working with the Company quite a lot. He also had good performing experiences. He didn’t do a lot of performances but things he had done already such as Widow. It was like he’d not been doing it for eight years, yet he had done a lot, but it was as if people had just noticed. He was given things he wouldn’t have done at Sadler’s Wells, like Enigma, a piece which he loved and profoundly admires and enjoyed being in as much as watching. He had next to no rehearsal, never with the whole company but only the bits he was involved in, and only had one practice on the bike which was so difficult to ride. He also loved Cinderella. It was great as he had to join a lot of queues for roles but for that he was put with Derek Deane. He and Derek were chalk and cheese so there were sidelong glances at each other but they had a wonderful time. Derek has an irreverent approach to what you do on stage which the audience doesn’t see and David has always had that, and it was very mischievous of Fred who liked the look of them so they queue-jumped massively and did the first night which was great for them but perhaps not for others in the queue! He also vividly remembered the only time he was caught out on stage when something goes wrong and you can’t cover it up. It was during Fille with Fiona Chadwick as Lise, he came out of the house and at the bottom of the stairs one of the 8 foot sunflowers by the potting shed collapsed on the floor. His stage craft left him completely so he just picked it up and took it off.
Choreography for the Royal Ballet. He had a good time making Consort Lessonsand Gallantrieswhich was a great experience. In his first year there was nothing to do so he made a piece for Sadler’s Wells but the first piece for the Royal was Still Life at the Penguin Cafeand his last piece was Tombeauxand between these there are things which he prefers not to remember. For example, the first night of the Planets – which was probably better than it was given credit for - when the Opera House ground to a halt for 40 minutes. Cyrano was another. He waited 20 years for the right score and circumstances to make it but in the end he didn’t have a great score or do a great job. David feels Prometheus was better than was recognised at the time. They didn’t realise it but all the critics were depicted in it as the gods, perhaps they might have liked it more if they’d known, or maybe less!
He then went sort of freelance. Before SWRB transferred to Birmingham and shortly after making Penguin, David was on a high, enjoying time with the Royal Ballet and still performing when Jeremy Isaacs hinted about direction and the possibility of being Peter Wright’s successor. David was horrified as he never wanted to be a director and it had never crossed his mind. Shortly before leaving the Royal Ballet he’d been unhappy for some time, an article came out from someone who didn’t like him and it was a very painful experience so he dwelt on it for a week or so and rang Jeremy saying he didn’t know where he was in the organisation and did he still think he could direct the company in Birmingham? They had a long talk and Jeremy said absolutely, so David said he would think about it. Not long after that he felt he was becoming someone he didn’t want to be. He had seen others in similar situations, things weren’t right and he knew he had to get out of it. He told Anthony but he was in the middle of Tombeaux which he finished. That piece was completely influenced by Fred and it’s built on the Fred step and it turned into a dialogue between his love for Fred and the Company as he had perceived it and what it had become. That was the big narrative behind everything in Tombeaux. He’d listened to Walton’s First Symphony which is completely autobiographical and depicts how Walton was feeling at the time. Tombeaux became a symphonic narrative about his situation and Fred. The next stage was whenever the job in Birmingham became available, to put in his application but it was two years before that happened. Meanwhile David had a good time. He worked in extraordinary places and was thrilled to make Edward II with a company he had so much affection for – Stuttgart. The minute he walked through the door he felt at home with the spirit of Cranko, and Marcia Haydee and Egon Madsen and Ricky Cragun still there, so it was a lovely experience. He met dancers who then transferred to Birmingham. He went to South Africa in 1994 where he met Leticia Müller, in Stuttgart it was Wolfgang Stollwitzer, Sylvia Jimenez and Sabrina Lenzi, and David Justin in San Francisco. He didn’t poach people though he was accused of it – Wolfgang was being retired by Reid Anderson, Sabrina, who he picked out as junior soloist, spoke to Marcia because there’d been no full length ballets in Stuttgart since Cranko other than for Marcia who did Mata Hari. Marcia said ‘go’ but he did poach Leticia and apologised to the director in South Africa but to David she was a world class dancer in a little company which wasn’t doing well, and she needed a bigger stage. He met some extraordinary dancers and by the time he got to Birmingham, Peter had been ill for a time. It was great to be able to bring in dancers he knew were quality and could make a really good company from the start. What he didn’t realise because they were experienced and at the top of their game was that in five or six years it would all come crashing down. By 2000 Kevin O’Hare, Sabrina and Leticia were leaving, suddenly the Company was bereft of most of its visible talent and they couldn’t attract really good quality from outside. He made a couple of signings which weren’t strong and at the same time without going into great detail he wasn’t getting a shake of the stick from the School. They were squeezed and the Company was struggling. That was the lowest point. Then suddenly Joe Caley, Jenna Roberts and a great crop of young dancers from the school came and he used them. Joe was the youngest Albrecht since David Wall and David threw people on in major roles to get them experienced for the top and it was exciting. The great thing about being a director is the Company doesn’t stay the same - it changes but he enjoyed building good teams.
The challenges of being a director and also main choreographer. When you’re young and energetic you do things just for the sake of it and others around you are doing the same. And there were less money worries than later so it was fine. When you are suddenly without money and only a week away from Cinderella and you don’t know if it’ll happen, you end up being the principal fund-raiser because you can bring in more money from individuals than the funding department and suddenly the job is more demanding and more complex. Before if you wanted a meeting, you had to be in the office for discussions. With the internet you on it 24/7 - it never stops and you end up having to stay on top of it with these colossal demands so that’s a part he doesn’t miss. Even in the last few years he found the demands on his time outside creative time meant he was not able to do anything resembling what he wanted in terms of rep. You are there to provide an artistic vision but his last four years it didn’t happen because they couldn’t afford it. You can’t even bring in an Ashton ballet that you’ve already done because you haven’t the money for the licence, or Balanchine that the Company is well known for, you can’t afford the air fares for the people to come over and rehearse it and you have to be responsible. He would have left a long time before if he hadn’t been so concerned about the future of the Company and knowing he was one of the few who would fight for the Company and the art, saying we have to do this.
He took the directorship in Japan around this time. David said there were many reasons. They had been trying to get him there for a long time. He’d never been to Japan and he went for the first time immediately after taking over BRB, his wife was unwell when he went, their second son was born, and David had terrible root canal trouble. If you aren’t in the mood for Tokyo it’s ghastly, if you’re in the right mood you love it. For him it was just an awful experience on a tour and they were dancing Swan Lakeand Coppelia. The first night, he was told he had to make a speech, David said never in his life had he done it, so the Chairman of the Board made the speech instead but knew he’d made a mistake. It was a terrible first impression, but he came home, his wife was better, he got things sorted including his teeth, and went back for the latter stages of the tour and found he’d not been missed. He was invited in 2005 to the amazing new National Theatre in Tokyo to set Carmina Burana and had a wonderful time, discovered the real Tokyo, the show went wonderfully, audiences were stunned as they’d never seen anything like it, and they had a full choir. It was a great experience and he was keen to go back. Aladdin was made on the company, again he had a wonderful time, and the CEO and Chairman took him out to dinner and asked would it be possible for you to direct BRB and the Royal Ballet? David said he didn’t think so – that wouldn’t happen! But they were asking if he could direct their ballet company as well. He said he’d need to think about it. Why did he go? There was a lack of creative opportunities coming up for BRB and the way the company operates in Japan is amazing – you don’t have to work hard because they work so hard, are so attentive and do so much for you, so it’s not easy but it’s as easy as it gets. David had been in Birmingham 15 years and knew the system, had a great staff who could be trusted with anything, and there was nothing he couldn’t deal with at the same time. It was a well-oiled machine, and he could only see the positives. To be honest, there were a lot of eyebrows raised but looking back at that time he saw positives for all. He took a lot of rep from BRB, revived Manon and Romeo and Juliet, invited people in, hired dancers, teachers, repetiteurs and notators from England. It was great for the Japanese who really liked that influence, and great for David as he learned so much in directing two different companies. Ballet is completely different in Japan from UK and it was so interesting. He made a choreographic programme, linked up with the little theatre which he also directed and which was for contemporary dance so some amazing contemporary dance choreographers were commissioned. It was a win, win situation. Two of the dancers who did Aladdin came to Birmingham to guest and when BRB went back to Japan they got together with dancers from The National Ballet of Japan and chatted and were great mates. He took Yoshi (Yasuo Atsuji), who was doing quite well as a soloist but a bit laid back, to Japan for Swan Lake and Giselle. There he learned a lot, returned to BRB and became a principal and that may not otherwise have happened. For David it was always a limited time of three years to set stuff going for the Japanese to take forward. Then they said they’d not thought about a new director, so he agreed to do another final year.
Why did he decide to retire from BRB? David said the job of director isn’t the job he signed up for, and goodness knows what COVID has done to the business. Even before that in about 2015 his Chief Executive, Chris Barron, left the Company. He saw the writing on the wall in terms of the financial problems which would only get worse with Birmingham reducing funding. It is a funding landscape which is so difficult to function in for a Company, the rep has such money-making potential with Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beautyand Cinderellathat the pressure to end up doing those things just to keep the deficit at bay is enormous and takes away from opportunities to make BRB a home for choreographers including himself. He stayed on because the Company was going through a change and it was at a dangerous point. He stayed until the danger was to a certain extent passed and there was no need for him to stay longer. Everything that was scheduled for him last season went, but most will come back and they’re just put on hold. The exciting thing for David is that he has three commissions which are all bucket list pieces. He doesn’t want to go tearing around anymore. He wants to do certain things with people he is really interested in working with, two big pieces and one smaller one which he’s been thinking of doing for years. They’re exciting and suitably far enough in the distance and this, God willing, will all be behind us.
In thanking David so much for being our guest, our chairman said it had been a great pleasure but we’d not talked about the enormous amount of ballets he made in Birmingham so hopefully after COVID we could have a live meeting to talk about those areas we’ve missed out on. Meanwhile, fingers crossed, as we look forward to BRB’s scheduled Nutcracker over Christmas and David’s Cinderella on tour.
Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Sir David Bintley and David Bain.
© The Ballet Association 2020