Leap of faith: Dancing my way out of Honley

Birmingham Royal Ballet's principal dancer Chi Cao in Les Rendezvous choreographed by David Bintley. Picture: Bill Cooper
Birmingham Royal Ballet's principal dancer Chi Cao in Les Rendezvous choreographed by David Bintley. Picture: Bill Cooper
  • Inspired by his sister to dance, David Bintley never looked back. Phil Penfold meets the Yorkshire choreographer at the helm of Birmingham Royal Ballet.
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In Honley in the 1960s there weren’t many young lads like David Bintley. And if there were others as equally passionate about dance and ballet in particular they knew better than to broadcast it. “It must have been a bit of a puzzle for them. I was the only boy going off to ballet classes, but I was mad keen on sport as well. I loved football and was very good at athletics. I was always going off to see Huddersfield Town, who were then in their glory days.”

Today, Bintley is 57, one of the world’s leading choreographers and artistic director of the acclaimed Birmingham Royal Ballet, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

David Bintley taking out from choreographing the Birmingham Royal Ballet company

David Bintley taking out from choreographing the Birmingham Royal Ballet company

Bintley, who was appointed a CBE for his services to dance, has been in post with the company for the last 20 years and has no intention of moving on. The BRB love him, and he loves them back.

“I know that it is one of the biggest clichés,” he says with a slight grimace, “but our company really is a huge family. There is one dancer who was here when I arrived, and he is still a very valued member of the team.

“We have a joke that once someone joins the BRB, they never leave. And I don’t just mean dancers, I mean all sorts of people in the departments who keep us going – in costume, in shoes, in maintenance, in music...”

It was his sister Sara who first inspired David to dance. She was, he says, a talented performer, but unlike him had no desire to turn professional.

“The penny dropped pretty quickly with me that I definitely did want to dance as a career. I was always trying to improve – I’d be off to lessons in Manchester, miles away, no problem at all.”

David eventually joined the Royal Ballet School, and then the Royal Ballet itself, and he never looked back.

If you mention to him that you saw him on stage somewhere or other, he grins hugely and says: “Oh heavens. That rather gives your age away. When someone says that, we really are slipping back into the mists of time. Some of the places I appeared in my early days were less than salubrious.

“One venue we went to was the Middlesbrough Little Theatre, bless it, where we could only get in to the stage door by walking across a rather rickety plank – it saved us from wading through a huge lake that seemed to have collected after a lot of rainstorms.

“Once inside, we discovered that the green room was also the crew room and that the dressing rooms were virtually non-existent.

“They can’t have been a trusting lot backstage because the spoon to stir your tea with was on a long chain, screwed to the counter.

“And, one evening, someone had decided on a nice fish pie for their supper, and popped it into the microwave. The result of that was that the audience was greeted with the aroma of hot cod when they arrived in the auditorium. But I have to 
say that the manager there was graciousness itself, and always wore a black tie and dinner suit to greet us. Very smart. And we sold out. Which is all that matters, isn’t it?”

During the time that David’s firm hand has been on the BRB’s tiller, the company has established itself as one of the leading forces in dance.

It now has 60 dancers from 167 different nationalities, regularly delivering ground-breaking performances in South Africa, Europe and North America. And it is a firm favourite in Japan, where it is currently playing to packed houses.

Getting every dancer there, along with costumes, scenery, technicians and a lot of equipment – they even take their own washing machines with them – is a logistical nightmare, but it happens, apparently without any effort. At the moment they are touring the UK, and one of the stop-offs will be in York, where the BRB has a loyal body of fans.

It was David’s idea to “split” the company so that as many people as possible could see what it does. So, in effect, for a few weeks the Birmingham Royal Ballet becomes two companies, one heading north, and the other to the south and south-west.

It brings smaller works to medium-sized venues, but always with live music – the orchestra is halved as well.

“Our works are made for our audiences,” says David firmly. “Ballet is entertainment. It is for the people who buy their tickets and who come to see us. It is not for the chorus, or for a particular dancer.

“You cannot ever beat live performance, live music, live theatre. We did experiment with a taped soundtrack once – we were extremely financially strapped at the time, and things were very hard – and that will never happen again.

“We found to our cost that it wasn’t for us. It was a disaster. And we have a duty to everyone out there who enjoys dance, for we are the country’s ballet company. Our remit is to take what we do to every corner that we possibly can”.

It isn’t cheap to go out on tour, and can cost around £100,000 a week. And David has done another calculation – each of the BRB dancers will appear on stage in front of an audience nearly 200 times during the course of a year.

“Compare that with your professional footballer’s total appearances”, he says with a smile.

The philosophy of the BRB is that it must preserve the classical repertoire – unsurprisingly, the two most popular pieces in its repertoire are The Nutcracker at Christmas time, and Swan Lake, a box office winner every time it is announced - while also introducing new works.

David is nothing if not prolific. The first work that attracted attention was his Still Life at the Penguin Café, and since then he has given the company a new Sylvia, an acclaimed Beauty and the Beast, Hobson’s Choice, Cinderella, Carmina Burana and Far From the Madding Crowd.

He is an instinctive storyteller, and when he was artistic director of the National Ballet of Japan, a post which he relinquished last year, he created 
Aladdin for them as well as Prince of the Pagoda.

“Japan,” he says as an aside, “is an easy place to dislike. No, change that. It’s Tokyo which is the problem for someone like me. Vast. Towering. Too big to believe. But I grew to like it all, and I met some charming people, and had some wonderful times, but it is always a culture shock, nonetheless.”

He can’t define how he ‘makes’ a ballet. “There are so many factors that are woven in, one with another,” he explains. “There’s the story, for a start. If it’s a well-known one, like Cinderella, you have to be faithful to that.

“Then there’s the music – is it entirely new, or is it a score with which everyone is familiar? Are you working with a score by Verdi, or by Britten? Is the piece a one-acter, or a full-scale production? What is the budget?

“No two dance works are the same, it’s different every time, and no creative process is like the last. If it were, it would be terribly boring. For the audiences, for the dancers and musicians, and very definitely for me!”

Next year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and the BRB is celebrating in style, with Bintley going into overdrive to create or re-envisage a huge homage to the bard.

As well as the obvious staging of Romeo and Juliet, there will be a new Tempest, a Moor’s Pavanne (a nod to Othello), A Midsummer’s Night Dream, a work based on the sonnets, and another on The Taming of the Shrew. And much more besides.

“I think that it will all demonstrate our flexibility,” says Bintley.

For this year, he’s currently working on a piece called The King Dances. And he might just have a little more time on his hands, because he has given up his season ticket for his beloved Aston Villa. “Oh dear,” he laments, “I had one for years and years, I went to nearly every game. And then a large group of us felt things weren’t going well at the top, and we decided to make a bit of a protest by not renewing.

“It’s backfired a bit, because they are now doing really well, and I can’t get to see them on a winning streak. Shot myself a bit in the foot there, eh? I still have a look to see what Huddersfield are up to when the results come out, though. There’s still some sentimental loyalty to the old team.”

The last 20 years, he says, have flown by, but it’s not been without its challenges.

“Part of the reason for touring is to encourage new people to come and see us. Letting them see that we are there, right on their doorstep. Here, at our base in Birmingham, we are proud of our state of the art facilities – you should see the gym and physiotherapy unit, it’s incredible. Something that wasn’t there when I was a youngster starting out.

“One thing I’ve learned is that dance mustn’t stick in the past, in the traditional, the tried and tested. Along with all the favourites, you have to innovate. Be bold. Otherwise it’s just a painful and slow mummification, isn’t it?”

Birmingham Royal Ballet, Grand Opera House York, on May 19 and 20, with a triple bill of Elite Syncopations, Les Rendezvous and Kin. 44 871 3024, www.atgtickets.com