Birmingham Royal Ballet return to The Lowry with David Bintley’s acclaimed fairytale ballet, Beauty and the Beast. The production marks the Director’s final tour with the company and, as Carmel Thomason discovers, his work behind the scenes has been equally magical.
After 24-years leading Birmingham Royal Ballet, it feels fitting for David Bintley to close his final tour with a revival of Beauty and the Beast. As a choreographer, he’s famous for narrative works and in this majestic full-length ballet, the importance he places on story couldn’t be clearer.
The curtain raises to reveal a magical set, opening like a giant book at the heart of the stage. The ballet, first seen in 2003, is among his proudest works. But David’s story with BRB and his heart for the Company stretches far beyond what we see on stage.
Their history together goes back 42 years when he joined BRB, then Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, as a dancer. Almost 20 years later, aged 38, he succeeded Sir Peter Wright at the head of the organisation and was keen to continue the supportive ethos inspired by his predecessor.
“I never wanted to be a director, but everything suddenly came together,” he remembers. “I wanted to be in a place where my work would be of use; where it would become part of the Company’s history – that it would mean something. The best way to do that was to be the director of a company.”
Since then, David has choreographed more than 22 ballets and commissioned a further 21. However, it’s clear his roots with BRB run deeper than personal artistic achievements.
“The works mean more to me than just the work itself,” David explains. “They are part of a period of my life. When I revive a work it’s not just the work but what one has memories of. Like one of the pas de deux in Carmina Burana. I know the date I choreographed that because it was the day my son was born.”
Carmina Burana was David’s first piece as newly appointed director in 1995. He took the show to South Africa shortly after, making BRB the first major ballet company to visit following the country’s first free elections. Ten years later he revived the show for his debut with National Ballet of Japan. The collaboration led to him becoming its director, a role he held for four-years, in addition to his role at BRB.
While these are the recorded moments, David’s strongest memories are often outside the lights of the stage.
“The things that really stand out to me are not the ballets or the performances, but what the company can do and what it can mean outside of the show,” he says.
There’s joy in his voice as he recalls the work of BRB’s education team in South African townships. Enthusiasm spilled into the rest of the Company and by the end of the tour everyone wanted to get involved. “On the final day we had 500 kids from all over Pretoria and Johannesburg doing a workshop with the Company. All 500 of them performed the leading girl’s solo from Carmina Burana. There wasn’t a dry eye.”
Another personal highlight was their 2011 Japanese tour. Falling two months after the Tōhoku earthquake and during the ongoing disaster in Fukushima, the Japanese National Ballet saw BRBs presence as a demonstration of solidarity with its people, strengthening an artistic partnership that continues today.
“It was a very emotional tour,” says David. “The Japanese greeted us little short of ecstatically. For us to be strong enough, brave enough and trusting enough when much of the world ran away was a fantastic thing.”
Closer to home, David encouraged life-changing projects such as Bally Hoo, working with 200 youngsters from deprived backgrounds to produce a full-length performance of Romeo and Juliet. The two-year project was filmed for a Channel 4 documentary, Ballet Hoo! – Ballet Changed My Life. It was a remarkable example of community outreach. More remarkable – BRB’s commitment didn’t end when the cameras stopped rolling.
“Bally Hoo was a massive project which caused a lot of disruption and a lot of patience and commitment from all the dancers,” David admits. “We are still in touch with some of those young people. We have a group that regularly gets together.
“I’ve always been pleased that our presence in Birmingham goes beyond simply being a performing arts company. We are part of the social structure – to me that is the true value of any kind of art.”
David understands the impact dance can have on a child’s life. Growing up in a village outside Huddersfield, at age 4 he fell in love with performing on the Sunday School stage. At 16, he trained at the Royal Ballet’s Upper School under Dame Ninette de Valois and Sir Frederick Ashton, before joining Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet at 19.
His role as Director of BRB has allowed him to spot and nurture new talent. He rarely hires dancers at a high level, preferring to bring them through first year corps de ballet so they have a depth of understanding and respect for what it’s like to be a dancer at all levels of the Company.
In addition to the 60 dancers under his guidance, David expresses genuine care and value for the 100 staff working for him across all areas of the Company. His stability in the role has maintained a family atmosphere while instilling confidence to push artistic boundaries.
“The public wants to see new things as well as old,” he says. “The great thing about classical ballet is it has absorbed every other dance influence of the day since 1600. I like to bring new trends from theatre into dance. It’s a question of what is a novelty and what is an innovation? Novelties are easy and true innovation is harder, but that’s what we chase.”
Throughout his career, David has shown great innovation in commissioning new music for ballet, including for Beauty and the Beast’s score from Canadian composer, Glenn Buhr.
“To me, working with a composer on a new piece is infinitely more satisfying than finding something on a record or online,” he explains. “I make dance because of music and, for me, the relationship between music and dance is fundamental.”
One of his greatest legacies is the hugely ambitious, Ballet Now – a ground-breaking initiative supporting choreographers, composers and designers to develop new work of world-class potential.
“It was an idea we never thought we’d attain,” he admits. “It was me and our previous development director and we just shot for the stars. For a couple of years nothing happened. We were very lucky to get a big sponsor in the Oak Foundation and suddenly it came together.”
David leaves BRB in July 2019, his place in the Company’s history firmly set as one of Britain’s most successful classical choreographers. His last piece takes the audience almost back to the beginning, with one of his first major successes, Hobson’s Choice from 1989.
“There’s a point where you have to go back to the beginning again and completely reassess everything that you’ve done and everything that has to be done,” David reflects. “I feel it’s just time for somebody else to look at it.”
Looking forward to more creative freedom as a freelance choreographer again, he already has commissions lined-up in China, Japan, Florida and Bordeaux. Not surprising for a choreographer who has transformed BRB into one of UK’s major cultural exports with tours and co-productions stretching every corner of the globe. And testament to David’s strong international legacy, the greatest dancer of our generation, Carlos Acosta has been attracted as his successor.
“Carlos is a world superstar as a dancer and will open a lot of doors internationally,” says David. “I hope he is as successful in his career as a director as he was as a dancer – that will be great for the Company”.
Find out what it takes to be a Principal Dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet in our interview with Delia Mathews who appears as Belle in selected performances of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Beauty and the Beast.