Feature

Dancing Kings - the men of Birmingham Royal Ballet

Dominic Antonucci discusses the emerging male talent at Birmingham Royal Ballet. This article first appeared in the Dancing Times and is reproduced with the kind permission of all involved.

<table class="form stripey"><tbody><tr><td>Miracle in the Gorbals in rehearsal</td></tr></tbody></table>. Credit: Andrew Ross.

In June of this year Birmingham audiences witnessed the world premiere of David Bintley’s new one-act ballet, The King Dances. Based on the historic Le Ballet de la Nuit created in 1653, The King Dances centres around a young King Louis XIV of France and features a nearly all-male cast. In the original production of Le Ballet de la Nuit, said to have lasted more than 13 hours in length, King Louis danced in numerous scenes and was supported by a cast of almost 100 men.

While Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production is thankfully not on the same scale in either duration or number of participants, David Bintley has tried to tap into the strength of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s current group of male dancers to recreate the power and impact of the original.

Celebrating his 20th year as artistic director, David feels he chose the right time to create this particular piece, as Birmingham Royal Ballet is enjoying a period of great depth of talent within the ranks of its male dancers.

He choreographed the role of King Louis on soloist William Bracewell, 24. This is the first major role to have been made on William in his young career, and I spoke with both of them about the creation of The King Dances, working with the men of Birmingham Royal Ballet, and what David looks for when selecting male dancers for the company as well as in his own pieces.

'Our men are fiercely competitive but it’s never negative, they’re always rooting for each other and pushing each other.'

David Bintley

The expression 'a good man is hard to find' has long held true in the ballet world. Historically, male ballet dancers have been fewer relative to females, and even more rare have been the men who excel enough to dance a wide range of roles at the top level.

<p><em>The King Dances: </em>William Bracewell as Le Roi Soleil</p>. Credit: Bill Cooper.


Perhaps this is why David visibly glows when he speaks about the men Birmingham Royal Ballet currently have on its roster. From experienced principals such as Iain Mackay and Chi Cao, to rising stars like Mathias Dingman (who has recently been promoted to the rank of Principal) and William Bracewell, David has a wide and diverse range of talent to work with and create his new ballets on.

'I look up and down that list of men just thinking about how they’re progressing, what roles would be good for them, and it’s very exciting,' David says. 'We’ve built a culture here of strong men. The ones at the top are great so it makes everyone else better and on it goes.'

David explains that while the concept for The King Dances was decades in the making, he felt this was the right group of dancers finally to create the piece on. 'I have this theory that there must have been a fantastic collective spirit, almost a military camaraderie behind the creation of Le Ballet de la Nuit. It was 100 men creating a dance piece together; there must have been a powerful dynamic driving that.

I feel this particular group of men at Birmingham Royal Ballet have that. There’s an extraordinary esprit de corps among them. You’ve only got to see them on an opening night with all the man-hugs going around to know that it’s there. It’s wonderful to see. Our men are fiercely competitive but it’s never negative, they’re always rooting for each other and pushing each other.'

William Bracewell is a prime example of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s young talent, and for David, an obvious choice for the role of King Louis. 'Some roles self-select. I can’t say I made this piece because of William, but there he was. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. With William you’ve got someone very youthful and fresh looking. He’s playing a 14-year-old King Louis but I don’t want him to ‘play’ a 14-year-old boy. I needed that air of youth, optimism and naivety that Louis possibly had at that time, which William has.'

'Historically, rare have been the men who excel enough to dance a wide range of roles at the top level.'

When William learned he would be dancing the role of Louis, the excitement of the challenge sent him researching his character as much as he could.

'I found that a lot of the things written about Louis were open to interpretation. His relationship with his mother and his mentor Mazarin have been explained in very different ways. That was really cool for me when we started creating the piece because I could make up my own mind about certain things, aspects of the relationships.'

William hasn’t had much experience working with David one-on-one during the creation of a ballet and found that judging what he wanted from him moment to moment was the most difficult part of the process. 'Sometimes David wants a very specific movement, and other times he wants the dancer to show him something or elaborate on an idea so I was worried about when to hold back and when to go for how I felt.'

<p>The King Dances in rehearsal; William Bracewell and Jenna Roberts</p>. Credit: Andrew Ross.

Both the male and female roles in The King Dances are danced by men apart from the character of Selene, la lune. Selene is portrayed in David’s vision as a composite of several female figures in Louis’ life. David had originally intended the role to be danced by a man as well, as would have been historically accurate for the time, but changed his mind before starting the actual choreography. Instead, he selected principal dancer Jenna Roberts for the part.

'I simply felt that using a man in that instance was too loaded,' David tells me. 'We have too many associations in modern times for it to come across as it was intended. And, of course, the pas de deux would be completely different if it were two men, not least because the lifting element would have gone for the most part. However, I still choreographed Selene with the intent to show some androgyny, as if it could be a man playing the part.'

William also describes having to put a lot of thought into how to relate to Selene during their duets, as the role does not portray one specific person. 'I wasn’t sure how I should act towards think I found it eventually; it became such a beautiful pas de deux.'

'I want to see desire and someone who never stops working and wanting it.'

David Bintley

At the heart of The King Dances are the male ensemble dance scenes. This is where David was searching for a different kind of strength, having also to consider some of the period costuming and footwear.

'That was a big test for me in this ballet because I knew they’d all be dancing in heels and that would change the technique. But this was not a piece where I wanted big jumps and multiple turns. I was looking for a different kind of virtuosity. Something very tight. Very restrained. A little bit like Spanish dancing. It’s incredibly macho, powerful and exciting but they don’t leave the floor. That’s what I was after with this piece, and I like to think I found it with this group of men.'

David has already started rehearsing his new production of The Tempest, which is to premiere in 2016 and also heavily features the men of Birmingham Royal Ballet. So what does he look for and want from the men he hires at Birmingham Royal Ballet?

'Like every other director, I want everything!' he laughs. 'I want perfect technique, physique, musicality and acting ability, six foot two with good looks! But seriously, what I want above all else is individuality. I’ve never hired a dancer for this company that I wasn’t felt couldn’t do something more than just stand in a line and look pretty. Hiring just to fill a place in the corps is a complete anathema to me. I want to see desire and someone who never stops working and wanting it.'

During the short run of performances of The King Dances in Birmingham, the BBC filmed the production for a forthcoming documentary, giving William and his supporting cast some extra chances to grow more comfortable in their roles.

As Birmingham Royal Ballet prepares to take the production on tour this autumn, William feels that with a few shows and the filming under his belt he can bring even more to the role of Louis as his familiarity with the music, costumes and lighting becomes greater. 'I definitely feel excited about dancing the role again because I know much more what to expect from everything and what David wants from me.'

And there’s no doubt that David himself is more than happy to continue laying down a path where all of his princes, like William, can become kings.