Interview

Recapturing a Dream: David Bintley on Tombeaux

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2013 marks the 20th anniversary of David Bintley's Tombeaux, and the tenth anniversary of its most recent performance by Birmingham Royal Ballet. With the piece returning to the stage this autumn, David spoke to Lee Armstrong about the inception of this very personal ballet.

Tombeaux is a very personal work for you, isn't it?

Yes it is, and probably one of the most important pieces of my career. It's a work born out of anger and bitterness but also out of joy and elation. It was an important learning experience; a tribute, both to Frederick Ashton, who had died a few years before, and the British ballet tradition he embodied, which I felt slipping away from me. And in that sense, it became a full stop on one chapter of my life and at the same time, the beginning of another.

Which chapter ended? Where were you in your career?

I was living the dream, wasn't I? I was a Principal Dancer and Resident Choreographer with The Royal Ballet. That's where everyone wants to be don't they? It's Mecca, it's paradise. So why wasn't I happy? I had a dream, reality or not, of what The Royal Ballet was, what it meant, and I had a clear vision of my own place in this great tradition, following in the footsteps of Fred and Madam, my heroes and mentors.

But The Royal Ballet back then was slowly turning in a different direction; the spirit of the company was changing. That's not to criticise what it's become today, or what the Director wanted it to be then, but I just didn't believe in it, couldn't sit back and simply take the wage packet.

Those feelings of frustration and sadness came to a head during the creation ofTombeaux. In fact, I resigned with the piece half-finished. They asked me to stay on to finish it, which I did, and it became my envoi. It was not only a lament, it was not only my sadness at the end of British ballet as I had dreamt it to be, but it was my farewell to all that and the institution that had embodied it.

And the new direction?

Well, it had been mooted to me quite early on that I might consider, at some point in the future, taking over the 'other company'. Jeremy Isaacs spoke to me about two months after I joined The Royal Ballet, but I was horrified! I was a choreographer and I was Resident Choreographer with The Royal Ballet.

Why would I consider directing another company? Five years later however, my growing unhappiness within a Company of people who had become strangers to me, and my own dismay at the person I was becoming, meant that the prospect of direction became a tantalising one, one I welcomed, and a way in which I could resurrect my dream of 'British ballet'.

I came to this exciting realisation during the creation of Tombeaux, and I put those feelings of joy into the ballet too, alongside my negative feelings. Not only had I realised I was in the wrong place, but I now knew how I could put myself in the right place, and it was that that led me to even contemplate direction.

Do you think actually working on the piece helped you make that decision?

Whether it helped me, or pushed me, or it all just happened at once, I don't know. Certainly, I realised I wasn't the person I wanted to be and I needed to make a change before the unhappiness turned to bitterness. Everything did seem to come to a head in the piece, both negative and positive, because the ending is a positive one. That lone figure running off at the end, that's me.

Bidding farewell?

Yes, it's just me and whatever is in front of me. Not many people resign as Principal and Resident Choreographer of The Royal Ballet.

So where did Tombeaux itself come from, the steps and the music?

I loved William Walton at the time and was listening to a lot of his music.

One day, I was lying on the couch, not thinking about much, and I put on his Hindemith Variations. Immediately, I heard the 'Fred step' [defined by David Vaughan as: posé en arabesque, coupé dessous, small développé à la seconde, pas de bourée, pas de chat].

I heard the rhythm of the Fred step then a little pause ­ like the Fred step then a thought, then the Fred step and a thought. That was it. The structure of the piece virtually came to me in one listen! I had the whole piece in front of me and everything that it meant ­ my feelings about Fred, my frustration at the changes in The Royal Ballet ­ it was all there.

Tombeaux wrote itself as you listened to the music?

I saw the whole piece, right from the very first bit. You don't see exact steps, but the structure was all there. As each variation played, I saw a solo male dancer, then a corps, the entrance of the ballerina, her solo, a duet...

Did the steps come as easily in the studio? In an absract piece like this, what inspires those steps?

By the time you get to the studio, you've usually done a lot of listening, but this wasn't just an abstract piece. Galanteries, for example, is a truly abstract piece. It's Mozart and the steps are all about the galant style, that's it.

So this was different because of all the feeling behind it? It must have been very emotional.

It was. It was initially driven by that Fred step. The whole ballet, in a sense, is a variation on the Fred step. It appears all over the place ­ turned around, in fragments, even literally inverted at one point! That was the technical device that was there, but the piece as a whole is all about the atmosphere and the intense feelings behind it. I chose Bruce Sansom as the male lead because the technical language in it was very British, and he was the epitome of an English male dancer ­ very understated and lyrical ­ like a young Anthony Dowell.

What do you mean when you say the language is British?

I mean that stylistically, it is understated. As well as the Fred step, it uses the rounded Cecchetti arms Fred loved so much. It's also very difficult, very technical and virtuosic, and I use beats a lot, entrechats six and brisées, something British ballet used to be famous for, but not something you see a lot of in new classical choreography these days, but it's all understated. Modest. British!

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How did Jasper Conran come to design the piece?

There was a charity gala and there were all sorts of people choreographing and designing little bits ­ Vivienne Westwood did something, Versace did something ­ and I got Jasper. He designed me a single costume for Darcey Bussell to wear in my solo and, for me, it was one of the most successful.

Some of the other designers merely hung one of their ideas on a dancer and they didn't suit so well. Jasper's piece was made and cut on Darcey's body, it was made to be danced in and it made her look stunning. If you have a young Darcey Bussell, you don't want to hide that!

Initially I was quite terrified of Jasper, because he's loud and flamboyant, but I also really liked him. I wanted something simple and elegant, and his work is just that ­ very classic and elegant but also innovative. So, I rang him up one day and basically said, 'Jasper, redesign the tutu for me!'

Had he ever done anything like that before?

No, this was his first ballet, and also my first tutu ballet. He made these gorgeous, velvety tutus, which the girls said were the most comfortable tutus they'd ever worn.

Going to a fashion designer for ballet costumes was quite an unusual thing to do at the time, wasn't it?

I suppose it was, it's normally theatre designers or artists, though Coco Chanel designed Le Train Bleu for Nijinska as far back as 1924. It's been done quite a bit now, but I'd like to think I was one of the first.

I prefer to use people who are not ballet designers ­ people who can bring something new to the table. Sue Blane did her first ballet for me, so did Hayden Griffin, and most recently of course, Rae Smith. The Prince of the Pagodas was her first ballet too.

Who did the idea of dressing the cast in black come from?

That came from me. I went to Jasper and described the ballet as Aurora's funeral. It was a kind of joke of course, Aurora's wedding in The Sleeping Beauty being the pinnacle of classical ballet, but I wanted this to be like her funeral. And it is a funeral in a way ­ a funeral for Fred, and me.

All in all, a pivotal piece for you.

It was the piece that set me on my present course, the course to direction.

It was a complete watershed ­ life-changing. It made me think hard about my professional life, my artistic dreams and aspirations, and what I could do to recapture this departing dream, real or imagined, of the future of British ballet.