It was at the barely there age of four, at a Sunday-school concert in his native Pennine village of Honley, that David Bintley was bitten by the performing-arts bug.
‘It was just being on stage,’ he says. ‘I was on a bunch of planks laid over some pews, and lighting courtesy of car headlamps on a broomstick. It was that sophisticated – and I was utterly entranced, stage-struck at four!’
Bintley has gone on to be one of the major players in British ballet: first as a marvellously musical and entertaining character dancer with what was then Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet; for 20 years now, as Director of the company it became, Birmingham Royal Ballet; and, throughout, as one of the most distinguished neo-classical choreographers of the modern age.
Born in 1957, he trained throughout his teens and, at 16, won a place at the Royal Ballet Upper School. A contract at SWRB followed in 1976, and before long he was delivering gold-standard interpretations of such characters as the Ashton Ugly Sister in Cinderella, Alain and Widow Simone in La Fille mal gardée, Bottom in The Dream and the lead in Petrushka.
It was in 1978 – thanks to SWRB’s sharp-eyed director, Peter Wright – that Bintley received his first commission with the company, and created The Outsider, a work very much in the dramatic tradition of Ashton, MacMillan and de Valois. But he had already, for some time, had an inkling that choreography might be where his future would lie.
‘Before I went to the Royal Ballet School,’ he says, ‘I was 16, and I made a version of The Soldier’s Tale, the Stravinsky. I loved the music, and I wanted to play the soldier, but I got so carried away with the making of the ballet that I virtually didn’t choreograph my own part. It was the actual making of it – I suddenly thought, this is fascinating!’
That fascination continued to burgeon. In 1983, Bintley became SWRB’s resident choreographer. From 1986 to 1993, he held the same post with the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden. And, in 1995, after two years spent freelancing around the world, he took over from Wright at what by now was Birmingham Royal Ballet. From 2010 to 2014, he was also artistic director of the National Ballet of Japan, on whom he created Aladdin and The Prince of the Pagodas.
The works that Bintley’s career has yielded are as plentiful they are varied. ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café (1988) was a series of sparkling vignettes dedicated to the world’s endangered fauna, and yet the following year he found his dramatic voice just as richly in the cheery and very human carousing of Hobson’s Choice. For every lighthearted romance such as 2007’s Cyrano and 2009’s Sylvia, there is something far darker: 1993’s noirish Tombeaux, say, or 1995’s murderously eloquent Edward II. On one hand, Bintley remains first and foremost a creator of narrative ballets. Carmina burana (1995) was a no-holds-barred tale of troubled seminarians that perfectly channelled the heft of Carl Orff’s music, Far from the Madding Crowd (1996) a sensitive reading of Hardy. No less articulate or colourful in their storytelling, meanwhile, were two spectacular fairy-tales: Beauty and the Beast (2003), and Cinderella (2010).
However, he has also repeatedly demonstrated an appetite and an aptitude for abstraction. Allegri diversi (1987) was a craftsmanlike and plotless response to Rossini, while the latter’s compatriot, Verdi, inspired the charming ebullience of The Seasons (2001). More recently, Bintley – together with composer Matthew Hindson – also made a remarkably exhilarating foray into physics, with E=mc² (2009).
Of course, Bintley’s 20 years with Birmingham Royal Ballet haven’t only been a matter of creating new works and – wherever possible – commissioning new scores. New ballets are expensive gambles, besides which, the other, vital side of his job is a curatorial one, and he has at his fingertips a particularly fine collection of classics. (Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, Wright productions all, are among the best in the world.)
‘If we had more money,’ says Bintley, ‘I would be steering towards even more new pieces. But at the same time, I’m a great champion of the history of the Royal Ballet companies, and it’s so important to me that the lineage is kept alive. It informs our new work,’ he concludes. ‘It makes our new work better.’
Mark Monahan is Dance Critic of the Daily Telegraph