David Bintley is a true believer. His first experience of performing was at the age of four in one of the little entertainments put on at his local Sunday School. The sense of art as something that united a community was seeded then, as was the notion of family – his parents used to play the music for the shows. These early experiences continue to inform his philosophy as the Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet. He has held the post for over two decades, but as a dancer and choreographer, who had trained with Ninette de Valois (invariably known as ‘Madam’) and Frederick Ashton, he was at first uncertain about running a company.
‘I never wanted to be a director, but when the opportunity to take the leadership of Birmingham Royal Ballet presented itself, I was inspired by my predecessor Peter Wright, who was such a great example of a man, combining the highest of aspiration with genuine compassion and care. I grew up in the Company under him when it was based in London and was never happier. It seemed a natural progression to want to emulate and continue that tradition within the Company in its new incarnation.’
Even now Bintley can seem surprised at his own history. Born in Honley, near Huddersfield, he wanted to dance from an early age and attended lessons at the local dance school. At 16 he entered the Royal Ballet’s Upper School where he rubbed shoulders with some very distinguished people.
‘I was steeped in the whole Royal Ballet ethos, but to be in a local ballet school one moment and the next in the canteen queue with Rudolf Nureyev, Sir Fred and ‘Madam’ was beyond my dreams!’
For dancers of Bintley‘s generation, the extraordinary Rudolf Nureyev was the aspiration for every young male dancer, but on arrival in London he quickly realised he wasn’t likely to be cast as Siegfried in Swan Lake. In fact, ultimately, he became famous for his acting and superb character roles. One of the reasons he began choreographing was to create for himself the sort of parts he knew he would excel in. ‘My first ballet, made at the age of 16, was Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, I just wanted to play the Soldier!’
Heralded for his narrative works, like the jaw-dropping Edward II, the more-human-than-fairytale Cinderella and his majestic Beauty and the Beast, he has also produced abstract ballets of great distinction and popularity like the evergreen ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café and the Einstein-inspired E=mc2. The key to his creativity is that even in its abstract form, dance should have an emotional impact as well as aesthetic merit – it should strike the heart as well as the head.
‘Absolutely. Humanity is the beating heart of my work. I think audiences respond to the personality behind the creator, and I like to be moved by something, you know?’
Over the years he has built a company that reflects his own beliefs. Now he commands a multinational pool of dancers that is as diverse as it is accomplished. His four-year tenure as Artistic Director of National Ballet of Japan gave him valuable experience of the values and priorities of a completely different culture, both in ballet and in life, and propelled him even further towards physical and ethnic diversity. He is also aware of the legacy of which he is now custodian. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s spirit is quite different from that of its London counterpart. With a complement of 60 dancers it is closer to the family ideal that Bintley tries to encourage.
While the ‘Big Five’ classics are perennially popular, it can be quite challenging to convince an audience that they want to see new works, however brilliant they are. Bintley’s 1989 Hobson’s Choice was an immediate hit, and has remained so, but others, Beauty and the Beast for example, took some work and time to gain their popularity. ‘I like to think that we don’t do bad shows. Sure, everyone has their different tastes, their expectations, but ticket sales alone are not a real indicator of quality; some of the best and bravest things we’ve ever done have not caught the mass imagination. You have to keep working, keep persuading, keep searching for new audiences and greater appreciation.’
There is a strong sense of morality that radiates through Bintley’s work and into his working methods that derives from his deeply held religious faith.
‘If it’s something you fundamentally believe, it affects your entire life. The job of directing, by its very nature, means you inflict small disappointments on people almost every day, but I try to be as open, clear and honest as possible with the dancers. I was very determined when I began that I wanted the best for everyone – for everyone to maximise their potential, and therefore be happy in the Company.’
Above all, it is the sense of a non-exclusive, extended family that lies at the heart of Bintley’s Company. As the torchbearer of an extraordinary legacy, Bintley is not about to let the flame go out.
Neil Norman is Chief Dance Critic of The Stage