Meeting of Minds, Banging of Heads

by Neil Nisbet

How many Ballet Directors does it take to change a light bulb? 26, one to change the light bulb and the other 25 will do it ‘after ‘ the first one.

If you did not get that joke then you are probably not a serious ballet fan or regular visitor to the numerous performances given by the UK ‘s ballet companies throughout the year. If balletomanes will forgive us while we educate the masses; the joke is a reference to ballet choreographers that create a new version of Swan Lake, for example, and in the programme credits state the choreography was created ‘after ‘ Marius Petipa.

What it really means is they just take someone else ‘s idea and mess around with it a little. Mathew Bourne does this for a living, as do most ballet directors and none of them are about to makes any apologies for it.

Ballet is regarded as bit of an anachronism by many in the UK ‘s contemporary dance profession and creatively stagnant by a great deal more outside the profession. Classical companies in the UK receive huge sums of public money that make the amounts given to contemporary dance companies pale in comparison. However, the ratio of new to old work from ballet companies is pitifully poor.

It was with this in mind that 26 directors from ballet companies all over the world converged on a leafy enclave in Suffolk in the UK to discuss just exactly what it is they could do about this. This “Rural Retreat” was organised by Dance East one of the UK ‘s National Dance Agencies.

It has long been recognised that ballet companies, particularly in the UK, have a common problem. Their regular audiences love the classics and those classics are what the audience will pay money to see. Any hint of new work by an unknown choreographer and audiences begin walking away with revenues vanishing into thin air.

A quick tour around the web-sites of the ballet companies involved in this ‘Rural Retreat ‘ provides plenty of evidence that ballet directors are unwilling to take risks. An endless procession of Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Coppelia, Romeo and Juliet, Balanchine, MacMillan, Tetley, Ashton and others are the mainstay of much of the world ‘s ballet repertoire. Mainland European countries are a little more adventurous in their triple bills but the bulk of their work is still taken up by familiar works and familiar names.

At the outset the meeting, which lasted 3 days, had many goals but we feel it was the conclusions or lack of them that require discussion here. A press release sent out after the event provided us with some bullet points that ranged from the totally obvious to the completely indecipherable.

“ producing conditions conducive to the creativity which is at the heart of the art form”

Whether this means building nicer studios with air conditioning or providing the dancers with hot water bottles when they go on tour we are not entirely sure. This statement definitely falls under the “stating the obvious” banner. You certainly would not want to create conditions that were barriers to creativity. It is also a little contradictory.

Ballet is an art form that is stifling creativity because they keep repeating themselves over and over again and they are also copying each other endlessly. There is a particular taste for Romeo and Juliet and the works of Balanchine this coming season. If this is the type of creativity that we will be seeing more of then these ballet companies certainly are in a lot of trouble.

“ including new work as part of an individual and distinctive balance of repertoire. They recognised that new work was vital for dancers and audiences.”

Article19 is not altogether sure why they needed to travel thousands of miles in some cases to figure this out?

Commentators have been telling ballet companies for years to make more new work and stop reproducing the same tired old thing time after time. The statement in itself is perfectly correct though. Ballet needs to make more new work to justify the large sums of money spent and to attract a new generation of dance fans that neither know about nor care for the legacies of the previous generation.

” We recognise the impact of artistic, social, economic, technological and political change and the implications of these changes for the future of the art form.”

Once again they are stating the obvious but also contradicting themselves. Society has moved on a tremendous amount over the last 30 years. The Berlin wall has fallen, no more cold war, the Internet, mobile communications, sugar coated bran flakes to name but a few things. Ballet however is still living somewhere around 1877 or 1955 depending on the mood of the particular director.

Even the newer works are pushing out the same hackneyed themes and stories. David Bintley is the master of this with works such as Arthur and Far From The Madding Crowd. It would seem that ballet companies are comprehensively failing to acknowledge any kind of change in the social climate.

A quick look around the audience at a recent Birmingham Royal Ballet performance showed a never ending see of grey hair and those in their late forties. Young people are staying away in their droves as ballet fails to make any kind of appreciable connection to what kids or younger adults expect from an evenings entertainment. It’s difficult to imagine another art form that is so creatively skewed with current youth culture.

” It is clear to us that nothing happens in our art form except through the collaborative effort of many people and that ballet companies represent an international community of individuals working towards the same goal.”

Again this is just a statement of facts that we already knew. It is not a resolve to actually change the way things are done. We know it takes a lot of people to make a big ballet company work and we know they all work together. The question is why are they telling us this? It is also not clear what the overall “goal” of the 26 directors who were present at this meeting is or whether or not they will be able to achieve it. If they don ‘t know what the goal is then achieving said goal is going to prove problematic to say the least.

“The Directors agreed that certain issues were of concern to all companies represented at the conference, and that these could most effectively be addressed through working together. To that end, an informal, international network of Artistic Directors was established.”

The above paragraph has to be the most banal, non-committal statement that has ever been written. Essentially it says that ballet has problems and company ‘s in different countries would seem to have the same problems and we might be able to fix those problems if we sent each other the odd email or two and then everything will be just fine but we ‘re not promising anything and we are not going to be specific.

From the point of view of ballet in the UK this conference seems to have been nothing more than a cheery get together for the party faithful. They have resolved to change nothing, no deadlines were set, no change to either creative policy or touring policy, no move by the big three UK companies to move away from public funding to privatisation, no commitment to really do anything except meet up again in 2005.

What we are also curious about was how this meeting could really change or improve anything in the first place. The countries represented included the United States, Germany, France, Canada, UK, Switzerland and so on. Trying to compare the attitudes and approach to the arts of the general public from each of these countries is like trying to compare apples and mars bars.

Approaches to funding are also massively different. The UK is one of the worst for arts spending in the European Union and the United States has practically no public funding for the arts on a nation wide level. It’s difficult to know how directors working in such very different conditions in terms of both their cultural surrounding and financial positions could find a degree of commonality in their circumstances.

If the intention of this meeting was to set up a collaborative network to improve the cause for ballet, dance, audiences, choreographers and funding then that is to be applauded. Unfortunately intention is all we have. Since neither the press or the public was permitted to attend any meetings and the information released from the 3 day event has been limited to say the least a substantive change in the current approach and attitude of the UK ‘s ballet companies is just a pipe dream.

Presently Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet and The Royal Ballet, all of whom had representation at this seminar, receive over £14 million in Arts Council subsidy. That funding is not under threat and it probably never will be. There is no impetus for them to change their ways and self-regulation simply doesn’t work.

Getting them all together to talk about what a tough time they are having may be good therapy for them personally but the prospect of sweeping reform in the way ballet is managed in the UK is about as fantastical as most of the story lines in Marius Petipa ‘s work.

Roll on 2005.