It always puzzles me that British ballet is such a young institution. Compared to Russia’s great balletic heritage, we have less than a century of British history. For it was only with the glorious ambition of Dame Ninette de Valois, a small Irish ballerina with a drive to create a new home for ballet in Britain, that the 1920s saw the beginning of ballet as a creative institution in Britain. De Valois had spent time abroad dancing for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in France; Diaghilev himself was an émigré from Communist Russia, from where imperialist ballet had understandably been purged. But with the decline of the Ballet Russes, de Valois decided to bring the glamour of Continental modernism to British shores. But this was no carbon copy of what she had experienced before: here she was able to twist ballet into something decidedly British. From the late 1920s she worked at building a British company of dancers, setting up camp first at Lilian Baylis’s Old Vic Theatre, and later at Sadler’s Wells. From these two institutions came both Birmingham Royal Ballet (formerly Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet), and its sister company The Royal Ballet.
What makes Birmingham Royal Ballet so special is its sense of this rich past, a past which is still felt in its repertoire today. The book charts Birmingham Royal Ballet’s history from the time it moved from Sadler’s Wells to Birmingham in 1990, under the successive Artistic Directorships of Peter Wright and David Bintley. But within those twenty years BRB had become a tour de force in the ballet world. It is Wright and Bintley who deserve the praise for the companies continued successes: they both had the knack of developing repertories which respecting the past but pushing forward to the future, arguably in more forceful way than The Royal Ballet. This is perhaps due to the fact that they both are both consummate choreographers in their own right, and managed to produce a rich body of work alongside the day-to-day administration of the company.
This new book lovingly demonstrates exactly this proliferation of work, by dividing the sections into types of ballet rather than merely charting chronologically the company’s work. What comes across is how balanced their repertory is. Chapter headings list the phenomenal back catalogue, grouping ballets into ‘The Nineteenth Century’, ‘Ballet Russes’, ‘Heritage Ballets’, ‘International Influences’, ‘Created in Birmingham’, ‘By the Company, For the Company’ and of course ‘David Bintley’. My only annoyance is that the notes for each photograph which explain the particulars of choreographer, composer and the like are tucked away at the back of the book, which means constantly shuffling between the two sections. The photographs are very well chosen, having been lovingly picked from photographer Bill Cooper’s back catalogue.
But what makes this book so interesting is the contextualised passages of writing in amongst the beautiful photographs. It has an introduction by Judith Flanders, dance critic, which gives a contextualisation of the company and its history from the eye of an outsider. David Bintley writes the forward and chapter instructions, which gives some insight into the inner workings of the company and turns what could have been just another glossy picture book to a genuinely fascinating insight into the company at large.
The book really shows that the BRB are going from strength to strength, and one of the strongest ballet companies in Britain today. And it was they who nurtured a young Kevin O’Hare, whose frame pops into a photograph in the book every once in a while. O’Hare was announced this year as the new head of The Royal Ballet, taking over from Monica Mason’s benign decade of rule. A BRB dancer through-and-through, his new role may help bring BRB and The Royal Ballet even closer together, rightfully taking their positions as world-leaders in the field.
The book is bound to delight ballet novices and balletomanes alike – and would be a wonderful Christmas present for anyone interested in the subject. If you’re enchanted by the book, then they’re taking their Nutcracker, a perennial Christmas favourite, on tour this December. Congratulations to the BRB on twenty years of their work in Birmingham. Here’s to the next twenty to come.