David Bintley

Musical Moves...
... a choreographer's relationship to music

June 1999
BBC Radio 4

interview by Christopher Cooke
as recorded by Stuart Sweeney



I heard this programme on the radio series Musical Moves. Bintley is the Artistic Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet and arguably the most successful ballet choreographer working in the UK today. Previously he was the resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet, but left feeling that he was not given enough support. He is achieving a great deal in his current role and some believe that BRB has been the most consistently successful ballet company in the UK in recent years. He has decided not to throw his hat into the ring as the successor to Anthony Dowell, as AD of the RB.

The programme started with Bintley reminiscing about his childhood and the importance of always being surrounded by live music, as both his parents were keen amateur musicians. His early memories are of jazz, as this was his father's speciality. Some of the tunes mentioned were Take 5 and Stranger on the Shore, which his father played. Nevertheless, by the age of 12, Bintley was captivated by the music of Stravinsky, so it came as no surprise that the first work that he choreographed at the age of 15 was The Soldier's Tale. He told a story about how he did not know any ballroom dancing, which he needed for part of the piece. So he went along, with the girl who was to play the role, to an Arthur Murray School of Dancing and boldly said that they wanted to learn the waltz, quickstep and tango in 1 hour – sadly we didn't hear the response.

One of his works for RB, Gallantries, was discussed and Bintley told us that Mozart was his favourite composer. He was particularly appreciative of the elegant dancing of Bruce Sansom in this work and described how his solo “… at one stroke threw out all the Soviet male macho rubbish.” Tombeau, to Variations on a Theme by Hindemith, by Walton is also clearly an important work for the choreographer. He described how he had always liked the music and had been listening to it absent-mindedly one day when he suddenly visualised the 'Fred step' with a halt in the middle and by the end of the recording, he had sketched the entire ballet in his mind. It is intended as a memorial to Ashton, the Royal Ballet and classicism. Not in the sense of this being a dead tradition, but more an emotional reaction to an artist, an institution and a form that he reveres so much.

The theme then turned to the fact that Bintley has always been keen to commission new music for his ballets. He told us that the manner of working with different composers varies greatly, but gave as an example, Far from the Madding Crowd, where in Act III he defined 11 musical sections and talked us through the final 4 scenes. He gave the composer brief notes on the action and the length required. There was then an iterative process where themes for the various characters were discussed and at regular intervals the composer and choreographer would get together to review progress.

Hobson's Choice was also discussed and Bintley described it as a fantastic journey in musical styles. He gave as an example, the passage that is a pastiche on Salvation Army tunes. In preparation, they listened to some actual examples from the period, which “... were so melodramatic that they were impossible to use.” William Mossop's clog dance is a reminder of old English dance styles and comes at the end of a sequence where the different styles of dancing reflect the type of shoe that Mossop is bringing out of his basket.

He then turned to his collaborations with John McCabe. Bintley had been considering Edward II for some time, when he was “… captured by the sound world of McCabe.” He told us that the surprising thing is that McCabe is a nice, rather quiet man and yet can produce all this angry, fiery music. He remarked that it was a great shame that so little of McCabe's music is recorded and in particular Bintley believes that the unrecorded Edward II is the best music composed for ballet in this country since The Prince of the Pagodas.

In more recent times, Bintley has turned to music reflecting the spirit and religion, in works such as The Protecting Veil and Carmina Burana, which arise naturally out of his own Catholic faith. He told us about the renewal of interest in religious music by composers such as Arvo Pärt and James MacMillan. He is planning to meet Macmillan soon to discuss a possible collaboration.

The interview moved on to The Nutcracker Sweeties to music by Ellington and how he hoped that American audiences would understand the jokes about formation ballroom dancing. Finally, Bintley mentioned Still Life at the Penguin Café, and how he relies on his cultural memory of popular styles rather than researching them in detail, as he feels that this does not benefit his creative process.

Overall, an interesting programme providing valuable insights for ballet lovers into a key aspect of the choreographic process. Another programme in the series featured Mark Morris and there were two that I missed, with Jirí Kylián and the UK's Siobhan Davies.


(This is an adapted version of a piece that was originally posted on www.ballet.co.uk)

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