LET THE GAMES BEGIN
Soccer tragic and eminent choreographer David Bintley has created a ballet that celebrates sport, writes Sharon Verghis
David Bintley is the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s veteran artistic director, a sparkling former character dancer nurtured early by some of English ballet’s greatest names — think Fred Ashton, Peter Wright and Ninette de Valois — and choreographer of ballets based on everything from Shakespeare and fairytales to physics, Kafka stories and Egyptian embalming ceremonies.
He is also a soccer tragic and loyal supporter of hapless English soccer team Aston Villa.
“Oh gawd, it’s been miserable this year,” he groans in despair in a phone call to Review from the West Midlands city, where he has led the Birmingham Royal Ballet for more than 20 years. “But that’s sport, innit? You can’t appreciate the highs without the lows.”
His team’s grim match record aside, Bintley was keen to draw on the teamwork, grace and spirit of soccer, among other things, for his second collaboration with Australian composer Matthew Hindson, Faster. Created in 2012, it will feature as part of a triple bill by the Australian Ballet this month.
In an homage to everything from combat sports and fencing to wrestling and synchronised swimming, it is built around high emotion — the joy and agony of competition — and set against Hindson’s equally dramatic commissioned score. Bintley says his first work with Hindson,
in 2009, was such an enjoyable experience it was inevitable they would join forces again. The looming London Olympics sparked the idea of a ballet dedicated to the elegant athleticism and grace of athletes, revolving around the Olympic motto of “faster, higher, stronger’’.
They wanted to name the work after the slogan but “we came in conflict with the IOC [International Olympic Committee],” he says ruefully. “And hence the title of the work is Faster.’’ He says it with good-humoured resignation but at the time Bintley was scathing about the IOC’s “absurd and “quite nonsensical” approach: “You’re lumped in alongside gift shops and people who want to trade off the movement, who set out to make economic gains from everything they make … yet this is a serious work of art, inspired by Olympic ideals.”
Dictatorial international sporting tsars aside, he and Hindson had a blast working together. The creative process began on opposite sides of the world, with Hindson sending Bintley sound files spiked with everything from heavy metal to ceremonial medieval touches.
“I love Matthew’s music and at one point I said to him, ‘Anything you write, I can choreograph.’ So I pretty much left him up to his own devices. We would go through [what he sent me] and I sort of edited it along the way. I think it was quite a novel thing for Matthew, because composers often work in isolation. The fact that I could say — ‘maybe this is a bit too long, maybe this isn’t the first movement, maybe it’s the last’— I think he appreciated that.”
Choreographically, Bintley was adamant there would be nothing literal — dancers emulating tennis swings, for example: “I didn’t want to play ‘guess the sport’, you know ... it was more about the Olympic ideal of striving for higher achievement.
It was also a kinetic byproduct of sport because often we talk about sportsmen as beautiful in their movement, the way they hit or strike a ball, the way a particular runner has a style of movement.”
Sport has inspired a string of ballet choreographers, from Nijinsky with Jeux to Robert Helpmann with The Display. In Faster, Bintley structured dancers in groups ranging from aerials (“I was thinking about everything that passes through the air, so every sort of jumping discipline, diving”) to throwing (“that covers everything from javelins and shot put and so on”), to a category of team sports including soccer, based on the elegant mechanics and ballet of co-operation “when a team works together, but also the team spirit you get in almost everything from football to relay teams ... so that was the kind of raw material I was giving Matthew”.
Interestingly, in his second year as artistic director at Birmingham, Bintley gave an interview where he savaged the trend towards “extreme” physicality and ugly contortions in dance at the expense of nuance and artistry.
Fast forward to Faster, and here is a work that is an homage to physicality. “Look, I never ceased to embrace the new and the modern,” Bintley says. “These are the times we live in. But I still think extreme movement for the purpose of extreme movement is sterile — it doesn’t interest me. If it has no spiritual context, if it’s not about anything, if it’s not relating a particular creator’s view of the world to me and changing my view ... then to me it is just dull.”
Bintley was born in September 1957 in Honley near Huddersfield, England, to parents who were both music teachers, seeding in their son a lifelong love of music. At 16 he won a place at the Royal Ballet Upper School, with a contract at Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, as it was then known, following in 1976.
He has memories of dancing barefoot at 17 in class under the eagle eye of the formidable “Madame” — the legendary ballet star and company founder de Valois, who took a liking to him. He would go on to show a flair for character roles such as the Ugly Sister in Cinderella, Alain and Widow Simone in La Fille mal gardee, Bottom in The Dream and the lead in Petrushka, but early on, a love of choreography took root.