Birmingham Royal Ballet is like a moon that became a planet: after decades of wobbly orbiting around the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, it finally broke free and became its own centre of gravity.
Birmingham Royal Ballet has been called a lot of names. Track them, and you have its basic history. So take a deep breath and memorise the following:
BRB dates from 1946. The resident company at Sadler’s Wells theatre, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, moved to Covent Garden and set up a smaller company to remain – the Sadler’s Wells Opera Ballet, which by 1947 had already changed its name to Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet. In 1957, after Sadler’s Wells Ballet had become the Royal Ballet, the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet became the Royal Ballet Touring Section, although it was generally known as the Royal Ballet Touring Company. It changed to the Royal Ballet New Group in 1970, but morphed again in 1976 when (do keep up) it was called the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, which it remained until 1990 when the company changed base and became the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Got that?
Those are the dots; here’s how they’re joined. The original company, set up under Peggy van Praagh to supply dancers for Sadler’s Wells Opera, quickly became much more: a troupe that toured widely, and a nursery for new talent, from which emerged choreographers such as Kenneth MacMillan (later Royal Ballet director) and John Cranko (later Stuttgart Ballet director), as well as many notable dancers.
Initially the company performed small new works and scaled-down classics, but by the mid-50s it had expanded and under John Field toured full classics and larger works. That made it too costly for Sadler’s Wells theatre, so the Royal Ballet took it over completely as the company’s touring wing, and moved the whole troupe to Covent Garden.
By 1970, the Royal Ballet itself could no longer afford it, so replaced it with the small Royal Ballet New Group, directed by Peer Wright and again based at Sadler’s Wells. Intended as a touring platform for new choreography, this was a failure. Audiences wanted the old-style touring company, and the New Group moved in this direction, finally being reformed as Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet in 1976. In 1990, Wright accepted an invitation from the city of Birmingham to shift base completely. Royal Ballet choreographer David Bintley succeeded him in 1995, finally establishing the company’s complete independence from the Royal Ballet in 1997. Since then, there has been less history and more stability.
Watching Birmingham Royal Ballet
This diverse history is reflected in BRB’s diverse repertory. It has a back catalogue by seminal British choreographers Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan, and also tours the classics. But it also has well-known works by George Balanchine, William Forysthe and Twyla Tharp, and commissions new pieces (both large and small) from guest choreographers.
In David Bintley the company has a productive house choreographer who makes small, often plotless ballets but – unusually for a contemporary ballet choreographer – he also adept at creating full-evening narrative works, the format that most attracts the core ballet audience.
As well as Bintley, artistic director and house choreographer, you may have seen his assistant director Desmond Kelly and ballet mistress Marion Tait in the Channel 4 series Ballet Changed My Life: Ballet Hoo (2007), in which disadvantaged youngsters trained to perform in Romeo and Juliet. Previous choreographers have included Kenneth Macmillan and John Cranko. Several notable Royal Ballet dancers began with the company, including Nadia Nerina, Svetlana Beriosova, Lynn Seymour, Christopher Gable, Darcey Bussell and Miyako Yoshida. Notable recent dancers have included Jospeh Cipolla, Letitica Muller and Wolfgang Stollwitzer, while current principal dancers include Nao Sakuma, Robert Parker and Chi Cao (who stars in the new feature film Mao’s Last Dancer, out in the autumn).
Dion Dublin – former striker at Coventry City, Aston Villa and occasional England team member – became hooked on ballet when his wife took him to a BRB performance in 1999. “I thought to myself, blimey! I’m really into this,” he said. So into it, in fact, that he became a regular visitor, joined the Friends of BRB, and is the proud owner of a pair of pointe shoes autographed by dancer Molly Smolen. He was even invited to perform at a charity gala, but it clashed with a match.
In their own words
“Even my plotless ballets have a motivation or image behind every move. I’m trying to elicit an emotional response – that’s what dance must do.” – David Bintley, interview with Nadine Meisner, Independent 2003
“I have an absolute belief in the durability of narrative ballet. Dancers like it; audiences like it. But big story ballets are so expensive, they take up so many resources and so much emotional effort that when they don’t work it’s very traumatic.” – Bintley, interview with Debra Craine, Times 2007
In other words
“BRB is no longer a tributary of the Royal Ballet, as it was when it was Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet… [It] has taken on a less rarefied character, more akin to the early days of Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, when it was thought the “fun” company, as opposed to the “high-toned” senior company.” – Ismene Brown, Telegraph 2000
“[Bintley’s] commitment to full-length story ballets, a genre you won’t see many younger choreographers embracing, is virtually unparalleled.” – Debra Craine, Times 2007
“One thing is obvious: every social work department in the country would benefit from a Desmond Kelly.” – Tim Teeman on the Ballet Hoo community project, Times 2006
“Let’s move to Birmingham.”
Regional group, second company, big brother’s little brother, sister act – or anything else that sounds in thrall to the Royal Ballet, or implies that it is the jewel in the national crown while BRB is simply a feather in Birmingham’s cap.
The Royal Ballet, English National Ballet – the other two of the big three UK ballet companies.
Now watch this
Nicola Katrak in de Valois’s The Rake’s Progress, Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, 1982
Bintley’s new production of Sylvia
Lovely rehearsal footage of Nutcracker, with Natasha Oughtred and Alexander Campbell
Bintley’s Beauty and the Beast
Where to see them next
See the Birmingham Royal Ballet website for performance dates.