Rehearsals of Lull (2008), choreographed by Diana Loosmore
The comeback kid of British ballet. Initially sure-footed, the company spent years teetering precariously in different directions, but after hitting rock bottom it was whipped back into shape. Now it’s a kickass outfit.
Scottish Ballet descended from Western Theatre Ballet, a Bristol-based company founded in 1957 by Peter Darrell and Elizabeth West, with a reputation for gritty dramatic ballets with sometimes controversial themes. In 1969, invited by the Scottish Arts Council to form a national company for Scotland, Darrell (by then the sole director) and most of the dancers relocated to Glasgow to form Scottish Theatre Ballet.
As a national company, its focus shifted towards more mainstream classical ballets and its name was duly changed (in 1974) to Scottish Ballet. Darrell choreographed several full-evening works such as Tales of Hoffman and Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as producing the classics, to which he often added his own dramatic touch (Swan Lake as a druggy hallucination; a Freudian Nutcracker). He also acquired treasures by the 19th-century Danish choreographer August Bournonville and attracted some high-profile guest artists, including Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.
Darrell’s death in 1987 marked the start of a long decline. Two directors – Elaine McDonald and Nanette Glushak – came and went in quick succession. Galina Samsova, in charge from 1991 to 1997, tried to build a more traditional classical troupe, but resources were overstretched and standards fell. It all ended badly with a funding crisis and resignations from the board. Dancer Kenn Burke held the fort until Robert North took over in 1999, modernising the company but filling the repertory with lacklustre fare, much of it his own. He was ousted in 2001 in a bitter row involving a parliamentary enquiry and public outcry at the phrase “contemporary dance”.
Into the breach stepped Ashley Page, a dancer and choreographer at the Royal Ballet who had also worked in the independent contemporary dance sector and for Rambert Dance Company. At Scottish Ballet, Page was given a nine-month “dark period” during which he reauditioned and retrained the dancers. The leaner, new-look company was unveiled in 2003 to applause, acclaim and much relief. The technical standard is now much higher, and Page’s adventurous programming has encompassed classical ballet, modern ballet, contemporary and postmodern dance – a range that you really don’t find in other companies. Lucky Scotland.
Watching Scottish Ballet
The current repertory reflects Page’s own wide-ranging background and discerning tastes. His own pieces are typically sleek, balletic and athletic. Not naturally a narrative choreographer, he has nevertheless, with designer Antony McDonald, produced chamber versions of traditional classical stories with both comedy and subtext played up. In Sleeping Beauty, for example, the princess is given not a spindle but a large, phallic cactus.
The company also have some modern ballets by William Forsythe, George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton; contemporary dance by American Stephen Petronio and Brits Richard Alston and Siobhan Davies; even postmodern minimalism from Trisha Brown. Within a single company, that’s about as versatile as you can get.
Elaine McDonald, briefly the artistic director, was much better known as the company’s star ballerina during the Darrell era – a role later taken by Galina Mezentseva (from the Kirov Ballet) in Samsova’s time. Currently, Ashley Page’s most frequent collaborator is designer Antony McDonald.
Robert North didn’t know it, but the paperwork was bungled when he was appointed artistic director in 1999. In 2001, the Home Office ordered him to leave the UK within 10 days or face imprisonment. Intervention by lawyers and MPs saved him from having to leave the country.
In their own words
“It’s hard to believe that a few years ago we were off the dance map.” – Ashley Page, Scotland on Sunday, 2008
“I don’t want to be just another ballet company doing the same old repertory. I don’t want to be jumping on fashionable bandwagons – I want to do mature, accomplished work. But I do want to have a reputation for looking forward.” – Ashley Page, Guardian, 2003
In other words
“Peter Darrell was a man of theatre above all else, and his ballets and his artistic judgments never ignored the fact that dancing is not a remote and introspective activity, but an art of the theatre.” – Clement Crisp, Financial Times, 1987
“There’s nothing like a near-death experience for strengthening the will to live.” – Jenny Gilbert on the company’s 1997 crisis – little realising there would be another near death a few years later. (Independent on Sunday, 1998)
“Scottish Ballet are one of the most versatile companies around.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 2008
“Pure dead brilliant.”
“Couldn’t it be bigger, more mainstream and classical?”
What, you want Scotland’s national ballet to be more like – ooh – English National Ballet?
Northern Ballet Theatre, which was founded by Darrell’s assistant director at Western Theatre Ballet when the company moved to Scotland. Rambert Dance Company was surely an inspiration to Ashley Page, and almost as eclectic as Scottish Ballet.
Now watch this
Where to see them next
See the Scottish Ballet website for performance dates.