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About the Change

David Bintley

Birmingham Royal Ballet

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This article is from the Christmas edition of The Tablet, a weekly journal of Catholic thought.

David Bintley, director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, is not conscious of any intrinsic tension between religion and dance. One of the leading choreographers of his generation, with a special flair for narrative dance, he is an instinctive Catholic, set on a quest to bring theology and ballet into dialogue with each other. Bintley's ballets are, in essence, his way of doing theology.

Dance has been an essential part of religious expression from biblical times. David danced before the Ark; even today dance is an important part of the culture and identity of Hassidic Jews. In the Christian world, one instantly thinks of the American Shaker tradition, and Catholicism, too, has a history of friendliness towards dance. The Jesuits were instrumental in the development of the art of ballet at the court of Louis XIV, and it was frequently said in seventeenth-century Paris that "there is no one like the Jesuits for doing pirouettes". Claude François Menestrier SJ was not only the first ballet historian; he was one of the original dance critics.

Bintley is breathing new life into the conversation begun by the Jesuits in the seventeenth century. Like them, he is fascinated by the human aspects of divine revelation, particularly the themes of weakness and redemption, to which he frequently returns in his work.

Alongside this, however, there is an equally resilient tradition of religious hostility to dance. "Where there is dancing", said St John Chrysostom, "there is the devil." This attitude runs very deep. Catholicism struggles to this day to shake off the legacy of Jansenist distrust of bodies and all things sensual.

Bintley became a student at the Royal Ballet School in his mid-teens, where Dame Ninette de Valois, founder of the Royal Ballet, a formidable woman from the Anglo-Irish gentry, soon noticed him. Many found her intimidating, but Bintley was unbowed. In return de Valois respected his natural independence and, sensing that his was an exceptional talent, took him under her wing.

Though he was a superb character dancer, it was as a choreographer, rather than as a performer, that he made his mark. In 1985, he became resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden. His "Still Life" at the Penguin Café was a huge box office success. But it was with Hobson's Choice that he showed his flair for crafting narrative ballets with more down-to-earth characters. He is that rarity: a choreographer whose creativity is undimmed by the pressures of running a company, and who also has the respect and admiration of his dancers. In 1995, he became director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

The dance critic Fr Cormac Rigby has known Bintley for more than 25 years and has watched him develop as a choreographer. From his early ballets he saw in Bintley's work a very distinct sense of beauty and of line, but he also noticed something else: a nascent spirituality and depth.

David Bintley came late to Catholicism, after a distinct conversion experience. His wife, Jenny, herself formerly a dancer, is a Catholic. In deference to her, he agreed that they would marry in church. Waiting for his bride to arrive, he looked idly at a stained glass image of the crucifixion. His scepticism was overwhelmed by a sense that perhaps he really did believe. He even speaks of an internal monologue. "I don't really believe any of this." Answer: "Oh but you do." He took enthusiastically to the sensuality of Catholicism, to the theatricality of the liturgy and its use of light and sound, fire and water, smoke and incense. But his Catholicism is not that of the aesthete. He fell in love with the lively and chaotic humanity of the Sunday parish Mass, the families in church, noisy babies, and old people who had defied their feebleness to come to church at all. All human life was there, and it nourished Bintley's spirituality and his art.

Catholic imagination is never far from the surface of his narrative ballets. Like Graham Greene, Bintley has an instinctive sympathy for flawed human beings and is fascinated by contrition, remorse and forgiveness. Edward II is a case in point. Based on Christopher Marlowe's play, it highlights the contrast between the King's private passions and the violence of the barons. Edward is far from a hero, but that doesn't matter, says Bintley.

"In the end he is brought low and his retribution is terrible. His remorse is great and his recognition of his true sense is so powerful. I believe he becomes a Christ-like figure. I use the Pietà quite deliberately to say that, in the end, it does not matter what this man did. He is completely annihilated as a person and he is only a body, a spirit." It is not that Bintley sets out to weave such themes into his ballets, but rather that they seem somehow to smuggle themselves in.

In 1998, Bintley created The Protecting Veil, a work quite different to his others. This time his subject was Mary, and the title of the ballet derives from the Orthodox Feast of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God. It was unsurprising that John Tavener, its composer, described his piece as an icon, given his deep immersion in the Greek Orthodox tradition. But it raised many eyebrows when Bintley said that he intended his ballet as "an icon in movement". While other choreographers have made ballets based on biblical themes, it is rare to hear an explicit admission that a work has been made with religious intent.

Five female dancers in turn illustrate different phases of Mary's life. The parts of the five male dancers are not identified, but it is possible to pick out Gabriel, Joseph, Jesus and St John. There is little explicit story telling. The narrative unfolds in slow ritual through the Annunciation, Incarnation, Transfiguration, Lament at the Foot of the Cross and Resurrection. Continuity is established as the veil become in turn a comfort, a shelter, a child, a shroud, and is ultimately torn aside – in a moment of real frisson – to reveal the resurrection. Between each scene the dancers halt, and the veil is handed from a dancer who has just represented one stage of Mary's persona to the next. It is a slow meditative work, and at 47 minutes is quite long.

Bintley's vision of the physical reality of resurrection is fascinating, even unsettling. The dancer representing the Risen Christ shakes and shudders, advancing in an almost ungainly way towards the front of the stage, the transformed body struggling like a newly born animal to adjust itself to a fresh reality.

Audiences and professional critics were divided in their opinions of The Protecting Veil. While many responded with real warmth, others did not know what the piece was about. In contemporary society, it is unsafe to assume universal knowledge of the Christian story. Bintley rejects the suggestion that, to understand the ballet, it is necessary to view it through eyes of faith, but he does accept that it cannot be watched in the same way as other ballets. That said, he was irked that some of the ballet's critics were watching it "with eyes firmly shut". He even heard one person tell the stage door man that he had not stayed, because he had no interest in the subject matter.

While it was made with religious intent, The Protecting Veil had a further significance for Bintley, for it was also a hundredth-birthday tribute to his great mentor Ninette de Valois - "Madam", as her dancers called her. Bintley finds echoes of Mary in de Valois, in that she was a remarkable woman who had given her life to one great cause. He said: "The last section when Mary is old, and just before she dies, that little bit with the boy at the end who is supposed to be St John, that's a depiction of me and Madam."

Bintley speaks in a deeply spiritual way about the reality of his art, readily reaching for religious metaphors to make a particular point. Ballet and Catholicism are interwoven strands in his internal monologue: he even compares the vocation of the ballet dancer with that of a priest. Both callings demand a singular commitment, he points out: "I'm always amazed at the devotion that an old priest can still bring to the Mass that he's said all his life. It's like a dancer in class. You do it from the first time that you put on a ballet shoe to the very last performance. You do that exercise, that ritual, every day. That's what you do it for – not the end of the evening and the applause. Or you wouldn't do it. The drudgery must be the attraction in a sense."

The comparison may not be far-fetched. Ballet is the most heavily symbolic of the performing arts. If it is possible to look at ballet through eyes of faith, it must equally be possible to see the Mass through the eyes of a dancer. The parallels are striking – the care for ritual, the quality of attention, the discipline of repetition. As an art, dance offers a very clear threshold to faith.

David Bintley, who has long crossed this threshold, is now at work on a new ballet. "It will be very moral", he says. "I can feel myself being pulled and asking, 'Why is this character acting as he is?' And it has God in it already. God disguised as a woodman . . .."

© The Tablet.

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