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60 years of dance watching
 
....John Percival

in conversation with Judith Cruickshank

John Percival Reviews



John Percival talks about:

Dance in the 1940s NYCB's first visit Early days as a critic The Bolshoi and Ulanova Dance and Dancers Writing overnight reviews Gastronomy
Writing for The Times The Royal Ballet Kenneth MacMillan Changes in the dance scene Great companies Is there a future for ballet?





John Percival, currently dance critic of The Independent, has been watching dance for nearly 60 years and writing about it for publication for more than 50. Judith Cruickshank talked to him for Ballet Co at his Bloomsbury flat, conveniently located halfway between Sadler's Wells and the Royal Opera House. Sitting in the small living room where every surface appears to be covered with books, pictures, photographs, videos and records, mainly dance related, she asked

What was your first encounter with dance?

It was in 1943, a performance in Victoria Park, Hackney. I was 16. I'd already sampled plays and operas, including Tales of Hoffmann with a very lively dance sequence featuring what I've since discovered were Rambert soloists. I went to the ballet because one of my school friends had been taken and said it was worthwhile, so I decided to give it a try. It was the Sadler's Wells Ballet dancing a mixed bill of Les Sylphides, Kingdom of Sweets from Nutcracker, and Façade. Sylphides – that was what I expected ballet to be like. Kingdom of Sweets I found boring but then Façade really clicked. Nobody had told me that ballet could be witty. Alarmingly, earlier in the week the company had given The Birds as the third work. Later I saw that and found it really twee. Had that been the third work it might well have put me off ballet for ever. But as it was, when I later saw Façade advertised as part of a different mixed bill I went to see it at what was then the New Theatre, and I was hooked.

So then you started to go to the ballet whenever and wherever it could be seen. How did you manage to afford it?

In those days, by doing odd jobs and always sitting in the cheapest seats, which you bought on the day, a schoolboy could afford to go to the ballet quite often. And I often used to walk home to Walthamstow where my parents lived. When the company moved to Sadler's Wells I used to reckon it took me exactly 100 minutes to walk home. By that time I was going to the ballet a couple of times a week, maybe more often, to see whatever dance looked interesting. I remember once when Ballet Rambert was performing at the old Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, working out that I could afford the train fare to get there, the cheapest seat, a programme (which was vital) and then as I had no money left I walked home from one side of London to the other.

What kind of ballets were you able to see at that time?

Mostly mixed bills, although I saw my first Swan Lake and my first Coppelia during that period. My first Giselle was by International Ballet with Mona Inglesby and Harold Turner in the leads. There was a very big repertory, with far less emphasis on the classics, but there was the Fokine repertory and you could see ballets made in the 1930s as well as things that were being created then. Most mixed bills included a 'white ballet' so you saw a lot of performances of Sylphides or Act II Swan Lake. But the programmes were varied so that companies presented different mixtures of works.

And there were more ballet companies around at that time than is often remembered.

Yes, definitely. The established companies were Sadler's Wells, International Ballet and Ballet Rambert. There were also a lot of small companies, not all of them very good, but you might be tempted to go and see them.


I suppose that was my first action as a critic

I remember one called Ballet Pavinoff which was run by a man called Rovi Pavinoff. Their programme was supposed to finish with Spectre de la Rose, but having seen Mr Pavinoff dance earlier in the evening I left before Spectre as I didn't want my first sight of that ballet to be with someone like that. I suppose that was my first action as a critic.

Also around at that time was the Ballets Jooss which came to England in the 1930s and was based here until after the war. Despite its name it was a European modern dance company. What struck me most was not so much the 'modern' aspect but the strong dramatic approach in its ballets and from its dancers. I very much liked what it did and went to see the company as often as I could. I think this helped me to be responsive when we finally began to see other forms of contemporary dance.

Which were the first overseas companies you saw after the war ended in 1945?

The first came from France. Roland Petit's Ballets des Champs Elysées, then a group called something like Les Etoiles de la Danse – pretty impressive dancers, including the soon-to-be famous Renée Jeanmaire in extracts from La Fille mal gardée - and Les Nouveaux Ballets de Monte Carlo. Later Ballet Theatre came from America and gave a long season at Covent Garden.

Of the visiting companies it was the French, especially Roland Petit, who did most to show us that there was a new angle to looking at ballet, perhaps a different approach to choreography and also another way of using exceptional dancers – the supreme example of that being Jean Babilée in Le Jeune Homme et la Mort. His technique and his dramatic personality made him by far the greatest dancer I had seen at that time. And in memory, he remains right up among the very best.

Ballet Theatre brought some impressive chorography, notably ballets by Antony Tudor and Jerome Robbins, but the general approach showed less difference from Sadler's Wells.

I couldn't understand why he wrote that Fonteyn was not yet a ballerina.



However, the men in the company were far stronger than anything we had seen from British companies and they had two exceptional ballerinas in Alicia Alonso and Nora Kaye. I had read Cyril Beaumont's book about Fonteyn and couldn't understand why he wrote that she was not yet a ballerina. When I first saw her she was around 24 and had been quite properly leading the Sadler's Wells company for some years. She looked pretty good to me. But when I saw Alonso and Kaye I realized that there was a further level which she hadn't yet attained – although she got there very soon after.

By that time the Sadler's Wells Ballet had moved into the Covent Garden Opera House?

Yes; and Ashton had created Symphonic Variations. I was there at the premiere and it was the first time I knew I'd been present at the creation of a masterwork – although I'd been at the first night of Peter Grimes too!

You also saw the first performances of the de Valois/Messel production of The Sleeping Beauty.

I began watching ballet too late to see the original Sadler's Wells production with the Nadia Benois designs. The company gave some performances at the beginning of the war, but had to drop it because there simply weren't enough dancers. Shortly before they moved to Covent Garden the grand pas from Act III was revived for Fonteyn and Helpmann, and I remember thinking it a pretty austere kind of classicism. Then watching the full production many times over, I discovered all the variety and romance of Petipa's choreography.

You went up to Oxford in 1948 when you were 21. You'd completed two years National Service working in a hospital because you were a conscientious objector, but you still managed to go to ballet during that time.

Yes, more than ever. I went to Oxford to read English but my aim already was to be a ballet critic.

Were there many specialist critics in those days?

Most papers had dance reviews written by music critics and I remember thinking I could do better than that. And because I wanted to be a writer and was mad about ballet the two things came together quite naturally.

Even before I went up to Oxford I'd collaborated with Clive Barnes on one or two pieces for the London Ballet Circle's magazine Petits Tours.

When did you first encounter Clive Barnes?

In 1947. He was the rotter who sometimes got ahead of me in the Covent Garden gallery queue and took over what I thought of as my seat on the centre gangway of the front row. He thought much the same about me. Then there was a revival when for some reason neither of us had that seat and we both were standing at the back (an excellent view in those days before the theatre was 'improved'). To our horror the costumes of Symphonic had been changed. That got us talking and we found we had common interests, and quite soon discovered we both wanted to be ballet critics.

You went up to Oxford together. So how did you set about realizing your joint ambition?

We joined the University Ballet Club which was then rather weak, and by the end of our first term we had pretty well taken it over. We then set about getting to know as many interesting and influential people in the ballet world as we could by asking them to come and speak to the members.

Hanging on your wall is a charming poster advertising a visit to the Oxford Ballet Club by Tamara Karsavina to talk on mime.

That was a very special evening. Richard Buckle, who was our patron, brought Margot Fonteyn with him to sit in the audience and listen to Karsavina. It wasn't just formal classical mime that Karsavina talked about and demonstrated. She announced 'I will now demonstrate fear' and I remember being so convinced that I automatically jumped up from the front row to help her.

In addition to the meetings, we revived the Ballet Club magazine Arabesque, wrote and edited it and even sold it in the street outside Covent Garden.


We went to ballet class... simply to see what it felt like

We presented a small Arts Council touring company, the St James Ballet. That gave us experience of booking a hall, doing the publicity and selling tickets. And once a week we went to ballet class, not with the intention of ever performing, but simply to see what it felt like.

During the three years we were at Oxford, not only in the vacations but much more often than was officially allowed during term, we went down to London to see ballet. That way we caught all the major performances.

We had both also begun to write for specialist magazines; Richard Buckle's Ballet, PW Manchester's Ballet Today and the new Dance & Dancers, edited by Peter Williams.

That was an interesting generation at Oxford during those years.

Yes. Kenneth Tynan was a couple of years ahead of us. But in the Ballet Club during our time were Oleg Kerensky, Clement Crisp and Nicholas Dromgoole, all of whom ended up as ballet critics. But when I came down in 1951, my first priority had to be getting a job, if only to pay for the tickets. And both Clive and I ended up working for the London County Council in administrative positions. We generally met at lunchtimes and consequently talked almost every day about matters concerning ballet, which was a tremendous help in concentrating our minds.And of course, we both redoubled our efforts to get our ballet writing published.

Had the dance scene changed much during your three years in Oxford?

The biggest thing was the visit of New York City Ballet to Covent Garden in 1950. The company was just two years old and played a far longer season in London than it had so far managed in New York. The repertory was varied but dominated by Balanchine's ballets. We'd seen ballets by him previously with Ballet Theatre and the Cuevas company, plus Ballet Imperial which he mounted that year for Sadler's Wells Ballet, but seeing so many of his works all together really opened my eyes to the possibilities of pure dance. The style of the dancers was different from what we had been accustomed to from any of the other companies I had seen, including Ballet Theatre, because it was built around Balanchine's ballets and the push he wanted from his dancers and his way of hearing the music.

Not too long after City Ballet, a number of other companies each brought something markedly different. The Royal Danish Ballet in 1953 widened my knowledge of dance history and also at that time had a very distinctive style for presenting the Bournonville works. There was a complete contrast in 1954 with Martha Graham. In 1956 the Bolshoi Ballet appeared in the West for the first time. They had far greater dramatic depth, much colour and richness in all their character dancing,

Galina Ulanova, the greatest ballerina I've ever seen



the most impressive corps de ballet we had seen until then and an extremely heroic style of dancing from the men. This was the company that all the young choreographers of the time were influenced by: John Cranko, Peter Darrell and Kenneth MacMillan, to name only some. The Bolshoi also had Galina Ulanova, the greatest ballerina I've ever seen. And I can be dogmatic about that on the strength of seeing her in only very few roles, notably Juliet and Giselle.

All this, and later for instance the Kirov, besides American moderns (Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey etc.), really opened my eyes and made me realize that there was more than just one way of dancing, choreographing and looking at dance.

One of the first publications for which you wrote and with which you were closely associated for many years was the magazine Dance & Dancers. What was it that made it different from the other dance magazines around at that time, to the point that people still speak about it with nostalgia?

It was better! I think the vital point was that all of us connected with it really cared about dance, but we weren't particularly fans of any one company or dancer. We wanted to see everything that happened, and at that time with enough determination you could, even down to all the varying casts. We continually compared and considered, we were concerned about what was happening, about new developments, and where necessary about lack of development too. Peter Williams had started the magazine at the beginning of 1950 (just when we published our one edition of Arabesque!), and within its earliest issues that year both Clive and I started writing for him. Peter had experienced the Diaghilev Ballet and British ballet's earliest days; he also had a deep interest in other kinds of theatre and a wide circle of friends in the arts.


There was always a writer specialising in music for dance.

Generously he gave us younger writers full scope for our ideas. From the start there was always a writer specialising in music for dance, and soon Noel Goodwin joined to take that on. Our small group remained closely involved over the years although with varying editorial responsibilities, and I believe that the continuity helped maintain a strong character for the magazine.

We also benefited from a strong core of reader involvement. Many read the magazine assiduously for years, and our letters column had people expressing strong views on every aspect of the dance scene, usually at a serious level. That encouraged us to develop the annual readers' survey, getting people to vote and make their own comments on what they thought the best and worst of the year in productions, performances and general subjects.

What did you aim to do with the magazine and what do you think you achieved?

Always we wanted to encourage people to enjoy dance, and in particular to draw attention to what we specially admired. When contemporary companies began to arrive in the 1950s, audiences here (including ourselves at first) found much of the work difficult to comprehend, but we carried interviews and articles trying to clarify it. In this way, and even more in the '60s, when British dancers also began to undertake more modern work, we were able to do a lot to help all the developments. I believe D&D played an important part in helping establish contemporary dance in Britain, without ignoring or playing down classical ballet. Our readers tended to prefer ballet. It's interesting that an issue with a ballet picture on the cover sold more than one with a contemporary cover.


We gave a lot of attention to what was happening outside London



We gave a lot of attention to what was happening outside London too, reviewing performances on tour and following the work of the regional companies that were set up, notably Western Theatre Ballet, Scottish Ballet and Northern Dance Theatre – all of them doing really valuable work both with new choreography in original genres, and revivals of ballets in danger of being forgotten or overlooked from the British, foreign or Ballets Russes repertories. (Sadly, most of this work is now being neglected once more.)

And from the start we carried reports and reviews about what was happening abroad. The news columns were as comprehensive as we could make them, the Curtain Up gossip feature introduced a lighter tone, and we had some fine cartoons from Peter Revitt, Peter Cazalet and Barry Jackson. To my mind, the monthly editorial comment was invaluable in giving the magazine a personal voice and making people think about dance as a whole, not just individual companies. Eight years after lack of funds forced our closure, people still often tell me how much they miss D&D, and I do too. There simply isn't anything that replaces it.

You carried reviews and news of companies outside the UK. Do you think it's important for dance-lovers and also critics to know what is happening in the world of dance elsewhere, even companies who are not planning a visit to London or to one of the provincial theatres or festivals?

I think if you have a serious interest in dance it's important to find out all you can, either by reading about the past or by seeing or reading about what's going elsewhere today. Obviously you have to be selective. You don't want to see every little company, nor do you want to concentrate only on the best known ones. But you try to learn about any company that seems to be doing something significant. And wide knowledge is even more important for a critic, because part of the job is – or ought to be – drawing attention not only to what we're being shown, but also what's not happening.

The companies which I tried to see regularly included the Royal Danish Ballet, in Germany the Hamburg and Stuttgart companies, the various Dutch companies, plus taking the opportunity to see companies visiting the various European festivals. We caught an enormous number of companies from all over the world in the Paris Autumn Festival. And of course we went to the Edinburgh Festival.

And for a good many of these visits we paid our own way which meant having to do it as cheaply as possible.


We paid our own way which meant having to do it as cheaply as possible.

Once in Copenhagen there were no hotel rooms we could afford, so the tourist bureau found us bed and breakfast with a Judge and his family. In Stockholm another time Clive and I ended up sleeping on the sofa and a camp bed in the living room of Mary Skeaping, who was running the Royal Swedish Ballet at the time. That was fine, except that she lived in a women-only apartment block, so we had to pretend to be helping her to move furniture.

Presumably, since you became a critic on a national newspaper, companies are now more likely to invite you and pay air fares and hotels.

Ideally, I think papers ought to pay their writers' expenses, so that they have complete independence, but often editors are unwilling or, more likely nowadays, unable to do this. Much of the time I paid (and still pay) my own way for foreign travel, but there are occasions when a company wanting publicity will invite a critic and offer air fares and/or hotel costs. Can you accept without compromising freedom of thought? I have always reckoned you have to be very careful beforehand in considering what you know from personal experience or reliable witnesses about whoever is inviting you, and being satisfied that their standard is good and that you will be able to give an honest opinion. I really can't remember any time when, having accepted a free trip, I found myself embarrassed (but I'm not convinced that's invariably true of all critics).

I would guess that the increase in hospitality has come about because of the prevalence of previews which now seem to be more important than reviews. Why do you think this is and do you believe it to be a good thing?

I think that managements and the presenters of companies have worked out that a preview is a more cost effective way of attracting publicity for a visiting company or a new production than advertising. And if it's a way of attracting people into the theatre who wouldn't otherwise come, then it's a good thing. On the other hand I do think it has become somewhat out of balance. Nor can it be very interesting for readers who see exactly the same facts repeated in any number of publications. And again, there is the question of objectivity.

When the late John Higgins was my Arts Editor at The Times he used to insist on exclusivity – or at least, that The Times must have the story first – to the point where he once spiked a drama preview piece that had been commissioned and written, simply because another paper had been allowed to interview the same person on the same topic.

Of course, at that time overnight reviewing was the norm. It went completely out of fashion for a good many years, but now seems to be creeping back. On the whole, which do you think is preferable – a short overnight piece or a more considered review which appears a few days later?

In my experience that's not entirely a valid distinction. 'Overnights' are not necessarily short, and the effect of adrenaline from immediate reaction can be more truthful than long reflection. Remember, audiences know as they leave the theatre whether or not they enjoyed the show.


The effect of adrenaline from immediate reaction can be more truthful



Critics are the same; the difference is that we should have learned how to analyse the reasons for our responses quickly, even instantly. I only once remember completely changing my mind about a ballet (Peter Darrell's Chiaroscuro), and that wasn't through more time for reflection, but seeing it again after a longish gap. Describing what you saw is also part of the job, so that readers can imagine it for themselves and guess what they might have thought. So yes; the sooner the better.

Incidentally, the move away from universal overnight reviewing in the broadsheets (which was far more useful to companies and prospective spectators) came from the meanness of publishers: 'new technology' in printing made it possible to do layout etc. either quicker or cheaper, and they tended to choose the latter.

What does, or should, affect the way you write is the readership you're expecting – how interested they are likely to be in the arts, and how informed. Always remember who you're writing for. Of course the space available makes a difference; in a short review you have to be more selective. Expressing yourself briefly can be harder than writing at length – although too much space can also be a problem; don't we often read reviews that are full of waffle?

Of course the time factor can be crucial: a long show ending only ending shortly before your deadline is absolutely hair-raising. The most extreme example I remember was the Ashton farewell gala, made harder first because we didn't know in advance what we were going to see, and secondly because John Higgins, my editor, was at the performance and was so impressed that he telephoned the paper to remake the page so that I had even more space to fill. I found myself dictating impromptu with my wife counting words for me as I spoke. Another tricky one was a Bolshoi Bayadère when although I wrote as much as possible in the interval, the vital Kingdom of Shades had to be covered and dictated literally in a few minutes after curtain fall. After both of those I needed a good meal to recover, and felt that I'd earned it.

Well, it's certainly true that among those who know you well, you've earned a reputation for finding a good restaurant in whatever town you find yourself in.

Gastronomy began, I remember, on a particular occasion in Paris in the early 1960s when the Harkness Ballet changed its programme, postponing the premiere of its second show. Having already seen the first bill more than once, and not fancying a repeat for which we would have had to buy our own tickets, Clive and I decided to add what we thus saved to what our dinner would anyway have cost, and treat ourselves to a really special meal. Studying the Michelin Guide (which we normally used to find good inexpensive food), we decided that a three-star restaurant was beyond us but that for the first time in our lives we could manage two stars. That night convinced me that the best you could afford can be a real bargain – although I must add that the meagre payments generally made to dance critics mean that two or three star meals have remained a rarity.

Had you begun writing for The Times by then?

Clive had become their regular dance critic, but I wrote for them occasionally, and because he couldn't stay for the postponed Harkness premiere I covered that. I had been writing anywhere I could – Ballet Annual, a Dutch monthly and various papers including The Observer and The Daily Telegraph – but my first regular daily outlet was a new (and now long forgotten) paper called The New Daily. It was actually a disgraceful rag, started by a group who wanted to put over their extreme right-wing views. They wrote the leaders; all the news came from agency reports, and the only editorial pages they spent money on were the arts pages. The £6 a week they initially paid me, when you consider it in relation to their actual income, was proportionately more than any other paper I've been involved with has been prepared to spend on arts coverage. Later, when they had no money at all and couldn't pay anything, I went on writing for them for the sake of the experience and the exposure.

I became dance critic of The Times in 1965 when Clive went to New York to join the New York Times to be their ballet critic (he later became the paper's drama critic also and now covers dance and drama for the New York Post), and I wrote for the paper for about 30 years.


It could be frustrating to have, say, 289 words to cover a major premiere.

When I first joined they had just one page for the arts on which they covered a very wide variety of topics, even school plays, so I had to learn to write exactly to length and very briefly. It could be frustrating to have, say, 289 words to cover a major premiere, but it was very valuable experience. Later, when John Higgins joined as Arts Editor from the Financial Times, the arts pages were more selective and we had more space.

He was by far the best Arts Editor I ever worked for. He allowed me to cover premieres and important performances outside London, which all the papers had ignored previously. Much to my delight he pointed out that Paris was no further from London than Edinburgh. And he was prepared to give me space to cover the early seasons of Dance Umbrella, which otherwise was only covered by specialist dance publications.

During those 30 years you must have witnessed a lot of changes in the dance scene both in the UK and abroad.

I think that classical ballet reached a peak of popularity and excellence in the sixties and seventies and then went into a gradual decline. As far as choreographers are concerned there were four really great talents working; Balanchine, Ashton, Tudor and Robbins. Now they are all dead and there has been nobody since of that quality. It was also the time when we had the largest assembly of really great dancers all together; Bruhn, Nureyev, Soloviev, Vasiliev among the men, and among the women Fonteyn, Haydée, Kirkland and Plisetskaya to name just the cream. It was also a period when companies tended to have distinct styles and repertories.

All through my 60 years of watching ballet there have always been some great dancers around.


There have always been some great dancers around



One such in early days, first with Rambert, then as leading man (and later director) with Festival Ballet, was John Gilpin – in my view, the finest classical male dancer Britain has ever produced. Not only a virtuoso (unequalled in Etudes), but such a stylist, and with a quality which I can only liken to what in a singer is called tone. Nowadays people seem concerned only with steps. Lately a certain number of technical tricks have been elaborated, most successfully by one or two exceptional virtuoso dancers. I must say too that the general level of technique in the supporting ranks has improved; but formerly there were far more dancers with a real commitment to communicating the meaning of what they did. That's something which has been largely lost.

How exactly did they communicate?

It wasn't only a question of acting but of dancing expressively and with commitment to what they were doing. You still see a few dancers with that quality; Sylvie Guillem and Tamara Rojo at Covent Garden and Nicholas Le Riche in Paris spring to mind immediately. But I think it used to be more prevalent. It's that concern for expression, rather than his amazing technique, which makes Carlos Acosta so special. And this expressiveness can be in plotless ballets as well as those with a narrative.

That's a surprising comment, given the current popularity of narrative ballets, especially those of Kenneth MacMillan.

My impression is that managements have built up the proportion of narrative ballets because they find them easier to sell to an audience which isn't necessarily very interested in ballet. But this has contributed to the sameness of ballet companies worldwide. Everyone dances the Tchaikovsky ballets and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet over and over, ad nauseam. Nor for the most part do the companies necessarily get these ballets right. One example: the first complete Swan Lake I ever saw, in 1944 or '45, had only about 30 dancers in it which was great, because Swan Lake isn't primarily about a huge corps de ballet of swans. It is essentially about two people overcoming the obstacles to their love. That can easily get lost in huge, glossy productions.

You mentioned MacMillan, to which I have to say that in my opinion his best works tend to be those in one act. In his longer ballets you get an enormous amount of padding, often very feeble choreography for the corps de ballet and the stories not always very well told.


Why on earth for instance all the time and space given over to the whores in Romeo and Juliet?

Why on earth for instance all the time and space given over to the whores in Romeo and Juliet? (The answer to that, actually, is that MacMillan simply misunderstood the significance of the barmaids in Lavrovsky's production) Some of us who know the Lavrovsky and Cranko productions have always found Macmillan's rather a poor imitation. But the Royal Ballet and its supporters assume their version must be the best. I'm not sure that I have ever seen an ideal Romeo and Juliet (can there even be such a thing, given that Prokofiev's score is so heavy and Shakespeare's play more detailed?). But for me the most satisfactory ballet versions, in alphabetical order, are those of Ashton, Cranko, Lavrovsky and Nureyev. Perhaps Tudor got it right when he chose to do the ballet in one act and use music by Delius.

I think MacMillan's strongest point is that he seems always to start from a particular movement image, which for him sums up the characters or the drama. Perhaps that's why his ballets lasting about one hour, whether dramatic as in The Invitation, or more abstract, in Song of the Earth, are better than the longer pieces where the initial impact gets lost amid all the irrelevances and divertissements. Incidentally, I think it fair to say that the things MacMillan is most often praised for, such as introducing psychological issues and real-life drama, had all been done before him by Tudor, Robbins, Cranko and Darrell. He had a real talent, though not necessarily as great a one as some would like to think, and it might have developed more fully outside an opera house setting.

So what do you think of the current trends in the Royal Ballet repertoire? Come to that what is your view of the current state of the Royal Ballet company/companies? A lot of people would say you were pretty hard on them.

If I am, the explanation is (as I once told Dame Ninette) that she and her company at their best taught me to have high standards. When I started watching ballet, they were all I knew, and way back in the '40s they already had some outstanding dancers, among them Fonteyn, Violetta Elvin (gorgeous!), Pamela May, Beryl Grey, Moira Shearer. The repertory included Ashton, who soon made Symphonic Variations, Scènes de Ballet, Cinderella – with its superior original décor by Malclès – and Daphnis and Chloe.


Under de Valois, the repertoire was much better balanced

Leonide Massine arrived as choreographer and dancer; and the classics were much better staged and danced than they are today. Also, under de Valois, the repertoire was much better balanced. The classics took a smaller proportion of the performances; that left room to preserve the company's core of past creations, to bring in 'modern classics' by Balanchine, Fokine, Massine, and to present a good number of creations by Cranko, Andrée Howard, MacMillan and Petit as well as Ashton, Robert Helpmann and de Valois, even trying out other newcomers such as Alfred Rodrigues who went on to make a career abroad.

Standards continued developing and, as I've said, reached a peak during the '60s and '70s. Under the influence of de Valois, Ashton and Nureyev, the corps de ballet in the early '60s was magnificent. Among many new productions, I'd mention very selectively just La Fille mal gardée (the best evening-long creation of the whole century), Marguerite and Armand, The Dream, Monotones and Rhapsody by Ashton, two Bournonville divertissements staged by Erik Bruhn, La Bayadère Shades scene and Nutcracker by Nureyev, Serenade and five other Balanchine ballets, Nijinska's Biches and Noces, MacMillan's Song of the Earth, Cranko's Card Game, Tudor's Shadowplay, Robbins's Dances at a Gathering and The Concert, Hans van Manen's Four Schumann Pieces among others, and Glen Tetley's Voluntaries. Try to match that lot today.


What a line-up!



And they were danced by Beriosova, Collier, Fonteyn, Haydée, Makarova, Nerina, Park, Penney, Seymour, Sibley, Verdy, Baryshnikov, Blair, Bruhn, Cragun, Dowell, Eagling, Gable, Grant, Holden, MacLeary, Madsen, Nureyev, Usher and Wall. What a line-up! I'm sorry if I seem hard, but I can't imagine anyone who saw such dancers in such ballets claiming that the Royal Ballet comes anywhere near such a standard today.

Since Ashton was (stupidly) forced out in 1970 we've had a series of directors under whom things declined. Norman Morrice did some good things and I suspect would have done better with more support than he got from management. Ross Stretton mustn't be given all the blame; he inherited a company where Dowell had inexplicably made disastrous choices in changing all the classics, and in most of the new works he commisioned. Dowell also wasn't good at developing dancers; for instance losing Viviana Durante, not bringing out all of Darcey Bussell's potential, and not making the most of Mukhamedov. But recommending Stretton as his replacement was the one big mistake Michael Kaiser made during his otherwise invaluable time directing the Opera House, and if the Board had made proper enquiries they could have discovered Stretton's faults in advance. With that mob in charge, can we really hope for a better outcome next time?

Of course there are some things nowadays to enjoy and look forward to. I think Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta are great (individually and even more as a partnership). Guest stars Guillem and Le Riche are terrific too. All those four act as well as dancing splendidly.


I think Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta are great

Cojocaru and Kobborg, Benjamin, Bussell, Yoshida and Cope are fine in the right roles, Marianela Nunez and Ivan Putrov have high promise, Laura Morera, Ricardo Cervera and Edward Watson stand out at soloist level. But the corps simply isn't what it was, and the company as a whole doesn't dance as well as it could or should. As for repertoire – well I think my views on at are fairly clear, and a better choice could make the dancers look better.

And what about Birmingham Royal Ballet?

Sorry, after all that rant about the London company, I was forgetting you asked about the Royal companies, plural. The important thing about BRB is that when David Bintley became director he set out to change it into a more creative company, and he has succeeded in getting on many premieres. As expected, they haven't all been good, but a respectable proportion were, including (and this is gratifying) one by new dance-makers within the company. Equally important, he has revived two ballets long thought lost from the Royal heritage, de Valois's comedy The Prospect Before Us and Ashton's tragic Dante Sonata. Excellent thinking. All this has differentiated BRB more from the RB, and that is enhanced by the choice of imported productions: three by Balanchine and two by Robbins new to any British company. One effect has been to attract fine dancers from abroad to join Birmingham, and the dancing generally is rather good.


...how lively English National Ballet is looking



Is that the cue maybe to comment on how lively English National Ballet is looking under its new director, Mats Skoog? Some attractive mixed bills to vary the rep, and some good dancers coming on. But so far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out on Northern Ballet Theatre's new director David Nixon, and the way the Scottish Arts Council and the Board of Scottish Ballet have deliberately thrown away the achievements of Peter Darrell in Scotland is nothing less than a disgrace.

Which do you think are the great companies today and what is it that distinguishes them from the rest?

For me, three companies at present stand out above all others. One is the Kirov, despite being short of good male dancers at present. They still have an excellent corps de ballet (which would be better still if they could afford toe-shoes that didn't clatter so). It has style – partly explained by the fact I was told in Saint Petersburg, that everyone at the Vaganova School, even those already picked out as future soloists, has to do a corps de ballet course, which includes such refinements as studying the difference between dancing Chopiniana and Giselle Act II. And so far it has managed to find new young women of real talent to replace those who retire or move to jobs abroad. I only hope that the excessive amount of touring forced on the company nowadays doesn't push it into a decline.

If the quality of dancing is what most distinguishes the Kirov, in conjunction with an interesting repertoire, the balance switches with my next choice, New York City Ballet. There the rep comes first – all those wonderful Balanchine and Robbins ballets, together with a policy that features many new ballets too.


There the rep comes first



But it's important also that they still have dancers who do them justice, in spite of carping, unjustified in my view, from some American critics about losing the Balanchine style - which Balanchine style? It changed often over the decades.

Those two companies have stayed at the top all the time I've known them, since 1961 and 1950 respectively. The Royal Ballet used to be up there with them; wouldn't it be good if it could get there again? So did the Royal Danes, and the Bolshoi – which, judging by the concert group they sent to London last year, very strong in male dancers, may well be on the way up again. But my third current favourite achieved its top ranking more recently. The Paris Opera Ballet always had fine dancers but they lacked homogeneity and a good rep. Their rise began in the '70s, first under Hugues Gall as administrator in charge of the ballet, and then Rosella Hightower as director. It was completed and consolidated by Rudolf Nureyev's direction in the '80s. He left the company on a high which they have managed to maintain.

One thing the Kirov, NYCB and Paris have in common is that each has a great school attached to it. Is there a moral here?

You seem to think then that there is a future for classical dance?

I certainly hope so, but what it is I wouldn't dare to forecast. Just over 25 years ago the National Ballet of Canada celebrated its Silver Jubilee with a seminar in which I took part.


I wouldn't dare to forecast

One question asked the members of the panel to forecast the next 25 years for classical ballet. My reply was that looking back 25 years, nobody could possibly have guessed how classical ballet would develop. It depended too much on unpredictable events and unknown people, and in my view the same would be true for the next 25. The only thing I would predict was that the two most performed ballets would be The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. I think I was right then and I would give the same answer now.

What's your view of the contemporary dance scene? You were something of a champion in the early days of Dance Umbrella and you still watch a great deal of contemporary dance whether it's touring groups from overseas or the home-grown variety.

It's true that I enjoy the best of contemporary dance as much as the best of classical ballet. Equally, there's lot of bad contemporary dance and bad ballet. For me, the best of modern dance today ranges from Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal to the stunning dance invention of Paul Taylor. I also have to ask if Mark Morris is modern dance or ballet? Probably both, and he's the best of the new generation.

Have you any more books planned?

I've ideas for two more, but I'm not saying what they are in case anyone steals them. I think I've done quite well though I haven't written as many as Cyril Beaumont in the early days. What I will say is there are two dance books by other writers I really would like to have written. One is Arnold Haskell's Ballet, which was commissioned by Penguin and was on sale as a paperback for many years and was a wonderful introduction to ballet for me and many others. The other is Horst Koegler's Oxford Dictionary of Ballet. So much more comprehensive, balanced and accurate than its rivals and imitators and still the reference book I turn to most often.

You've told us that Ulanova was the greatest ballerina you ever saw. Who would you rank as the greatest male dancer?

The answer there is much more closely balanced but in the end I think it simply has to be Nureyev.

Why?

For the range and passion of his work and its immense influence on other male dancers.

Did Ulanova and Nureyev have anything in common apart from being Russian and trained at the Kirov school?

They were both very meaningful dancers. And thinking about it I suppose you've made me realize that's the quality I rate highest.

 

Judith Cruickshank is a freelance journalist specialising in civil engineering and construction although she has written about dance for a number of publications including The Times and Dance and Dancers. She has been married to John Percival for 30 years.

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