- Beau Pearson
- First Soloist Allison DeBona and Principal Artist Rex Tilton in The Shakespeare Suite.
Looking at the full scope of David Bintley's ballet career, one would be forgiven for pegging him as a true classicist. From the Royal Ballet School, where he trained as a young man, to the Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB), where he began as a company member and choreographer and where he still serves today as the company's director (he will be retiring next season), Bintley's career has taken him to two of the three most important ballet companies in the United Kingdom. And many have written of how Bintley's work, which maintains the highest technical and artistic standards, has championed and advanced the English style of ballet—encouraging supple, flexible torsos and a stylistic nuance that sought balance and purity of line over extreme virtuosity.
But Bintley has a penchant for coloring outside the lines, creating ballets that don't fit neatly into the classical repertoire. The Shakespeare Suite (1999) is one such ballet. And Ballet West is now one of the very few companies outside of the Birmingham Royal Ballet to perform it.
The selections for Ballet West's spring season often stand apart from the more traditional mid-season offerings, like the perennial Nutcracker and classic story ballets like Swan Lake and Cinderella. Spring is for things that are fresh, lively and often contemporary. This year, as Ballet West's Artistic Director Adam Sklute told KUED in a recent interview, "The whole program is about my three favorite works that were off the beaten path."
Also hand-picked by Sklute for this program is Jií Kylián's Return to a Strange Land (1974), a somber work created after the sudden death of Kylián's mentor, John Cranko, who also had been a dancer and choreographer for The Royal Ballet. The second piece, 1958's Summerspace, is an ambitious attempt at a highly experimental work by the seminal modern dance choreographer Merce Cunningham. During the making of this piece, Cunningham, graphic artist Robert Rauschenberg and composer Morton Feldman all worked entirely independently to produce the dance, music and costuming, bringing the three elements together for the first time during its stage premiere.
These two lead into The Shakespeare Suite, composed of seven vignettes, each lasting less than three minutes. It's a pop-culture-inspired interpretation of some of Shakespeare's most popular plays: Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo & Juliet. In addition to the high-energy theatrical antics coming out in these pieces, the costuming—sunglasses, punk hairdos, power suits and Chuck Taylor shoes—signals an unusual sense of flair.
That flair and vivacity continues through the music. Bintley, whose amateur-musician father was particularly fond of playing jazz, often uses the strains of American roots music as the soundtrack to his work. That tendency goes back to one of his earliest pieces, the abstract and spirited one-act ballet Take Five (1978), named after and set to Dave Brubeck's famous jazz score of the same name. The Shakespeare Suite is one of these jazz ballets, performed to a Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn score.
Bintley's jazz pieces were surprisingly well received in Britain, so in an attempt to win over American audiences during the Birmingham Royal Ballet's New York City debut in 2000, Bintley put together a special "Jazz Triple" showcase, expecting Yanks to embrace something set to jazz. The showcase featured his own Nutcracker Sweeties, set to music by Ellington, and The Shakespeare Suite alongside George Balanchine's Slaughter on 10th Avenue (created for the Broadway musical On Your Toes). The Times raved about Balanchine while picking apart Bintley's Suite, calling it "bland business."
One wonders if those New York critics 18 years ago just weren't ready for real contemporary ballet. A recent revival of the Suite by the BRB earned the company an entirely different kind of appraisal. The online arts review Seeing Dance noted, "The Shakespeare Suite is Bintley letting his hair down; and what fun it is, too." A review in London Dance called the work "witty, quirky, visually appealing" and praised the use of vignettes that touch on several of the Bard's stories, saying, "It certainly covers several of his best-loved dysfunctional pairings." Not to be outdone, the London Times wrote, "Bintley is singlehandedly updating the British choreographic tradition."
David Bintley has had a 42-year career with the Birmingham Royal Ballet and in that time he has choreographed 10 full-length and 12 one-act ballets, from light-hearted, crowd-pleasers to others that struggle with complex emotions (such as The Dance House, a one-act ballet that meditates on the effects of the AIDS crisis in the ballet world). Of all Bintley's ballets, however, The Shakespeare Suite is the one that director Sklute wants to show local audiences. These riskier works might not be classical, but that doesn't mean they can't become classics.