Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Richard Jones

  I have lived in the Bristol area for nearly 30 years, during which time I have been Director of Music at an independent boys' grammar school in the city.

  My involvement with dance on a personal level is that I have for a number of years been a member of various dance classes, especially at Bristol Community Dance Centre for contemporary dance. Using this experience in involving teenagers in school musicals (including some enthusiastic participation by boys of my own school) has helped build bridges between art forms and led school students into that area of self-discovery that only the performing arts can provide.

  I have also taken a number of school parties to performances at Bristol Hippodrome for performances by English National Ballet, and (some years ago) to the Royal Opera House for schools' matinees by the Royal Ballet. Yes, boys do enjoy performances of classical ballet if the programme and the preparation are right. Also, musicians need the opportunity for seeing fully staged performances of works that exist otherwise as concert pieces, but which were written for the ballet stage.

  However, I am concerned about the limited repertoire of professional ballet that can be seen in the regions. Companies that have an obvious base in one city (Birmingham Royal Ballet, Northern Ballet Theatre, Scottish Ballet) need adequate funding for their stability. However, cities that rely on the visits of touring companies have had a really lean time.

  Exactly 12 years ago, the Royal Ballet spent a week in Bristol with a triple bill (Monotones, Winter Dreams, Symphony in C) and Manon; all the star dancers of the time were involved. The company hasn't been back. (A friend who has been in Bristol for most of his life can remember an earlier visit by the RB, including Fonteyn in Firebird.) Nevertheless, during the 1990s we enjoyed visits by both BRB and ENB. However, the review of large-scale touring by the Arts Council that took place in the late '90s meant that BRB's last visit to Bristol was in May 1999. I know that BRB were very sad to lose Bristol as a touring venue, especially as they were building an audience for new work.

  At that time, the BRB education department was also doing excellent work with boys from one of the tougher areas of the city; this was quoted by Chris Smith MP in a TV debate about funding for the arts when he was Minister for Culture etc. The audience was being built for new work and established 20th century repertoire; in May 1996, for example (just pulling out an old programme at random) we had Theme and Variations; The Cage; and Still Life at the Penguin Cafe.

  Letters were written to the Arts Council regarding the change of arrangements, but little good did it do.

  Regular performances of ballet in Bristol are now provided twice yearly by English National Ballet (apart from occasional visits by East European companies for the standard classics, their tours arranged by Ellen Kent). As is well known, English National Ballet does an amazing job on a shoestring, relying to a great extent on Nutcracker to balance the books. During the last year or two the company has really pushed the boat out with new work. Here in Bristol the response has been pretty good, as ENB will acknowledge.

  A sudden appearance of a triple bill of mainly new ballet once in a year at a regional theatre is always going to be hard to sell, but ENB went for it. Although such an initiative is inevitably risky, and it is hard to build an audience for new work on such a basis of occasional visits, it is worthwhile for the future of ballet, and worth the notice (and support) of the Arts Council. Does the Arts Council take detailed note of repertoire and audience responses outside London? I wonder. Ironically, the ENB triple including new work that was being toured last autumn was performed at more or less the same time as a programme of new work at the ROH that was proving very difficult for the Royal Ballet to sell (and those who did eventually go were in some cases arguing in the bar as to whether such a programme should be taking place in the main house!). Good for the RB, of course, but what was the Arts Council's opinion? I hope that it would not have been of the "such experiments are right for London but wrong elsewhere" point of view, though one wonders.

  English National Ballet has recently been to Bristol with Swan Lake, playing to packed houses. Fine; it is an excellent production. But just have a look at the safe programming the company has had to adopt (Romeo and Juliet next autumn) and the fact that the Tour de Force mid-scale tours (which often include small-scale new work) have not happened recently (I hope they can be re-instated next year) and you can draw your own conclusions.

  I feel we are somehow hanging on grimly to what we have, and those who have a historical perspective about these things (like my friend who remembers Firebird in Bristol) have seen a gradual decline in what is available in the regions. This is despite the indisputable fact that there are audiences in the regions for something better. Could the Arts Council please take note?

  Since we have three visits a year by Welsh National Opera in Bristol, with three operas for each visit, we don't do too badly for opera. There are also occasional small scale opera performances elsewhere (St George's, and the Theatre Royal in Bath). There are regular concerts by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as well as other orchestras. By comparison, ballet is badly served, and is made to be the real cinderella art form by the lack of funding from the organisation that should know better.

  There is also a market in Bristol for contemporary dance (performed in smaller theatres than the Hippodrome, such as the theatre at my own school, which also serves as a public performance venue).

  [On the other hand, the Rambert Dance Company recently visited the Bristol Hippodrome after an absence from the city of about five years.]

  However, in contrast with the innovative repertoire that modern dance companies can provide, it seems that, in the regions, we can only expect to see the large popular ballets because the companies involved cannot afford to take the financial risk of developing new work as they are so financially strapped.

  This leads to a real problem in artistic terms. A definite gulf is perceived between ballet (=old) and contemporary dance (=new), and the financial problems for ballet companies wishing to do something different only serve to harden that divide, which is not good for the art form. There is also then a "negative" educational effect on regional audiences; casual ballet-goers will remain unaware that ballet can be something other than its most popular 19th century image. Contemporary dance has a much younger audience (and of course some of the repertoire is syllabus work for those studying for exams); it is also cheaper. Ballet is generally not given a chance to thrive except as a showcase for the classics. The audiences for the two forms of dance are probably quite distinct (I have no scientific research to back this up, but anecdotal evidence would seem to suggest that this is the case). Classical dance needs to be able to draw in the same young audience that attends contemporary dance, and the audience for contemporary dance needs to know that ballet companies do produce exciting new dance (though not in the regions).

  Hats off to ENB for what they did last year, especially on their budget. The company deserves better financial support. Being a classical ballet company, there is not only the cost of maintaining the dance company, but also their orchestra. However, support for a more varied repertoire gives cause for developing the orchestra (as opposed to playing the same repertoire time after time) which in turn not only benefits the music profession, but also allows audiences in the regions another opportunity for hearing a professional orchestra in a variety of repertoire. The benefit is thereby multiplied.

  Some of these thoughts were originally posted on Ballet.co.uk, a website to which I often contribute (including substantial articles on music and dance for the online magazine).

3 May 2004





 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 1 July 2004