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
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
[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