Magazine article The Spectator

Dominated by the Second-Rate

Magazine article The Spectator

Dominated by the Second-Rate

Article excerpt

In his dark, Kensitongton basement flat, filled with books and beautiful earthy pottery, Sir John Drummond was prowling around, twitching like a large, penned-up tiger. `Does anybody have a clear idea how to get it right?' demanded that sonorous, unmistakable voice. `What is wrong is the almost total lack of artistic leadership, the administrative tail wagging the dog. It's a legacy of the past 20 years that the administrators have been put in charge of the shop, and the artists are considered untrustworthy - as if they might run off with the takings ..'

His beef is the crisis in British dance, which Sir John (the former director of the Proms, Edinburgh Festival and Radio Three, governor of the Royal Ballet) has subjected to inquiry in a six-part Radio Three series.

Crisis? What crisis? It will come as a shock to most people. After all, the ballerina Darcey Bussell's face is on the cover of this month's Harper's & Queen, Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake and Cinderella have seen huge success in the West End, and there is a growing procession of companies making dance for every conceivable social class and interest -- these are all badges of popularity, aren't they?

But this ferocious activity is deceptive. For actually the number of people buying tickets has begun to fall, quite significantly. And Drummond's series, Developing Dance, has opened a Pandora's box of complaints from those within about the tide of mediocrity engulfing the art. Will it do any good? I'm not sure. For one thing, too many people dislike Drummond. A couple of critics I know are almost vitriolic about him. Yet basically they share his sense that dance has gone wrong.

But even if Sir John's recent book Speaking of Diaghilev (Faber, 20) reveals what a jumped-up inflatable he is (as one of them thinks), or even if he is an uncreative bureaucrat who helped put dance in the red-tape-infested mess it is in now (as the other thinks), what on earth has that to do with the force of his argument now? His survey strikes me as almost flawlessly aimed - it correctly identifies ballet's problem as a temporary loss of faith in the art itself, and modern dance's problem as the Arts Council's galloping inability to sieve good from bad.

He also correctly criticises the British disease - its preference for institutions over individuals. Ironically, British dance exists thanks to the stubborn activities of artistic mavericks, `instigators of genius', Drummond calls them, whom today's subsidised arts would find hard to place. (He told me that Diaghilev today would probably be out on the boundaries of digital television, a combination of Cameron Mackintosh and Ted Turner.)

Drummond grew up on those mavericks, when British ballet was both cutting-edge and world-renowned; when modern dance was being helped through birth by such odd midwives as the one-legged hotelier Robin Howard. There wasn't that much to see, but it was all trying hard. Thanks to subsidy, my generation has much more dance to go to, but too much of it is lazy and good-for-nothing. We have noticed the fever and glamour of those memoirs of the old, golden days, but we do get fed up with old folk saying nothing can be done. Drummond's series sets out with exemplary clarity how the magic vanished, but also hints how it can be got back. …

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