Magazine article The Spectator

Steps in a New Direction

Magazine article The Spectator

Steps in a New Direction

Article excerpt

The only surprise in Anthony Dowell's announcement that he will give up directing the Royal Ballet in August 2001 is that he plans to continue for so long. Appointed 13 years ago, he has already held the job longer than any of his predecessors except the company's founder Ninette de Valois. He has often given the impression of not much enjoying it, except for his work directly with the dancers, and in fact before taking up the post he admitted that what he would really like would be the chance to appear in a musical. And although he came up with some refreshing ideas when first appointed (getting a new ballet from Jerome Robbins, for instance, and remounting some neglected masterworks of Frederick Ashton), the initiative he showed then seems to have dwindled into routine formulae. High time, then, that he had a break and we had a change.

But his decision raises two big questions. First, how good a director has Dowell been; and, second, how do we make sure of finding the right successor?

Dowell is a decent, gifted although sometimes misguided man who has devoted almost his whole career to the Royal Ballet as dancer, then director. His proudest boast is that he held the company together during the horrendous last few years. He doesn't like critics, and is reported as saying he would like to kick us into the street for a glorious bloodbath. But on the whole he has had a very kind press. The standard of dancing under his regime has generally been overpraised, even though anyone who remembers Dowell's own dancing days must know how much better it used to be when you could see him, David Wall and Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Lynn Seymour and Antoinette Sibley all appearing on one night.

Meanwhile, the repertoire under Dowell has become stale and limited. He says this is because he could not risk poor houses and losing money -- apparently forgetting that the most alarming loss came with a season of supposedly 'safe' choices at the Hammersmith Apollo. He has had little success in developing choreographers within the company, or finding interesting ones outside. New works are dutifully given their premieres and almost all of them disappear again after only a few performances. It would not be fair to blame Dowell for the present worldwide shortage of great choreographers, but companies abroad, or even elsewhere in Britain, manage to make more enterprising choices from those who are available. Besides, the Royal Ballet's main overseas rivals offer more varied programmes. When Dowell says, as he did to a recent interviewer, that the Royal do 'a phenomenal amount of work' compared with other companies, we must wonder what kind of dream world he is living in.

One thing Dowell has achieved is to enlarge the company's choice of the old classics that take up so high a proportion of their time; both La Bayadere and Don Quixote have joined the three Tchaikovsky ballets and Giselle. Unfortunately, his limited experience of what goes on abroad (the American Ballet Theatre of some years back is the only other company he knows at all closely) resulted in his choosing productions that are thin and characterless compared with those available in Paris or St Petersburg. A problem is that, according to the Royal Ballet's own declarations, he believes he has to `breathe fresh life into the established classics making them relevant and exciting for today's audiences'. Nonsense. If they are not already relevant and exciting in themselves, how can we call them classics? …

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