It doesn’t seem quite right to mention hirsute, mustachioed actor Tom Selleck and baseball legend Bobby Valentine in the same breath as David Bintley, the new artistic director of The National Ballet of Japan. However, if you’re unlucky enough to have seen Selleck’s 1992 film “Mr. Baseball” or know of Valentine’s experiences when he was manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines, you’ll understand that it can be difficult to come to Japan as an outsider and implement some degree of change, be it in baseball or ballet.
Japan has the knack of befuddling those not acquainted with its often Byzantine way of doing things. Even Prime Minister Naoto Kan acknowledged, in a statement made in June, that “there is a growing feeling of being fenced in, . . . a vague sense that the whole country is being stifled.”
Bintley, born in Huddersfield, England, in 1957, took up his new post in September, stepping into the role recently vacated by Asami Maki, whom many have called the grande dame of Japanese ballet. Maki, a former dancer and choreographer, built and developed the young company throughout her decade-long tenure and introduced dancers and audiences to the staple repertoires of a classical ballet company, based on the traditional Russian model.
Bintley, in a decision that surprised many in the ballet world, will divide his time between Tokyo and England’s second city, Birmingham, where he also holds the position of Artistic Director of the renowned Birmingham Royal Ballet. He admits that he was fortunate to take over the company Maki had successfully groomed.
“She left an enormously rich legacy,” he says. “Specifically in terms of the classical productions they have here. Although, I’m a different person; I bring a different experience and I’m going in a new direction — and I think that’s the point. I don’t think they want another Ms. Maki. Once you have a solid foundation, which the company has had for 12 years, it’s time to strike out.”
The Englishman has his work cut out, however, as Japanese audiences — whom David McAllister, artistic director of The Australian Ballet, recently labeled “one of the most educated audiences of ballet in the world” — are sticklers for the status quo. As such, regulars at the National Ballet are naturally wary of any change to a repertoire they have come to know and love over the past 12 years.
Bintley is quick to address the fears of his Japanese patrons by saying, “Everybody seems terrified that I’m an iconoclast and that they’re never going to see ‘Swan Lake’ again! But of course we are. However, we have to make room for new work and ideas.”
Having studied under the formidable godmother of English ballet, Ninette de Valois, at the Royal Ballet School in London, Bintley went on to become a highly regarded dancer and feted choreographer, which led to him being awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 2001 for his service to the arts.
Over the course of his career, Bintley has worked with a veritable who’s who of ballet, including British greats Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan, and witnessed at first hand the dancing of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Influenced by a wide spectrum of dance, he has built a reputation for bringing new, eclectic work to his companies and for taking artistic risks — some of which have failed. His early 1990s epic flop “Cyrano,” for example, was derided by critics and audiences and subsequently vanished from his repertoire until a totally different version appeared to positive reviews in 2007.
He made his National Ballet of Japan debut with “Carmina Burana” in 2005 and returned in 2008 with “Aladdin,” which gently introduced Japanese audiences to his artistic vision and varied influences. These productions were hugely successful with audiences and critics alike, becoming a prelude to his first full season in charge of the Tokyo-based company. The 2010-11 season opens with a triple bill of shorter pieces — Bintley’s “Still Life at the Penguin Cafe,” George Balanchine’s “Symphony in C” and Michel Fokine’s “The Firebird” — and also includes full-length surefire crowd pleasers such as Ashton’s “Cinderella” and MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
Through his choices, Bintley aims to acknowledge a new world and generation of dance, in an attempt to bring The National Ballet of Japan — kicking and screaming, some might say — into the 21st century.
“The center of ballet moved further west in the ’30s and ’40s, when great companies started in England and when Balanchine was over in America,” he says. “The creative stuff that was happening tended to be in Western Europe and America. Any ballet company has to really encompass all of that. You’re not really taking a company forwards unless you’re taking in Balanchine and Ashton. I know the public here like full-length work, but the literature of 20th-century dance is not really in full-length work. . . . Most of the choreographers working these days work in the shorter form. The public here is missing out on a lot of fantastic work because of this predilection for full-length work. So I’m trying to change this a little bit.”
Bintley is no stranger to working with Japanese dancers, as Birmingham Royal Ballet employs several Japanese members, and he has also had regular contact with The National Ballet of Japan over the past five years. Bintley is excited about working with his new troupe and is suitably complimentary about their abilities.
“I think the dancers here are remarkably adept at changing,” he says. “The wonderful thing about them is the degree of concentration. You can have a two-hour rehearsal and at the end of it there’s just as much focus as there was at the beginning. Japanese dancers tend to be high achievers: very determined and exceptional. They often have very good turns — astonishingly good turns. They also don’t tend to be injured as much; there is a lot of resilience with Japanese dancers. They have a strength and determination. They are strong dancers, physically.”
Having worked with some of the ballet greats, Bintley confesses his style in the studio is a mixture of the planned, disciplined manner of de Valois (“Madam” to all who knew her) and the more improvisational model of Ashton, who, according to Bintley, tended to “freewheel” in rehearsals.
De Valois had an enormous impact on the young Bintley, and her cantankerous and forbidding manner taught him “never to give up” and the fundamentals of ballet.
“She was an incredible figure and intellect; the greatest intellect that I ever came across in terms of theater, drama, art and literature,” he says. “She was quite astonishing. I spent a lot of my time with her while she was actually teaching her work. Madam didn’t go into the studio like Fred (Ashton). De Valois actually had worked out the whole thing before she got into the studio. She had it totally in her mind or on paper. So when you see a de Valois piece, it’s like seeing one of those medical skeletons: You see everything and how it works and you learned from that — how effective floor patterns can be, for example, or if a move takes you from here to here.”
The new artistic director is understandably excited about the possibilities of introducing a new regime and, with it, the opportunities to introduce new work in spite of present economic difficulties. Like the Birmingham Royal Ballet, The National Ballet of Japan is experiencing financial restrictions, with cuts in government funding an ongoing prospect for both companies. Although Bintley has had to reign in his plan “of bringing as much new repertoire, ideas, as many new productions as we can,” he is upbeat about this season and the next, which is already being planned.
Next season, audiences can expect a major new work inspired by Japanese stories and history, plus Maki’s “Nutcracker,” “Swan Lake” and some more contemporary pieces. “Perhaps because my background is very choreographic, what I would like to see is the company doing more creative work. Although they are very good at absorbing different kinds of influences, I want it to come from them. I’m looking forward to making new work with them and with other choreographers who work with the company.”
A triple bill of short works — runs Oct. 27- Nov. 3 at the New National Theatre, Hatsudai, Tokyo. For full details of the 2010-2011 season and ticket information, call (03) 5351-3011 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp.