David Bintley bows out with a ‘Pagoda’ set in Japan

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Challenge is intrinsic to artistic creation, but David Bintley relishes it so much that he specializes in conceiving the unlikely.

“I like to do things that people think are impossible in dance,” the English choreographer said in a recent interview with The Japan Times before his final production as the artistic director for dance at the New National Theatre, Tokyo (NNTT), after a four-year appointment. Then he added: “I particularly like taking things you wouldn’t imagine you can do in dance.”

From setting a full-length ballet in a shoe shop (“Hobson’s Choice,” 1989) to recreating the intricacies of kinaesthetic motion in Olympic sport (“Faster,” 2012), and from the cafe musings of endangered species (“Still Life at the Penguin Cafe,” 1988) to the sensuously pious world of medieval monks (“Carmina Burana,” 1995), Bintley’s works have been marked by his charismatic “creativity in the classical mode.”

This month the 56-year-old, who has remained artistic director of his homeland’s Birmingham Royal Ballet since 1995, closes out the season and his tenure with a restaging of his 2011 adaptation of “The Prince of the Pagodas,” a piece he created in Tokyo that typically takes a risky leap of creative faith.

For this work, not only did Bintley take on a “problematic” score written by the revered English composer, conductor and pianist Benjamin Britten (1913-76) for The Royal Ballet in 1957, but he completely reworked the plot to reflect his experiences in Japan.

“This piece is known as a 50-year failure,” Bintley observed. “It didn’t work the first time with the greatest 20th-century composer, Britten, and (The Royal Ballet’s) John Cranko, one of the great dramatic dancemakers. One problem is that it is a kind of love story, but Britten — musically — did not write a love story.”

Bintley shifted the plot from romantic love to familial, inspired by the ancient Japanese creation myth of the male and female deities Izanagi and Izanami, respectively. As he put it, “The idea of a brother and sister, a different kind of love arose, and then I focused on making the emperor so much more important than in the original, and centering the story on the family, as that is what is so strong in Japan.”

Despite a resume that includes stints as both a dancer and a choreographer with The Royal Ballet, Bintley admits it’s ideas that drive him the most, although Japan has been good all round. “There are a lot of choreographers who just do steps, but there are very few people who are really good at it. I’m not particularly. I have to have some sort of flavor, even if it’s just an idea,” he confided.

Japan has provided many ideas for this prolific choreographer whose first work, based on Igor Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale,” was staged when he was a 16-year-old student at The Royal Ballet School. As he said, “I am the kind of dancemaker who likes ideas and I like to see that in others’ work as well. I like to know a person’s view of the world, not their view of the inside of a ballet studio.

Bintley believes that working at the NNTT has improved his choreography as well — especially as “the dancers understand me through movement, since we don’t share a language. That means I really have to choreograph.

“It may sound silly, but sometimes you forget that dancers like dancing. At the NNTT, we can’t talk about it — it isn’t about acting, it isn’t about anything except dancing — and so I’ve had to make a lot of steps. Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) really enjoys dancing the ballets I’ve created here, and even prefers them, because it’s really dancing.”

In January, in fact, BRB premiered Bintley’s “The Prince of the Pagodas” in Europe, and the production has steadily garnered praise. Still, its creator admits to being nervous: “I was commenting on bits of Japanese history that people in England don’t know about, such as the national isolation during the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867), and how the West intruding upon that was almost a brutal thing. So when the kings come in during the ballet, it’s not just a state visit, it is a brutality — a selling off of Princess Cherry Blossom, yet she’s sacred, the spirit of Japan.

“I was nervous when ‘Prince’ premiered here, as an Englishman making a Japanese ballet in Japan. But I was more nervous being an Englishman who made a Japanese ballet in Japan and was trying to bring it back to England.”

Although the upcoming production is undoubtedly a triumphant end to Bintley’s tenure in Tokyo, it is also full of mixed emotions. On the one hand, he is looking forward to resuming full-time his post in Birmingham, with “a tiny amount of me glad I do not have to make this trip five or six times a year. It will be nice to have more time to think.

“Still, that is far outweighed by the sadness I will feel,” he confessed. “That’s because, when you are responsible for a group of people, you build a great kind of affection and concern for them, and I feel like the NNTT dancers are my children, and my responsibility.”

In that respect, Bintley takes particularly seriously one of his original goals when he arrived — to see the dancers and crew at the NNTT put on a salaried footing, instead of the current system under which they are paid per performance.

Diplomatically terming that “unusual” at a national company, Bintley added, “It’s a step in the right direction toward getting the dancers a more secure living. It’s knowing how much money you will have for a year; it’s not fearing that you will be injured and your salary will suddenly be half. It is hard being a dancer here, and they work so hard as well.”

Although he has not been successful in realizing that goal, Bintley hopes “the idea is in place.” He also believes “the management will continue moving forward when I am gone, which is good.”

Meanwhile, another of his goals from the outset was to expose Japanese audiences to a wide range of ballet. “I have dragged them kicking and screaming into the 20th century if not the 21st,” Bintley said with a laugh. “I hope they have realized that ballet does not have to be full-length, and it doesn’t have to include music by Tchaikovsky.”

Although preparing to depart, Bintley will be back. Enthusiastic about his new work, “The King Dances,” he also spoke about bringing BRB here in spring 2015, while our interview was interspersed with him mentioning the many things he will miss in this country, including the people, the food culture and the respect for the seasons.

“This whole period has been such a big part of my life,” he said. “There are so many things I will take with me. I am finished, but I am not through, and this is the not the last time I will be in Japan.”

“The Prince of the Pagodas” runs from June 12-15, with two performances on June 14, at the NNTT’s Opera Palace in Hatsudai near Shinjuku. For more details, or tickets, call 03-5352-9999 (English spoken) or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp.