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Beauty and the Beast
Raymonda Act III
'Still Life' at the Penguin Café
The Two Pigeons
The Dance House
David Bintley decided to create his own version of Sylvia because he relished the challenge of turning the 'really silly story' into something a modern audience could relate to. 'There's a nymph of Diana called Sylvia. And she falls in love with a shepherd called Aminta, because Eros [the Greek mythology equivalent of Cupid] fires one of his darts. Diana the goddess is mad at Sylvia, because she's broken her vows to her as a chaste, virginal goddess. At the end of the story, however, Eros points out to Diana that she's being a bit of a hypocrite, because she used to be in love with a shepherd called Endymion herself. So she holds her hands up and says "it's a fair cop, get on with it". It's really not much of a story!'
The plot had not stopped a number of versions of the ballet being created over the years. 'When I did mine I was working completely blind,' admits David. 'I'd never seen any other version. I only knew of the original and some French derivations of it. And the Ashton one which was made in the 1950s and had played it pretty straight and enjoyed, at best, a mixed reception. That one kind of petered out and disappeared until it was revived more recently.'
With David's own attempt, he sought to rectify the problems he saw. 'I read all of the criticism of the piece and tried to fix certain things. I tried to make it less po-faced, to have the kind of bubbling feel of a Rossini opera about it. I wanted that kind of even Gilbert and Sullivan feel, fun and buoyant with touches of pathos.
'I made the hero less ineffectual by giving him a reason to be more heroic. I made more out of the Eros role - I made him middle-aged, and retired, having given up on love, but interested in this one case of Sylvia and Aminta. Aminta himself was updated, and he arrived in a lovely old car. And it sort of time hopped because I wasn't specific when it was set. There's was a lovely old steam-boat that some pirates came on in. The chief of the pirates was Eros in disguise as Long John Silver, in that kind of classic image of a pirate – imagine some pirates and they all look like Long John Silver!'
After the first staging of the new work, David felt his improvements had been successful. 'I did some more work on it,' he remembers, 'as there were things I still wanted to change – this was I think 1993 – but overall I liked it. So there it was. Like the other versions of the story I think it got a mixed press, and then it kind of got forgotten, because I took over the Company a couple of years later. And, because I just wanted to throw new ideas down in order to take the Company forward, I just didn't think there was a place for that kind of revival at the time. It was only two years since it had been on and I wanted to do new stuff. But it's been on my mind ever since and now's the time to go back to it.'
With the reworking this season, David is looking forward to finally fulfilling his ambitions for the ballet. 'There were some bits that went awry last time,' he nods, 'which I'm hoping to correct this time round. I've had an idea which draws all of the strands together, to make it cohesive but a little more dreamlike, to retain the time-hopping idea. It should be a little bit funnier, and it should make all the characters a little bit more tangible.'
The characters still remain the most important element for the choreographer. 'That's what I always felt was lacking in the piece as a stood, and I still find is lacking in the revived Ashton version. It's set in mythical Rome and I just don't feel for these people. I don't know who they are, I don't believe in them.
'In my pieces, the most important thing is understanding people, and being able to empathise with them, or even be revolted by them - as long as they're believable people, flesh and blood.
'That's what I always took from Frederick Ashton's work, funnily enough - I love pieces like Two Pigeons because of its wonderful characters. There's only one Ashton piece that I curiously never felt for - his version of Cinderella - because I never believed in the characters. People may say "but they just dance, it's just lovely dance from beginning to end" and I just think "yes, but for heavens sake stop it! Don't just dance, show me you're a person too!"'
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