The Royal Rules

June 21, 2007

Human institutions, from nations to businesses, never remain the same. Seen from the perspective of history, they are either on the way up or on the way down. Britain’s 75-year-old Royal Ballet is no exception. From its founding in 1931 by Ninette de Valois, it was moving up and up, despite a few doubts during World War II, right through its move into The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1946, and then on to its triumphant United States debut in 1949—both with its seminal production of the 1895 Russian classic, the Petipa-Tchaikovsky Sleeping Beauty. Still, despite a blip around the early 1950s, its ascent seemed majestic, even unstoppable.

In 1962, de Valois invited the Soviet defector Rudolf Nureyev to join the troupe (nominally as a guest artist), and he formed a historic partnership with the company’s prima ballerina, Margot Fonteyn. The following year de Valois retired, and the directorship was passed to the company’s principal choreographer, Frederick Ashton, who remained until 1970 when Kenneth MacMillan unexpectedly replaced him. The Ashton years were, in retrospect, The Royal Ballet’s golden age. Even as late as 1977, the respected German critic Horst Koegler, in his invaluable reference book The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet, could write, “The Royal Ballet is now considered among the foremost ballet companies of the world, and because of its large and supremely balanced repertory and its wealth of highly individual first-class dancers, many people consider it as the leading company in international terms.”

But, as a certain U.S. Defense Secretary once said, “Stuff happens.” In the same year as Koegler’s encomium, MacMillan resigned the directorship, remaining as principal choreographer, while Norman Morrice, from the Ballet Rambert, took over as director. By now many of the dancers who had established The Royal Ballet’s international standing had either left or retired, and The Royal Ballet School was not producing the quality of dancer to feed the company’s lower ranks, resulting in a gradual decline in performance quality. It also seemed that MacMillan’s full-evening works, together with the standard Russian classics, took up a disproportionate place in the repertoire. Morrice, who had earlier presided over Ballet Rambert’s switch from classic ballet to modern dance, was not an altogether happy fit for The Royal Ballet. After nine years, Anthony Dowell, the finest male classicist British ballet had ever produced, was the popular choice to take over the company. Yet his directorship, running from 1986 to 2001, did little to stop the company’s decline in international repute, although he showed flair and often considerable ingenuity.

After a lengthy search The Royal Ballet appointed Ross Stretton, then helming the Australian Ballet, as its new director, an appointment that did not, for a number of reasons, work out. A year later Monica Mason was made acting director, and in 2002 she was confirmed as The Royal Ballet’s seventh director. South African-born Mason, 64, was trained at The Royal Ballet School and joined the company in 1958, when she was only 16. She became a principal 10 years later, and was assistant director from 1991 onward.  Her first act as director was to cancel a proposed production of Angelin Preljocaj’s Le Parc, and she then to produced the highly successful Ashton centennial, which was perhaps a turning point in the company’s fortunes.


The Royal Ballet that Mason inherited in 2002 was very different from the one she had joined 44 years earlier. Then it was virtually made up of dancers from Britain and the British Commonwealth. The company had switched over to a new internationalism—in the first place through a dearth of top-rank classical dancers emerging from Britain’s schools, owing perhaps to the enormous expansion of modern dance; in the second place because the provisions of the European Union opened the company up to a wide range of European nationals previously requiring labor permits.  


I have been watching The Royal Ballet intensively, you might say devotedly, for 64 years. My first 15 years of critical writing were based in London, and since then I have returned to London at least once a year. When I saw the company in Ashton’s Sylvia last December, I was struck by how much it had improved since Mason assumed control. Forty years ago, with the exception of the wildcat Nureyev, the company consisted exclusively of so-called British dancers. Today, out of 15 principals—not counting the foreign guest artists—only two are British and two Commonwealth. The proportions are rather different in the lower ranks but still the non-British element is strong, including non-Europeans with work permits. There are even two Americans—Sarah Lamb and Alexandra Ansanelli—among the first soloists.

By a process of selection and coaching, the foreign dancers have been assimilated into the company style. The general level of technique is stronger, helped by such regular guest artists as Carlos Acosta. More interestingly, the newcomers have slowly absorbed the Royal Ballet style—the mix of Russian lyricism, Italian brilliance, and English reserve that Ashton and Fonteyn refined. As a result, Alina Cojocaru (from Romania), Johan Kobborg (from Denmark), and Marianela Nuñez (from Argentina) are, for example, perfect exponents of the Ashton style, while dancers such as Spain’s Tamara Rojo and Brazil’s Thiago Soares, although classicists, continue the company’s traditions of dance drama, once exemplified by David Wall and Mason herself.

Although the company played New York in 2004, it will, I think, be seen in slightly stronger shape when it appears in the United States this summer. The program in Boston is MacMillan’s Manon (June 15–17) and in Washington, D.C., it consists of a mixed bill, largely Ashton, and The Sleeping Beauty (June 20–25). Actually, it is upon that new-old Sleeping Beauty that the major interest will rest. Premiered in May of this year, it is in large part intended as a reconstruction of the now iconic 1946 Covent Garden version. Christopher Newton and Mason herself are staging it, based on Nicholas Sergeyev’s Stepanov-notated staging of the original 1895 Petipa production for St. Petersburg’s Maryinsky Theater, and the designer Peter Farmer is reimagining Oliver Messel’s sumptuous 1946 designs. This production could be the surest sign of all that the old Royal Ballet, as the world loved it, is back in business, and—in that manner of back to the future—definitely moving up.

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for The New York Post.