Is the Royal Ballet failing young British talent? Over the weekend, former ballerina Bryony Brind expressed her shock that the company now has just one British woman and two British men among its 21 principals.
With the company dominated by foreign talent, Brind believes that a whole generation of young British dancers are lacking the inspiration of a homegrown star such as Darcey Bussell.
The issue of Britishness is one Luke Jennings raised last year when he explored the training culture at the Royal Ballet School. After extensive interviews with dancers, he concluded that while the UK isn't short of talent, the Royal Ballet and its school are not being clever enough at nurturing it. British dancers typically mature more slowly than many trained elsewhere – they take longer to find their confidence and edge. And while there are some lovely dancers in the Royal's lower ranks, such as Claire Calvert and Emma Maguire, these women either seem to take longer to push their way to the centre of the stage or are not given sufficient encouragement. (Tamara Rojo as new director of English National Ballet may be making a deliberate point by giving corps de ballet dancer Lauretta Summerscales the chance to perform Odette-Odile in this summer's Swan Lake production at the Albert Hall.)
But accepting that there are failures and blindspots to address, it's also important to question how British we really want the Royal or other dance companies to be. Brind herself was performing during the 80s, at a time when foreign artists were in a minority in the Royal: yet while she and her fellow principal Fiona Chadwick were rightly hailed as examples of new British talent, I remember the overall standard of dancing as relatively lacklustre. Certainly, there has been a very different excitement attached to the Royal in the following decades, with the importation of world-class talents such as Sylvie Guillem, Tamara Rojo, Alina Cojocaru and Marianela Nuñez alongside British ballerinas such as Bussell and Sarah Wildor.
Critics argue that the cosmopolitan make-up of the company threatens a dilution of the British "style". But even that issue is moot. Dance in this country has always been a mongrel product: Ballet Rambert – now Rambert Dance company – was founded by the Polish-born Marie Rambert; while past luminaries of the Royal Ballet include the South African dancer and director Monica Mason, Canadian dancer Lyn Seymour, Ecuador-born choreographer Frederick Ashton, and of course its Irish-born founder Ninette de Valois.
In 21st-century, multicultural Britain, surely it's less important for talent and inspiration to be seen as "purely British" (whatever that means). Olympian hero Mo Farah isn't any less British because he was born in Somalia and lived there until he was eight. And if we want to fly the flag, shouldn't we value the fact that so many foreign dancers actually want to perform here? Even in a crowded marketplace, the Royal Ballet manages to boast a seductively eclectic repertory, ranging from abstract to narrative works, from 19th-century classics to contemporary ballets (a significant number choreographed in-house). When we judge the health of a company like the Royal, the nationality of its dancers and the integrity of its style are important. But even more significant is the level of its creative buzz.
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