Breaking Down the Hierarchy

Britain's Royal Ballet is emphasizing contemporary choreographers and seeking new audiences.

Last Wednesday, at the premiere of Itzik Galili's new program for the Israel Ballet, an old friend was a guest in the audience. It was Andrew Hurst, director of Britain's Royal Ballet.

Hurst and Galili got to know each other in 1995. Hurst was a dancer with the Ballet Basel, and Galili was there to choreograph "Earth Apples." Later, Hurst moved to the Ballet Gulbenkian in Lisbon, where he also worked with Ohad Naharin and Mats Ek.

In 1997, he was accepted by Nederlands Dans Theater 2 and appeared in works by Jiri Kylian. He later danced with the Rambert Dance Company, and in 2006 became a manager there. In 2008, he directed the Phoenix Dance Theatre in Leeds, and in April 2009 started at the Royal Ballet.

The first thing he did was take the company on its first tour of Cuba. "In Cuba there's passion for dance and a real dance tradition," he says. "And even though the country has no infrastructure and we had to travel with a lot of equipment, it was an amazing experience."

These days, the Royal Ballet is changing direction to incorporate more contemporary choreographers such as house choreographer Wayne McGregor. This could help it attract new audiences.

"Our core audience knows and likes the classical works, but while we want to preserve the tradition, we're also trying to build an audience for more contemporary works," Hurst says. "We have no trouble selling tickets and filling the house, but most of the Royal Ballet's loyal audience is older and more conservative, and we feel the need to generate other audiences. That's our challenge."

Meeting that challenge takes the company through the Royal Ballet's smaller spaces and studios to its 400-seat hall. Currently the company's smaller stage is showing an evening of three choreographers - McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett.

Contemporary choreographers such as McGregor and Galili are breaking down the hierarchy of ballet companies, "and this gives lower-level dancers an opportunity to do things they couldn't normally do," he says. "These choreographers also make it easier to appreciate what ballet dancers do with their bodies. It shows the audience their strength and adaptability."

Another challenge facing Hurst, like many dance company directors, is raising nongovernment support; government support accounts for about one-third of the company's budget.

"Compared to other British companies, we're managing one of the healthiest models out there," he says. "We have an amazing building, a strong brand and excellent PR. But today we have to raise more money from private individuals than large corporations."

In this context, Hurst - who is also trying to complete an MA in cultural management at City University - says one of the company's funding conditions is investing in educational projects outside Britain for communities enjoying their first encounter with ballet.

Does he intend to reach poorer nations as well?

"We're currently in talks with a global corporation about helping us get to countries that for economic reasons have a hard time inviting us," he says. "We're looking for partners."

And are joint ventures with the Israel Ballet in the pipeline?

"I came here out of curiosity about the company and because of my personal support for Galili," Hurst says. "I've always followed his work."

Johan Persson