Ballet now has Becks appeal . .

WHEN Posh and Becks graced a box at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden for the Royal Ballet’s latest triple bill - Scenes de Ballet, Winter Dreams and Sinfonietta with music by Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Janacek - more than a few highbrow eyebrows were raised.

Then when they were followed the week after by Sven-Goran Eriksson and girlfriend Nancy Dell’Olio, it appeared as if a new trend had been born. Could ballet be the new football?

While the answer to that is a definite no - according to the dancers, anyway, as footballers just aren’t fit enough - something strange is definitely happening in British culture. For along with sportsmen attending classical dance events, the roughest bit of East End rough, Phil Mitchell has been seen having a quiet night in with his girlfriend listening to Madame Butterfly. It was no wonder the director chose this moment to cut to the familiar drums of the soap opera tune. Mitchell in cultured moment shocker? Cue credits.

And on top of all that Jurgen Vries featuring CMC - aka Charlotte Church - is at No3 in the pop charts with The Opera Song and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is playing to sell-out audiences in Pilton.

So just what is going on? Does the Beckhams’ trip to Covent Garden really highlight a shift in public attitude towards the arts? Does playing a piece of classical music on one of the UK’s favourite TV programmes prove that opera means more to the masses than just a TV soap four nights a week?

Certainly Deborah MacMillan, the widow of Sir Kenneth MacMillan, who was one of Britain’s greatest choreographers, seems to think so. Her reaction to the Beckhams’ posh night out was: "These are 21st-century people. Crossing cultural barriers is natural for them."

And as far as Phil Mitchell is concerned, the EastEnders press office says his listening to opera showed his "hidden depths".

But it does seem that "crossing cultural barriers" is an option that more and more people appear to be considering when planning their leisure time.

In Edinburgh, one venue that has seen a distinct change in its classical audience is the Playhouse. Once home to both Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet, the Playhouse now presents the touring company Ellen Kent Opera and Ballet International four times a year. Spokeswoman Sarah Heney believes that long before Posh and Becks ever ventured into an opera house, a trend was already developing. She says: "Scottish Opera and Ballet were always very popular here, however once we started bringing Ballet and Opera Inter-national to the Capital, we found the audience base became much wider."

The reason for this is three-fold she believes. Firstly, the companies program-ming centres on populist pieces such as Carmen and Swan Lake. Secondly, ticket prices are kept low with a top price of 32 as opposed to Scottish Opera’s at 52.50, and, finally, the venue itself.

She explains: "The Playhouse has a history of attracting new audiences because people don’t think of it as a highbrow theatre. Ours is not a hyper critical audience - they might have seen a rock concert here in the 70s and so are not intimidated by the thought of seeing something else here.

"I suppose the long-term hope is that having attracted them to an opera or ballet in surroundings they find comfortable, they will then want to expand their repertoire of shows."

If they do, that will probably mean a trip to the Festival Theatre, where chief executive John Stalker has also noticed an increase in the popularity of both ballet and opera.

He cites the experience of Glynde-bourne, one of the world’s best-known opera houses, as evidence of this.

"When Glyndebourne went to Stoke-on-Trent - taking opera there for the first time in years - it played to 75 per cent audiences, 70 per cent of whom had never before been to an opera. These were ordinary people who, when given the opportunity, were willing to hand over their hard-earned cash to see opera."

In that respect, he argues, these people had made a clear choice to spend their money on a night at the opera as opposed to going to the cinema, the theatre, or having an evening "down the pub".

Not everyone is so easily convinced, however, and he concedes: "For some people there will always be the conventional wisdom that says ‘men don’t got to ballet because it’s sissy,’ and women tend not to like the ‘heavier’ Wagnerian pieces." Award-winning choreographer Matthew Bourne is artistic director of New Adventures.

His groundbreaking 1995 production of Swan Lake - in which the swan of the title was portrayed by a male dancer in black leather trousers as opposed to a ballerina in a white tutu - was one of the first productions to make ballet accessible to a much wider audience. This is an exercise being repeated by his touring production of Nutcracker! which comes to The Festival Theatre in March.

He says: "The story I get quite a lot from men is that they were dragged along. They say: ‘I’ve never been to a ballet but my girlfriend brought me and I loved it’. They can’t believe that they understood it and didn’t miss the fact that there was no speaking.

"Having said that, it’s still possible for the vast majority of people to go along to a classical piece and not have a clue what is going on. Ballet in particular can be offputting because it’s obscure. People think they won’t understand it and are afraid to admit that in case they look stupid.

"But the real reason the average person is never going to understand classical ballet is because it’s full of archaic language and mime. That’s why they print the story in the programme. I want the curtain to go up and for the audience to get the story even though no words have been said."

To that end, Bourne reinvents old ballets, removing any elitist elements to give them a fresh look that will work for a modern audience. It’s an approach that gets the blessing of Stalker.

He says: "Popular titles do attract a large audience - if you can hum a tune from it you’re more likely to go than if it’s a lesser known piece - because our familiarity with these pieces corresponds with the cultural infrastructure within education in this country.

"If you go to mainland Europe you will find that the teaching of music in schools expands the pupils’ desire to try new things, pieces by what we might call difficult composers. In this country we are so far behind that people only tend to go for the popular classics that they hear on Classic FM." That’s one of the reasons Bourne believes we shouldn’t read too much into Posh and Becks trip to the ballet.

"The Royal Opera House has always been a sort of trophy place to be seen. You take your business associates there without actually caring what you are going to see.

"Interestingly, the Beckhams saw a triple bill and apparently liked the piece performed in the tutus best. That was the most traditional ballet of the three and I think they thought that was what ballet should look like."

Stalker adds: "Anything that attracts iconic figures like Posh and Becks benefits from their patronage, but I do think that the old-fashioned notion of elitism in both opera and ballet is already on the wane.

"Of course, there are still people who see such a night out as a special occasion and want to dress up for it, but it’s not formal anymore. In the foyer of the Festival Theatre for anything from Rigoletto to the Ring Cycle you will find the jeans and trainer brigade mingling quite happily with the well-dressed, and inside you’re just as likely to find yourself sitting beside Joe Bloggs, the plumber from Pilton, as you are a local barrister, as long as Joe Bloggs is given the opportunity to buy his ticket."

And that opportunity need no longer cost a fortune. Both Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet offer a total of 73 day tickets at just 6 each for every performance, on the proviso that they are only sold to people who call in person at the box office on the day of the performance.

It’s certainly one initiative that’s sure to introduce ever-growing numbers to the concept you don’t need to have a posh frock and bank balance to hear the fat lady sing.


Back to the top of the page