A personal view on what makes a ‘classic’ ballet
Rob (or @robintheoffice if you’ve arrived here via Twitter), Birmingham Royal Ballet’s digital guru and I were chatting the other day. General conversation between the two of us rarely gets more sophisticated than discussing who’s wearing the nicer checked shirt, (in case you’re wondering why, all men who work in the arts wear checked shirts – it the rules), when conversation strayed into the dangerously serious territory of what constitutes a ‘classic’ ballet? Is there such thing? If there is, can a ‘new’ ballet join the canon? With performances of Hobson’s Choice fast approaching we wondered whether it could it be a ‘classic’ ballet?

Hobson’s Choice, for those of you who’ve not seen it, is a witty, romantic ballet that is a world away from the fantasy worlds of other Bintley works such as Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella. What makes it such a triumph is the seemingly ordinariness of the setting, and its self-contained tale of relationships that anybody can relate to. Its wonderful choreography is complimented by Paul Reade’s remarkable score, which manages to reflect the era without descending into pastiche, is full of wonderful melodies and is brilliantly orchestrated. It has become a real favourite with Birmingham Royal Ballet’s audience.

At its premiere Hobson’s Choice received a standing ovation and has been spoken about in glowing terms ever since. But does it stand alongside the classics; the core repertoire of Birmingham Royal Ballet; The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet etc? There are of course some key differences. Say ‘Swan Lake’ and most people will think ‘ballet’. So firmly established in the repertoire, it has grown beyond the ballet world, it has in fact become synonymous with ballet. How does Hobson’s Choice compare?

Paul Reade sadly died in 1997 at the age of just 54, so his music is complete in the sense that the score is unlikely to be tinkered with, whereas David Bintley is very much free to change his choreography as he sees fit. So we haven’t for certain seen the final version of Hobson’s Choice. The future of any artwork is uncertain. For example, the music of Mahler, now a staple of any professional orchestra, was largely neglected until the likes of Leonard Bernstein championed him in the 1960s. It is of course possible that a ‘new’ ballet could fall out of the repertoire, only to be revived decades from now and be hailed as a ‘classic’.

It is always tempting to rate and rank pretty much anything and everything. A top 10 of this or 5 favourite of the other. But in art, in its broadest sense, I don’t think we really achieve anything by doing so. A person’s appreciation of dance, music or indeed any work of art is for all intents and purposes entirely arbitrary. What moves one person to tears may be entirely baffling to another. So I would suggest that our use of the term ‘classic’ is in fact not a statement of quality at all, but is more accurately an identification of where a work sits historically.

With that in mind, it is safe to say that Hobson’s Choice isn’t a classic in the way that The Nutcracker is. The work may be 20-odd years old, but it is difficult, even at this distance, to judge the status of a ballet in terms of ‘greatness’ or its credentials as a ‘classic’, simply because we can’t yet identify its importance or its influence. Ballet is not a relic or museum piece, it is a living, breathing art-form that is constantly evolving but it is of course helpful to note important works that have subsequently defined what ballet is. Is Hobson’s Choice a ‘classic’? It really doesn’t matter. It’s a wonderful piece of theatre brought to life by hugely talented creative team and people love it for what it is, not how it compares to Sleeping Beauty.