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New Talent is Welcome Here : The Royal Ballet of Britain is getting a reputation for being dancer-friendly, for home-grown as well as international talent. As a result, expect a new look and lots of drama

May 01, 1994|CHRIS PASLES | Chris Pasles, a staff writer for The Times' Orange County edition, covers dance and music for Calendar.

Everyone agrees that the Royal Ballet of Britain was revitalized after danseur noble Anthony Dowell took over as artistic director in 1986. Even so, the laurels have come with brickbats:

* Dowell was importing too many foreign dancers.

* He was letting standards slip in the works of Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan.

* He was changing the look of the company by bringing in Russian teachers in the company school.

Amid the charges, however, few people realized that under his direction the Royal was also becoming a haven for dancers who were disaffected with other companies and a nurturing ground for younger home-grown talent.

Buoyed by the success of this new group, Dowell simply shrugs off the negatives.

"Some of the critics in England feel this, but they do sort of live in the past," Dowell said in a recent phone interview from Washington, where the Royal was dancing before its May 3-8 engagement at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

"But you can't keep an art form frozen. Even though Fred (Ashton) created on certain people, he had other casts, who brought other things. We still try to preserve the line and speed, the use of the upper body--all he wanted. If it isn't working, that's someone else's opinion."

As for bringing in too many outsiders, Dowell said: "That sounds like I had a whole herd in. In fact, I brought in Irek (Mukhamedov), Zoltan (Solymosi), Sylvie (Guillem) is still a guest artist--and that's it, really.

"But I grew up in a company (the Royal) that had guests in it. It seems terribly blinkered to me not to open the door to people who are very talented artists. It's good for dancers to see and learn from them, and it's interesting for the public as well."

All three--former Bolshoi Ballet star Mukhamedov, the Hungarian Solymosi and Guillem of the Paris Opera Ballet--will be dancing in Orange County. Mukhamedov and Guillem are familiar to Southland audiences from previous appearances. But Solymosi will be new.

The 26-year-old Budapest native actually had no intention of ever joining another company after some bad experiences during his three-year stint at the Dutch National Ballet.

"Basically, I had personal problems with the director," Solymosi said. "I decided to go free-lancing and did some open-end guesting in Munich and La Scala. I told myself I was never going to sign up with another company ever in my life. I did not want to sign with the Royal either. The first time I danced with them (in 1991) it was as a guest.

"Then I found some nice repertoire roles, like Rudolf in (MacMillan's) 'Mayerling' and Basil in Baryshnikov's 'Don Quixote.' I decided to sign a permanent contract. I haven't regretted it so far."

At least, not entirely. "They have a different style of dancing here," he said. "The English school is so different from my Russian (training). In Budapest, we have the Vaganova school, which is real, pure Russian style. What I really find difficult is to place myself (according to the English style) in ballets. They give me corrections. Of course, they want me to look good. But that is what they believe in. I have my own school. Diplomatically, it's difficult.

"But it's worth it, " he added. "I need the change. It's important for an artist to have a wide view. You have to see and think through a lot of things. But for that you need to travel, to see different things, to decide what is good and not good, to refine your taste."

Like other Royal dancers, Solymosi felt greatly influenced by working with choreographer Kenneth MacMillan before he died in 1992. "It was a great thing, a big part of my life to work with such an interesting choreographer," Solymosi said. "Yes, he's difficult to work with, but I didn't care. Basically, great people are difficult to work with. If I'm interested in a role, a character and the piece that I'm doing, I accept it."

MacMillan created his last ballet, "The Judas Tree," Solymosi said, on Mukhamedov "and me. It's one of my favorite roles."

Mukhamedov, however, will be the only one of the two dancing the work in Orange County. Even so, Solymosi does not feel in the shadow of the great Russian.

"I worry about my own dancing," he said. "That's how you can get forward. Otherwise, if you worry about other people, it takes away from your own time."

Leanne Benjamin, 29, who dances opposite Solymosi in "Mayerling," also came to the Royal after unhappy experiences at other companies.

"This is my fourth company," the native Australian said. "The first was Sadler's Wells (now the Birmingham Royal Ballet). That was actually where I gained the most opportunity. Being very young and quite talented from the school, I had a lot of opportunities there. But it just wasn't right." Her technique and standards were slipping, she said.

"Peter Schaufuss had been trying to get me to join the Festival Ballet (later the English National Ballet) for years. I rang him one day after he had stopped asking and said, 'I'm ready to come.' "

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