David Bintley CBE was born in Huddersfield. From an early age he wanted to dance and he wanted to choreograph. He always had clear and ambitious ideas of what he intended to do, but even he could hardly have imagined that before he reached 40 he would be director of one of the two Royal Ballet Companies and be recognised as one of Britain’s finest choreographers, with an international reputation and his ballets performed by companies all round the world.

He trained at the Royal Ballet School towards the end of what we look back on as an outstanding period in the Covent Garden company’s history. He saw the dancing of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell. Even more importantly, he saw Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan making some of their masterworks for a superb company, fine-tuned to perform their creations.

In 1976 he joined Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (now Birmingham Royal Ballet) and quickly proved an outstanding character dancer. Those who were lucky enough to see him dance the leading role in Fokine’s Petrushka still regard it as this generation’s definitive performance. We shall never know if Vaslav Nijinsky was better, but we do know that Bintley was unforgettable – mesmerising and brilliant. His Alain and then Widow Simone in Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée, his Bottom in The Dream, the Ashton ‘Ugly Sister’ in Cinderella, the Red King in de Valois’ Checkmate and the Rake in her Rake’s Progress, were just as effectively conceived and exhilaratingly musical too.

He was fortunate to have as his artistic director the wise and far-seeing Peter Wright, who from the first encouraged the young Bintley in his wish to choreograph. Bintley made his first ballet, to Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale, before he was 16. His first professional work, for his Sadler’s Wells company, came less than two years later: The Outsider, already dramatic, already showing insight into character and already displaying a stimulating and knowledgeable choice of music in its score by Boháč.

There is a considerable divide in ballet between what can be seen as the American influence, dominated by George Balanchine, and the more British tradition of Ashton, Tudor and MacMillan. Balanchine distrusted narrative, the telling of a story in movement, and tended to distrust decor as well. The British tradition, embedded in a rich theatrical heritage, tends to use ballet as part of narrative, either creating a mood, or showing insight into character and situation and creating innovative dance that illumines both.

Most choreographers fall into one or other of these camps and there can be little doubt that Bintley’s allegiance lies firmly on this side of the Atlantic. What made British dance special was that Ashton and then MacMillan found a language that conveyed emotion, was expressive, and told the story in dance terms. This is Bintley’s territory too.

In 1982 Bintley took a three-month sabbatical, looking at American and German dance. This undoubtedly extended his imaginative range, but effectively only confirmed his essentially British approach to dance. From 1986 to 1993 he moved from being resident choreographer for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet to being resident choreographer at Covent Garden. When, in 1993, he left to work freelance, seven different companies round the world immediately commissioned new work from him. In 1995 Bintley was appointed Artistic Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet.

It is Bintley’s impressive range as a choreographer that makes him a worthy successor to Ashton and MacMillan. One of his major successes was the full-length Hobson’s Choice (1989), a broad comedy, which yet tugs at the heartstrings as Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée manages to do. He can edge into pure dance territory, though his dancers always relate to a theme or a mood, as in Consort Lessons (1983), Galanteries (1986), Allegri diversi (1987) or Tombeaux (1993). He has an uncanny ability to imply rather than to state, so that in Flowers of the Forest (1985) he seems to be saying a great deal about war, about patriotism, even about the fall of Empire, without ever making anything explicit or spelling anything out in a laborious or obvious way. He manages this perfectly in the ever-popular ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café; (1988). He can tell a dramatic story with a sure sense of what works in the theatre, as in his full-length works Swan of Tuonela (1982), The Snow Queen (1986), Cyrano (1991), Far from the Madding Crowd (1996) and his superbly successful full-length ballet Edward II (Stuttgart Ballet, 1995), based on Marlowe’s play, which has proved even more successful with English audiences that German. His full-length work, Arthur, developed even further his uncanny ability to transform mythology into dance and Cyrano (2007) breathed new life into Rostand’s play. He can be serious and spiritual, as in his deelpy felt The Protecting Veil (1998). He is wonderfully, gloriously musical, perhaps the quality he most shares with Ashton, and he can dazzle with the inventiveness of his approach as in his gorgeously pop version of Carmina burana, in which no-one can possibly guess what is coming next and each fresh twist is a new delight. This delight is vividly dramatic, is about believable people in a real world, and yet breathtakingly caught and held in fascinating dance. In the same vein he surpassed himself with his popular hit, The Nutcracker Sweeties, revolutionising the very traditional Nutcracker, using Duke Ellington’s jazz version of the score and finding fresh imagery, mingling jazz dance, classical ballet and all the exhibitionism of an American musical. More recently he has enchanted us afresh with The Shakespeare Suite, his witty exploration of love’s many guises, with the lyricism and classical perfection of his Les Saisons for The Royal Ballet, his imaginative new interpretation of Beauty and the Beast and his jazz-inspired reinterpretation of the Orpheus legend in The Orpheus Suite.

Bintley is now displaying a set of other qualities. He is proving a fine artistic director. He has assembled an excellent company of dancers, and has an eye for the right dancer in the right role. He has a gift for putting well-balanced programmes together, and his own choreography does not hog the repertory. Watching the Company on stage, audiences know that here is a company confident in themselves and in what they do. And Bintley has received much deserved public recognition for this, most recently in the 2001 Birthday Honours list, in which he was made a CBE. Ballet will survive as an art form just as long as creators of Bintley’s calibre want to express their personal vision in terms of dance.

Nicholas Dromgoole