The success of one of his first ballets is a double-edged sword to Birmingham Royal Ballet’s artistic director David Bintley.

He is pleased that Still Life at the Penguin Cafe is even more popular today than when he created it 25 years ago.

But he is very aware that its environmental message is more relevant than ever.

“It’s great that it’s still going, but it’s sad that things are worse than they were 25 years ago,” says Bintley.

“The piece has been hailed as prophetic, although I wasn’t thinking about that at the time.”

Still Life at the Penguin Cafe is part of a triple bill performed by the BRB next month at its home at the Birmingham Hippodrome, to showcase some of Bintley’s
best-loved work.

Still Life is joined by the melancholic Tombeaux, Bintley’s lament on the death of his mentor Frederick Ashton, and E=mc², exploring Einstein’s theory of relativity with breathtaking energy and speed.

Still Life features a colourful host of animals seeking shelter from a storm at the Penguin Cafe. Audiences are introduced to endangered creatures including a morris-dancing flea, a ballroom-dancing Longhorn ram, a woolly monkey, a Southern Cape zebra and a Texan kangaroo rat.

Bintley explains how he came up with the idea for Still Life in 1988, as his first production with the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

“It all began when I picked up a record by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra – it was vinyl, which shows how long ago it was,” he remembers.

“What attracted me was the cover art, showing penguins and half people, half penguins in an idyllic rural setting.

“To be honest, I played the music and didn’t get it at all, I thought it was ludicrous.

David Bintley
David Bintley
 

“I left it alone, then some time later I tried it again. The last piece put me in mind of an Australian film called The Last Wave by Peter Weir, about an Aboriginal myth of a flood.

“I had this image of Noah’s Ark, full of these half animals, half people. Then I found a book called the Doomsday Book of Animals, about extinct species, and the first thing I saw was the creature originally called a penguin, although it turned out to be a great auk, which is now extinct.

“My Noah’s Ark became a metaphor for the salvation of animals, and humans too.

“The worrying thing is that the world is becoming a much less interesting place, because with globalisation we’re losing cultural identities, as everything is becoming McDonald’s. Even the rainforest people wear Coke T-shirts.

“I used creatures on the endangered species list that represented a particular dance style we are in danger of losing.

“In 1988, I was very interested in the work of Greenpeace but the idea of saving the planet seemed in its infancy.

“I wanted to make an interesting piece that would highlight these issues, but not in a preachy way. I wanted to make something entertaining. It’s funny and enjoyable, but it’s not just on for 40 minutes and then disappears. The ideas stay with you.”

Creating the ballet offered several challenges, starting with the music from the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

“Most of it is played by a small ensemble of 10 people playing guitars and weird things like rubber bands,” says Bintley, who is currently working on a major new ballet for spring 2016, based on a Shakespeare play to mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.

“Also, most of the dancers wear masks. When you put one on it covers your expressions, so you have to make that come through your body, even it’s just with a tilt of the head.”

* Still Life at the Penguin Cafe is performed by the BRB at Birmingham Hippodrome from October 3-5. For tickets, ring 0844 338 5000 or go to www.birminghamhippodrome.com