London — With today's glaring problems -- strikes and the starvation in Africa -- is dance a luxury? ``That is, does it deserve priority state funding?''
The questions came at me across a table from one of the most experienced figures in British ballet, ex-dancer and choreographer Norman Morrice, artistic director of the Royal Ballet Company for the last eight years.
Gentle and quiet in beige polo shirt and green safari jacket, Morrice proceeded to answer his own question, in a country where increases in government financing have fallen well behind the rate of inflation:
``A country's cultural heritage is amazingly important,'' he said. ``Its heritage is something that needs to be preserved, and thus funded.''
In a country such as the United States, ballet companies can raise money from private sources -- foundations and industry. But in Europe, governments provide the bulk of funds. The British government has been reducing the amounts by which its annual grants rise: Hence Morrice's preoccupation with justifying dance as a whole.
Asked about the artistic state of British ballet today, he replied, ``Artistically and creatively, it's in a very healthy state.
``There's an upwards surge, and much talent about. But in this period of economic recession, the economics of keeping a company going, and audiences coming, are not as rosy. . . .''
Seat prices in the white-pillared, chandeliered Royal Opera House rose 6 percent in February, six months earlier than planned, bringing the cost of a good seat for a ballet to 21 (about $25). In London, that's about twice as much as a good West End stage play, and it puts a night at the Royal Ballet beyond the average purse.
The opera house's annual report last November showed a drop in average attendance from 92 percent in 1979-80 to 85 percent in 1983-84 -- at the time of a veritable dance explosion in the Western world, with new companies springing up and markedly greater interest among the general public. There are fears here now that the higher prices since February will not only empty more seats but force a change in audience from committed balletgoers to business company guests.
Morrice himself, for all his quiet, bearded kindness, is a figure of some controversy here.
Shortly after our interview in his backstage office at the Opera House, well-known national ballet critic Edward Thorpe of the London Standard newspaper strongly criticized the Royal Ballet for ``declining standards.''
On the eve of the Royal Ballet's next tour, to Eastern Europe, Thorpe wrote that deterioration was most noticeable in the classic ballets and in revivals such as Balanchine's Ballet Imperial. Senior principals were ``past their best,'' male dancers lacked virtuosity, and Morrice himself had been forced to spend long periods away from the ballet to recover from a serious illness.
``Inevitably,'' Thorpe wrote, ``the responsibility for the Royal Ballet now looking like some provincial company must be laid at his door.''
There is some truth in the Thorpe analysis. I have noted some poor performances in recent months, including a new but disappointing ``Nutcracker'' at Christmas. Dancers can be good one night but not the next. The young male dancers do need to be more assertive and project their art more. Too much rests on the shoulders of a few, such as the dependable Wayne Eagling and the elegant Anthony Dowell.
Thorpe did praise the way the company dances works by Sir Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan, who are available to supervise rehearsals themselves.
Morrice told me he felt Britain had probably produced more lasting choreography than other countries in recent years. ``We have a line of living choreographers -- Ashton, MacMillan, [David] Bintley. Our repertory was exceedingly ambitious last season, with 41 productions [six full-length].
``We won't allow the company to become a dry museum. . . . We encourage the individual to choreograph, since the creativity of a company revolves around the choreographer. . . .
``Sometimes it's difficult to strike a balance between the old and the new. Innovation will not always attract audiences, but without innovation, the company is dead. . . .''
But why present ballets about concentration camps (``Valley of Shadows,'' by MacMillan) and about incest (``My Brother, My Sisters,'' also by MacMillan) when they attract thinner audiences and depress rather than uplift?
``Degradation in choreography is a reflection of the times that we live in,'' Morrice replied, ``and it will come out in new works. . . . Ballet is an extremely expressive art form. . . .''
Morrice was full of praise for ballet in the United States.
``There's no ballet school comparable to the Royal Ballet School [at White Lodge in Richmond Park] but dance has been adopted by the American education world, and there's hardly a campus without a dance department. . . .
``There's so much zip, so much energy and attack in their dance. . . . It's a huge continent with so many ethnic backgrounds to draw from. . . .
``Balanchine brought American `class' to classical ballet, and his style swept the country. . . . Dance has found tremendous freedom in modern dance, in its musicals and new styles, and has reached many people through films. . . .
``Classical ballet in the US also had a rough ride for a while, but it survived and is doing very well. . . .''