IT WAS an offer that could not be refused. ''Birmingham made us a wonderful offer to expand, with wonderful facilities and a GBP4 million [HK$47 million] studio,'' said Peter Wright, artistic director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Previously known as the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet, a sister company of The Royal Ballet, and based in London, the troupe was renowned for its superb repertoire and high standards. Birmingham made the offer 21/2 years ago. Since the move, the company has raised the city's status to that of a major centre for classical ballet in Britain. Only 11/2 hours from London, Wright said ballet regulars in the capital often travelled to see new productions. ''It is near enough to London that people will come up to see us. We get a lot of the ballet audience.'' What about their old hometown? ''We still do performances there, but we can't do the bigger ones there.'' The move also allowed the troupe to expand from 54 members to 60, enablin g it to tackle a whole new repertoire. One of the first things Wright did in Birmingham was to approach Keith MacMillan about performing his Romeo & Juliet. Performed first in 1965, the ballet became an instant classic, and Wright had coveted it for years for the Sadler's Wells troupe. ''We'd always wanted to do it,'' said Wright, ''but it can only be performed in big theatres and big spaces with a big cast. You need lots of extras.'' And lots of money. But ''we were able to get it because it is a very attractive proposition for a company like ours to take the ballet all over the world and get a lot of exposure out of it'', he said. Although Wright was successful in obtaining sponsorship for Romeo & Juliet, his company has felt the bite of the recession. The company, which has a reputation for doing new works, has had to ''put the brakes on''. ''At the moment, we are not able to do as many new productions as we would like . . . but we haven't let it affect the standard of our presentation or the size of the company, or the quality,'' said Wright. Critics and audiences alike have been raving about Romeo & Juliet. Completely redesigned by Paul Andrews, an-up-and-coming artist handpicked by MacMillan, the look of the production is spectacular. ''Our production looks totally different. Kenneth chose a new and young designer and it has proved to be hugely successful,'' said Wright. Although he said the production was not avant garde, he claimed it took ballet design ''one step further''. Planning on the design began two years ago. The set has two levels, with a staircase leading to the second tier. A semi-circle of colonnades overlooks the stage. ''The way it changes from scene to scene is remarkable. It is brilliant how the designer does it with drapes and arranging the staircases cleverly,'' explained Wright. The ending, in particular, was visually exciting, he said. When Juliet is laid out among the tombs, a procession of monks in mourning light the way with candles. The set has been designed to accommodate various sized stages during touring. Because it takes six weeks to ship the set here, and another six back to the UK, the next performance of the ballet will be in Covent Garden in July. Sadly, MacMillan, who personally conducted rehearsals and lent his hand in the production, will not see it. He died of a heart attack soon after the Birmingham Royal Ballet premiered his work. ''The night he died, we were performing it in Birmingham, and the Royal Ballet was performing his work Mayerling .'' MacMillan was in the audience at the Royal Ballet performance when he collapsed. Wright said the company expected to keep the production in its repertoire for at least 10 years. ''We hope to perform it on and off over the next 10 or 20 years,'' he said. The Birmingham Royal Ballet performs Romeo & Juliet in the Grand Theatre of the Cultural Centre from April 28-30 and on May 1 at 7.30 pm. Matinee at 2.30 pm on May 1. Tickets, priced $420, $320, $220 and $120, are available from URBTIX outlets.