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Ross Stretton's
first season at the Royal Ballet

After one year in post Lynette Halewood runs the tape measure over the new Royal Ballet Artistic Director, the job and the Royal Opera House...



© Bill Cooper, courtesy of the ROH

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The job......

If you want to be artistic director of a ballet or theatre company in the UK, you better have the hide of a rhino. Pressures come from all sides: from the board wanting bums on seats, ticket sales and artistic kudos all at once, and from the public who are only too ready to complain about the spending of public money, and who (just as in football) are only too ready to tell you how they could do your job better. Just to illustrate the perils of the job, Northern Ballet Theatreís Stefano Giannetti lasted less than a year as AD before abruptly resigning and forcing the search for yet another: the fallings out over the directorship (and direction) of Scottish Ballet have been long and bitter. Derek Deaneís departure from ENB was sudden and, it seems, not on good terms. Looking further around the arts world, there has been a long interregnum at the South Bank Centre. And most famously, the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company finally resigned a couple of months ago after long, sustained and bitter tirades in the UK press about the direction he wanted to take the company in terms of location and contracting of staff (culminating in Dame Judi Dench, no less, writing to the Times to denounce his ideas).

So why is arts management in he UK so difficult ? One common theme seems to be the difficulty of balancing competing interests against one another - financial constraints, the commitment to



It is the Artistic Director who is the public face of the company, but ultimately it is the more shadowy figures on the board who sets the constraints within which he or she can operate

 
access and education that comes with public funding, the scrutiny that goes with being the recipient of a large chunk of public money - £9M a year in the Royal Balletís case. It is the Artistic Director who is the public face of the company, but ultimately it is the more shadowy figures on the board who sets the constraints within which he or she can operate. But these figures tend to be much less well known by the average dance watcher, and itís seldom that they bear the brunt of any criticism.

Why for that matter does it really matter who is artistic head of a ballet company anyway ? To the average person in the street who doesnít have a burning interest in the ballet and might just occasionally take the kids to the Nutcracker, it probably doesnít appear to matter that much who is ultimately in charge. Is it just the case of these artistic types always having spats and falling out ? And after all, whoever is in charge at the National Gallery, the paintings are still there on the walls. Surely Swan Lake will always exist somewhere, if our hypothetical person in he street decides to take the kids to something different this year.

Well, in response to that, yes it does matter. After all, doesnít it matter who manages a football team ? Dance isnít an inanimate object like the paintings in the gallery: itís an ephemeral art form that depends very much on live performance (videos seldom do justice to the grand scale, reducing dancers to so many tiny dots). The job of an AD covers a wide spectrum: choosing the repertoire, coaching, bringing on new talent, seeking to increase the audience, casting. If anything goes wrong itís his fault.

One interesting analogy for the role of the AD is that of the head gardener for a large and prestigious garden.



One interesting analogy for the role of the AD is that of the head gardener for a large and prestigious garden

 
You come into the job, and the garden is already laid out and established: the terrain has its own particular quirks, difficult areas and shady patches. There are some large and well established plants. As a gardener, you canít just plant whatever you fancy anywhere: a plant that needs full sun will dwindle and die in the wrong, dark, spot, and the native terrain - sand, clay, chalk - will dictate what will thrive. You need a range of different plants for colour and interest throughout the season, tall ones, short ones. Some plants need lots of love and cosseting, others spread indiscriminately and need pruning back or tying in. You need to keep bringing on new cuttings, to replace older plants. And within all this, you still need to maintain the harmony of the overall design, mixing together different colours and shapes for best effect. Itís a never ending task and one you could always do better. Gardens never stay the same: they constantly develop, they can never be the same from year to year. Some things grow at the expense of others. Being AD of the Royal is looking after a garden where the visitors come by regularly to inspect your efforts with the all the rigour and stringency of Chelsea Flower Show judges.

The AD of the Royal Shakespeare Company pretty much has his repertory already predicated for him. But the AD of a ballet company can pick and choose what production he wants to stage and who to cast in them. It gives him remarkable power over a dancer's career. More importantly it can let him shape the entire style and image of a company. So there could be no Swan Lake if the AD doesnít want to stage it - fine you, say, but then its bound to be staged by another company elsewhere. Loads of companies stage the big classics so whatís one more production more or less.

Well, it does matter - itís a point that the keen dance lover will pick up on, but isnít so widely appreciated outside the dance world, and itís a point which often isnít put across clearly enough to the general public. A company like the Royal isnít just a random collection of dancers, but has a history, a repertoire, a school and a distinct style - difficult to build up, but surprisingly easy to damage. The garden, if you like, has a number of distinctive flowers not found everywhere and a particular style and atmosphere. Ballet is a fragile art form: although it can be notated, it is essentially kept alive by being passed from one generation of dancers to another, by teaching and coaching - take something out of the rep for long enough, disperse the inherited expertise and itís difficult to bring it convincingly back to life again.

Not everyone was happy with the performance of Sir Anthony Dowell, the Artistic Director from



Not everyone was happy with the performance of Sir Anthony Dowell, the Artistic Director from whom Ross Stretton took over

 
whom Ross Stretton took over. In fact, looking back, some of the press was vitriolic at the time, particularly the Telegraph. Targets were the dull, safe, predicable choices of repertoire while the ROH was rebuilt: the lack of quality in house choreographers: a lack of visibility through the extraordinarily difficult period of near bankruptcy. Compared with this, the press has treated Stretton quite kindly so far. Curiously, in Dowellís last year as AD, once he knew he was retiring he stopped being cautious and programmed a much richer and more varied strand of works.


The company at Strettonís arrival

Stretton took over a company which had the sense of being on an upturn. They were safely established in the new rebuilt Royal Opera House, there was a substantial increase in the annual grant, and seemingly a commitment on the part of the ROH establishment to increase the number of performances a year to nearer parity with the opera. Dowell had found within the company new



Unless the house runs at a very high occupancy rate then the financial problems can rapidly mount, as the past has shown

 
talent such as Alina Cojocaru and Marienella Nunez who were rapidly promoted through the ranks. Guillem, a recognised international star, and a guarantee of good box office receipts, was happy to continue her special guest arrangement which saw her appearing up to 20 or 25 times a year. There was however, still some thinness in the male ranks after the mass defection earlier in his leadership. Audiences were surprisingly healthy even for triple bills. These are usually characterised as more difficult to sell, but some performances of the Ashton triple bill and the Diaghilev legacy sold out. Selling tickets matters, even with that £9m a year grant. Unless the house runs at a very high occupancy rate then the financial problems can rapidly mount, as the past has shown.


Strettonís aims

Stretton has dedicated his initial season to the memory of Dame Ninette de Valois, the Royal Balletís formidable founder, and he chooses to emphasize her radical qualities in his published objectives: "Dame Ninette de Valois founded the company with a thoroughly contemporary vision, creating radical new ballets herself and engaging the most adventurous Choreographers of the day. It is clear from the repertory of those early years that Dame Ninette saw ballet as a continuum, with its heritage forming a springboard for the present and future." Although he mentions the Royalís Ďexceptional heritageí his warmth of feeling towards new work is plain. But we need to look at actions as well as words.


For - the plus points

As regards repertory: Onegin. Great choice. Crankoís three act drama sits well on the company and their traditional of naturalistic portrayal of emotion. Itís great to have a major new



Onegin. Great choice. Crankoís three act drama sits well on the company

 
narrative work which gives considerable scope for interpretation and memorable performances. A shame that the casting was a little oddball (no Guillem - but for that the finger is pointed at the guardians of the Cranko estate at Stuttgart rather than at Stretton).

Commissioning Christopher Wheeldon, a former member of the company who is now works mainly in the US, and who has produced some well received works on a small scale for the Royal, to do a work for the main stage was a good move. Feelings on the work (Tryst) may be a little mixed, but it may settle more happily into the rep next season.

Hiring Robert Tewsley is a plus point. RBS-trained, he has been with Stuttgart for many years, and made a very positive impression guesting as a dark and moody Onegin. You can see him fitting into the MacMillan repertoire very well. It was also cheering to see a large intake from the Royal Ballet School - many of the talented RBS graduates had been heading for other companies in the last few years.

Other new works featured this season donít feature so strongly in the plus column in my book. Works genuinely new to the Royal included Stephen Baynes Beyond Bach, which had been well received for Stretton in his time in Australia, Mats Ekís Carmen, Tudorís Leaves are Fading, and Nacho Duatoís Por Vos Muero. Carmen was probably the most popular of these with the audience, but this was illuminated by Guillemís star power. It was ambitious to try to include so many works new to the Royal in his first season: he certainly hasnít been timid. But weíll return to repertory later.

There is a fresh approach in how the programmes are presented,. It was pleasant to see newspaper advertisements which features portraits of all the choreographers featured in the season with a confident statement about great choreography. Itís not often presented so boldly, taking the premise that the choreographer rather than the spectacle is important.


Against - things that havenít gone so well

There have been some unfortunate choices in programming, with the triple bills in particular being poorly balanced.



There have been some unfortunate choices in programming, with the triple bills in particular being poorly balanced...

 
One triple bill (Bach, Leaves, and Marguerite and Armand) was all white fluffy meringue ; another, In the Middle, Por Vos Muero, Carmen, was all dark expresso. There was no mix of light and shade or proper contrasts.

Whatís interesting is Strettonís choice to import a major slab of the repertoire which worked for him in Australia (Don Q, Leaves are Fading, Beyond Bach, Forsytheís In the Middle) without thinking though how this would sit on a different company, or how this would appeal to a British audience. You canít just put a plant, however healthy in itself, into soil it isnít suitable for, or it wonít bloom as well as it might. Stretton seems to have planned his season almost in isolation from what the rest of the dance world in the UK was doing. Some of the works trumpeted as Ďnewí were nothing of the sort - they had been seen before. Moreover, works by Ek and Duato are in the repertoire of other British companies whose ticket prices are half those of the Royalís. The triple bills this season sold very poorly, and it is not reassuring to see



The scary heights to which seat prices have now risen cut straight across his aim to develop a new audience

 
that instead of coming up with more thoughtful programming next season, the response has been to reduce the number of triple bills still further.

This isnít Strettonís fault of course - he doesnít set the seat prices. But he does have to work within the constraints they impose. The scary heights to which seat prices have now risen cut straight across his aim to develop a new audience. However, in rushing to look for a new audience you have to make sure you donít leave you old audience behind. That is where the Royal are teetering now: the shift in repertory has been decisively away from the Ashton and MacMillan repertory (ironic when Ashtonís Fille is being taken up with enthusiasm and to audience acclaim by the Bolshoi and ABT) and despite lip service to the Ďheritageí they represent it looks as if we may not see so much of them in future. Strettonís public statement that some of MacMillanís work is Ďmore suitable for educational work and peripheral theatrical presentationí is really quite stunning. (Gloria ? Song of the Earth ? Rite of Spring ? The Judas Tree ? For educational work ?) I wonder if he said that at the job interview - and if that represents the view of the ballet board. How depressing if that is the case. But the Ďnew, modern, excitingí work (which often wasnít) that Stretton has pushed hasnít sold well to a new audience and seems not to appeal much (at those prices) to the existing one.

Iíd like to make it clear that I write this as a member of the audience, not part of the critical fraternity. I would really love to be buying more tickets to see the Royal, and to be tempted to come to more performances. But I find myself buying less and less tickets, partly because there is so much less on offer (a striking reduction of number of ballets in the repertory) and the ticket prices mean that comparing different casts is becoming a thing of the past. I would love to be seeing more of a company that I feel a deep (if often rather exasperated) fondness for. In judging Stretton, I can only go on whatís visible to those of us who buy the tickets - I canít comment on what he may be like in terms of coaching and the like: I can only go by the output on the stage.

Strettonís lack of experience in running something on this scale is visible. Very ambitious and keen to make his mark, the season began with a wholly new three act Don Q, which the company needed to learn from scratch. This was followed by (post Nutcracker) another wholly new three act ballet (Onegin). The company had also to learn three new works as part of the triple bills (Beyond Bach, Por Vos, and Leaves are Fading), and most of the company were also new to their roles in the frenzied Forsyth piece. The company has taken to some of these better than others, but has struggled to cope with this much change, and looked out of focus and unsure of its identity in some performances. It could be Any Company, Anywhere. Itís been a huge amount of work to put the company through and itís not surprising that there was a very considerable and unusual amount of injuries in its wake.

Well, you may say that itís good to be ambitious, and it is, but it doesnít ultimately justify risking dancers health and future employment though strain imposed by unrealistic scheduling. Stretton should not be proud of the fact that Cojocaru danced Giselle against her doctors advice. Some dancers have been out of action for the rest of the season, exposing the frailty on the depth of the male ranks. One of the reasons Beyond Bach may have been pulled from later triple bills may well have been the impossibility of assembling an adequately rehearsed cast for it, given the injury level.

The strain on the company has been compounded by poor management of schedule and casting choices. It is just not sensible to schedule, say, Bussell to dance Giselle the day after she dances the lead in In the Middle. Repetitive casting of the same few names on the female side (Cojocaru, Rojo) has compounded the issue. Itís always easy to complain about an ADís casting choices - everyone has their favourite dancers and itís just impossible to please everyone. Stretton appears to favour youth over experience, and some older dancers such as Yoshida have been notably underused even when other dancers were under great strain.

The lack of development of talent from within the company is worrying. Casting has been about exploiting the star power of names already established, rather than bringing on talent from the more junior ranks. There has been a massive influx of male guests - at one point there were about eight different guest principals on the list.

The biggest issue remains the departure of Sarah Wildor, who left on the basis of the paucity of the work that was offered her. On that basis you can hardly blame her. But she was the ballerina in the company who most summed up the distinctive English style, and who was most at home in the Ashton repertoire as Titania, Ondine, Lise. This is the equivalent of throwing out all those lovely old rose varieties with their heady scent which are a trouble to keep and have a short but glorious flowering season, in favour of putting down a brick patio as in some cheap TV gardening makeover programme.


But to what extent is this down to the AD ?

Criticism of Stretton in the press has been quite mild if anything, compared to the fierceness of the attacks made in the on the RSC, or the reviews of English National Operaís productions - far more stinging and dismissive than for any of Strettonís productions. Nevertheless he has developed a certain defensiveness.

In writing this,



"If you ask for more public money, you are greedy. If you raise it privately, you are elitist. If you increase seat prices you are evil."
Michael Kaiser

 
itís easy to lay blame at the door of the AD as the public face of the company, but he is not in control of all aspects. Seat prices are not in his remit. Michael Kaiserís analysis of the issues at the ROH seemed remarkably lucid to me: "If you ask for more public money, you are greedy. If you raise it privately, you are elitist. If you increase seat prices you are evil." But the money has to come from somewhere.

All those other things that itís so easy to get fed up with the ROH for - the poor sightlines, the difficulties of dealing with the box office, the off-putting atmosphere - are not Strettonís fault, though the ingrained frustration probably affects the way he is perceived.

But there again, some of the ADís actions impact on others. In previous seasons, much of the more interesting work at the ROH has been seen in the Linbury and the Clore, new choreography made on Royal Ballet dancers working for the love of it in their spare time, by aspiring choreographers within the company or from outside. Excellent work which any organisation should encourage - innovation at very modest cost. Unfortunately, there have been rather less of these performances this year, and those that have taken place have suffered at times by the wave of injuries affecting the company. One programme note rather sadly thanked all those dancers who had offered help and would have liked to have taken part if they had been able.

This isnít Strettonís problem, perhaps, but it should be someoneís. Why the imbalance in resources ? You could fund a fair number of ADI events in the Clore for what it costs to



There is so much that the Royal could be doing with talented British choreographers, itís disheartening to see so much imported from elsewhere

 
(abortively) stage Beyond Bach. There is so much that the Royal could be doing with talented British choreographers, itís disheartening to see so much imported from elsewhere.

The Artistic Directorship remains an impossible job. There have been some good things but it hasnít been a stunning start, and the programming for next season with its somewhat curious choices that betray a very odd view of MacMillan and a dismissive attitude to Ashton (one work only, even if it is the sublime Scenes de Ballet) and another set of ballets made for other companies doesnít inspire much confidence or eagerness to go and book lots of performances. I wish I was going to see more Royal performances rather than less. But the seat prices have gone up strikingly again, to the extent that the same seats in the amphi (the cheap seats, remember) now can cost over fifty pounds - twice what they did before the house closed for renovation. Madness. It might not be Strettonís problem, but it is mine. Sooner or later the box office could be his problem too.



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