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Anthony Russell-Roberts


the RB Administrative Director interviewed by Phyllida Ritter at a Lunch and Listen Friends event

23 May 2002
London, Royal Opera House

written by Suzanne McCarthy


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One of the Royal Ballet’s "backroom" boys, Anthony Russell-Roberts, took centre stage at this Lunch and Listen event. Russell-Roberts has been the Royal Ballet’s Administrative Director since 1983, and, in addition to exploring that role, the audience was given a little insight into the character and family life of Frederick Ashton, his uncle.

The Administrative Director has responsibility for strategic planning, budgetary control, arrangements for foreign touring and general administrative functions for the company (total



Russell-Roberts’ responses showed that he has the fortunate quality of grace under fire...

 
around 125 staff including currently 85 dancers). Management may not be as glamorous as performance, but the performance would not happen without it. Russell-Roberts’ responses showed that he has the fortunate quality of grace under fire, an important attribute when you are in such a position.


Managing the Royal Ballet - Planning, Budgets and Relationships

Within the Royal Opera House Board’s policy guidelines, the Artistic Director runs the company. The Administrative Director’s influence is dependent on that relationship. Russell-Roberts has worked closely with three Artistic Directors; Norman Morrice, who looked to him for support and advice; Anthony Dowell, his relationship with whom he described as "symbiotic" and one where they "understood each other very well" (although he did not always agree with Dowell’s choices of new work); and now with Ross Stretton. He and Stretton are in the process of "learning to work together". He described Stretton as more "independent" than his predecessors.

Money - how to get it, and, when obtained, how to spend it effectively - is a constant worry for the Royal Ballet. It is just as well that Russell-Roberts is numerate, and does not find it difficult to produce budgets. Making cuts that don’t actually result in fundamental damage to the company is an art form in its own right. Strategic planning and associated costs (done in tandem with their co-habitee organisation, the Royal Opera) is done on a three to four year cycle, with the latter years in outline form. As in any business, continual adjustments are often needed.

Costs and income are the primary factors in deciding what will be performed during any



The general intention is to have as much new work as possible. When planning, an equilibrium is sought between full-length ballets (which audiences tend to like) and mixed bills.

 
particular season. Full-length works, for example, eat money, while abstract pieces are less expensive to produce. The general intention is to have as much new work as possible. When planning, an equilibrium is sought between full-length ballets (which audiences tend to like) and mixed bills. Sometimes needs must, and the closure period was peppered with ballets expected as "geese to lay eggs". Russell-Roberts observed that, if the company is performing a season devoted to full-length ballets, probably that year’s budget is difficult to balance. This, he admitted, can sometimes be due to wastage and production errors.

Funding organisations, such as the Arts Council, fortunately do not pressurise the Royal Ballet about its programming. However, the Arts Council has many-sided and concurrent expectations - for the company to be innovative/do as much educational work as possible/provide wide public access/earn money/and adequately fundraise - and these all add to the pressures.


Foreign Touring

Foreign touring



Foreign touring can look like an easy way to earn hard cash, but Russell-Roberts warned against being seduced by offers of "gold that does not exist"

 
can look like an easy way to earn hard cash, but Russell-Roberts warned against being seduced by offers of "gold that does not exist". Touring is expensive, and it is important to plan precisely with neither too much or too little rehearsal time scheduled. The biggest problem is sorting out the money. The lesson to grasp is not to take on the risk that the tour might make a loss. Leave that to the foreign theatre to worry about. They know their market. But, even if the tour makes a profit, that is not always assurance that you will actually get paid.

If the money is not a problem, then changes to the schedule probably will be. Russell-Roberts recalled one tour in 1996 where the company’s sensible travelling arrangements had to be rearranged leaving them jumping from Copenhagen to Buenos Aires and then on to Tel Aviv finishing up in Palermo. Even if the company gets to the right place on time there is always the unexpected conspiring against you. For example, on the company’s tour to China three containers of sets were unfortunately dropped into the South China Sea.


Closure and the New House

In addition to money, the other features that determine what the Royal Ballet performs are its dancers, hours available and studio space. Before the Royal Opera House closed for refurbishment the Royal Ballet only had three inadequate practice studios at Barons Court. Now it has five state-of-the-art studios that compare favourably with the best in the world. Further, with the addition of the Linbury and the Clore, much more can be done to produce dance for the wider television audience. Having said that, Russell-Roberts noted that television has traditionally not been an ideal platform for ballet, but that this is changing with the introduction of wider screens and digital. He credited Jeremy Issacs with introducing certain fundamental changes, particularly in industrial practices, that had made it possible for greater collaboration with this medium.

Notwithstanding all the benefits that closure brought, clearly that "dark period", (as Russell-Roberts called it), was a difficult one to navigate. Russell-Roberts insisted that it was not as trying financially as some newspapers would have had the public believe. To prove



Russell-Roberts hope is that funding will be found to enable the company to expand to 95 dancers, which, he feels, is necessary if it is to increase the amount of new work it can perform

 
this he mentioned that during that period the Royal Ballet produced 150 shows with costs below budget. Nevertheless there were pressures on both the opera and the ballet companies to reduce in size. The Royal Opera did so, but Russell-Roberts, fearing that the company would never come back to full strength, fiercely fought this proposal. He is undoubtedly proud of the fact that no member of the Royal Ballet was made redundant during this period. Russell-Roberts hope is that funding will be found to enable the company to expand to 95 dancers, which, he feels, is necessary if it is to increase the amount of new work it can perform.

Russell-Roberts firmly believes that it is necessary for the company to develop as many of its own choreographers as possible (he referred to Wheeldon’s Tryst as the best new piece that the Royal Ballet had presented for 15 years). In his view the combination of the main stage, the Linbury and the Clore offers opportunities for work of varying scales being presented together with the Royal Ballet’s "calling card" versions of the classics, particularly the ballets of Ashton and MacMillian.


Early Career

Russell-Roberts’ career started in a brewery. Originally his desire was to paint, but recognising that his talent was probably not going to take him as far as he would like and without anything else firing his soul, he opted to work for Watney Mann after completing his degree at Oxford. He became the brewery’s efficiency expert, and later moved from that into property development. But he threw all that away (and the salary that went with it) in his determination to be part of the theatre and became a lowly junior stage manager at Glyndebourne. While at the time he saw his pre-Glyndebourne life as wasted, it probably is the fortuitous combination of hard, business experience and arts management learned from working "back of house" that has given him the edge. From Glyndebourne he went to Kent Opera and then, only three years after he started moving sets around, he got his lucky break with the offer of the post of administrative director of the Paris Opera. From there be moved to the Royal Opera House.

Of course, music and dance was always "in his blood". His mother, Ashton’s sister, was a concert pianist. Looking back he described himself as being a boy in short trousers, who was really a "premature, middle aged kid listening to classical music".

His mother and Ashton were close, and Russell-Roberts remembers them meeting for tea usually two or three times a week. Sometimes they would visit more often, as Ashton loved company, and family would do if he could not find a party to go to. He was an entertaining character, and a wonderful mimic (including a good take-off of the Queen Mother). Ashton could also be serious, frequently talking about his work, and his feelings about art and life and what art could give to life. Sometimes brother and sister would revert to conversing in Spanish, no doubt to protect the young Russell-Roberts from overhearing anything that was just too delicate for a child’s ears.


Ashton’s Ballets

Russell-Roberts



Russell-Roberts was named in Ashton’s will as his residual legatee, inheriting everything that was not specifically bequeathed to others.

 
was named in Ashton’s will as his residual legatee, inheriting everything that was not specifically bequeathed to others. (Ashton left two ballets each to six people - Anthony Dowell, Michael Somes, Brian Shaw, Margot Fonteyn, Alexander Grant and Tony Dyson) However, like Balanchine, Ashton had given very little thought on what was to be done with his work after his death. This has left Russell-Roberts with the unenviable task (a " legal nightmare") of how sensibly to manage this heritage, which, to him, is an important key to the Royal Ballet’s development.

Russell-Roberts tried to solve the problem by following the New York City Ballet’s example of establishing a trust. However, both Michael Somes and Brian Shaw rejected this on the basis that, as they knew the ballets better than anyone, a trust was unnecessary. Their view, of course, becomes less convincing as time moves on and those who originally danced Ashton ballets themselves die off. Increasingly there is the danger that the original steps and style will mutate. Russell-Roberts hope is to establish at least a loose association to protect the work, although even that will need money, and where funds for this might come from is uncertain.

What is clear from Russell-Roberts "performance" before this particular audience is that his existence is as dramatic as anything shown on stage, and that his principal role is essential to keeping the Royal Ballet in a steady state both now and in the future.



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