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|About the Change|
David Drew, RB Princpal
on the Ross Stretton Sacking
‘Good riddance to the egomaniac who turned the Royal Ballet into a panto’
© David Drew was talking to Jeffery Taylor
Web version held on Ballet.co by kind permission of Associated Newspapers. Published 29 September 2002
Jeffery Taylor is the Dance Critic and an Arts feature writer for the
After just 12 months of a 3 year contract during which his autocratic reign caused an unprecedented backlash among his dancers, the Royal Ballet's Artistic Director, Australian Ross Stretton, was asked to resign last week with immediate effect. Principal Character Artist DAVID DREW who has devoted his life to the Royal Ballet, has chosen to defy a strict company embargo on its dancers to speak to the press in a heartfelt attempt to repair some of the damage inflicted by the Australian Stretton. Drew, 64, joined the Royal Ballet as a teenager in September 1955 and will retire in March 2003.
I was doubtful and apprehensive when Ross Stretton arrived because choosing the outgoing director Anthony Dowell's successor was all a last minute panic. Long term planning has not been a feature of the Royal Opera House's governing body for the past 5-6 years. Before he arrived we heard the rumours and gossip from Australia, where Stretton was director of the Australian Ballet, about his personal life. Gossip like that is rarely ignored and it contributed to the bad feelings of favouritism and divisions that proved so destructive when he arrived. Stretton was on a huge ego trip. Before he came, we ran a sweepstake on possible successors to Anthony Dowell. We put 40 names in a hat, and his was not one of them, which perhaps sums up our attitude.
At first he was very personable, very frank and up front. He appeared to speak very honestly and created a sense of confidence around himself. Sadly it didn t last. His actions never lived up to his words.
Working in an Opera House is not the same as running just a ballet company. You must contend with the demands of the House itself, the Ballet and the Opera because they must all accommodate each other. It takes a long time to learn how that works and that was a problem for Stretton. Other backstage departments were also deeply unhappy with him and added their protests to ours. He never made a decision and when he did he changed it a dozen times disregarding the fact that delays and confusion and lead to mounting costs.
Ross Stretton conned us, basically and it very quickly became obvious that he was out of his depth. He promised us 3 newly created works a year, we had only one. And bringing in that Australian production of Don Quixote to open his first season was an insult to the Royal Ballet. The designs looked like a 50s pantomime. The whole world is doing the ballets he bought in while ignoring our own repertoire of Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan. Under Stretton we were beginning to look like American Ballet Theatre and Australian Ballet rolled into one, but we are immensely proud of our own identity that has taken years of incredibly hard work to establish.
There was an unspoken feeling from him that the Royal Ballet was an ailing company and he had been brought in to shake us up and drag us into the new century. That was even more insulting. Then in rehearsal he was more interested in the details of performing that used to occupy him as a dancer than the overall quality of the work. He was really a glorified ballet master not an Artistic Director, and like all autocrats he never trusted his staff to do their jobs. There are a lot of sensible and experienced people at the Royal and they were all ignored.
The daily casting was chaos. We tried to sort it out every morning, but he simply didn t listen, he was changing people almost until curtain up. But most destructive of all he wasn t the slightest interested in the company's hierarchy. He put soloists into the corps de ballet and vice versa and caused an enormous amount of bad feeling the like of which I have never seen before in my time at the Royal Ballet. I blame him entirely. Dancers who had slogged their guts out for years to rise in the ranks were treated like beginners in the back row of the corps. It was very demoralising. After about six months accusations of favouritism were flying around and everybody seemed to be at each other's throats. I looked around the company and I was begging the dancers to stop the backstabbing but it just got worse and worse.
Dancers as a breed are not very secure in the confidence stakes but luckily a lot of young people did seem to appreciate my ability to cool things down and see the constructive side of things. By talking among ourselves and facing the fact that he might go, and with a little encouragement from me, a lot less people left the company than had originally planned to. Then a sort of Dunkirk spirit set in, we can win if we stick together, which I think saw us through. I d like the think I helped that cementing process and even though I have a reputation for talking too much, I hope I was able to help. But by then, at around 6 months into his reign, the dancers were mostly of a mind - get rid of Stretton.
When we went on the Australian tour earlier this year, we all felt it was make or break time. In his home country, we heard so much of the criticisms we ourselves felt that it confirmed our attitudes and actually gave us confidence. He seemed to make no effort to present the Royal Ballet strengths, what we are good at. For instance we took the production of Swan Lake we danced on our last Australian tour in 1988. Then when we returned to London the Golden Jubilee Gala at the Opera House for the Queen in July was so awful and condemned so universally, the Opera House Board really got worried. The programme planning in spite of all the advice offered to him, was a glorification of Ross Stretton, not the Queen, and did not reflect in any way the historical creativity of the company. There was little rehearsal and Stretton didn t even turn up at the weekend for the lighting call. There was no sense of occasion, no celebration; in fact it was insulting to all concerned, to the dancers and to the Queen. Something had to be done
We made our representations to Chief Executive Tony Hall and our union, Equity, and when the Press got hold of it, they were very supportive too and exerted extra pressure on the Board. The issue we presented was not a threat of striking but that this man Stretton was a disaster for the company and the sooner he went the better. The Board agreed and the rest is history already. I'm not advocating Power to the Dancers but what I do say is that from now on, the dancers voice must be a part of the decision making process. I'm tremendously proud of the Royal Ballet dancers and the mature way they've stood by their views. It could all have turned very nasty, but it didn't.
My preference is for an insider now to take over the role Stretton vacated. Assistant director Monica Mason, who is temporarily in charge, could run the company until she retires in 4 years time. That would provide a healing process and a rest period to avoid rushing into another disastrous choice. Monica has worked in the Opera House almost as long as I have, she knows the ethos and will cope extremely well.
But the atmosphere in the company is good, the healing process is happening already. There was such an air of relief in yesterday's rehearsal for Meyerling it was delightful. Today's young dancers are amazing, technically brilliant, mature and responsible in their outlook. From where I'm standing, without Ross Stretton and near the end of my career with the Royal Ballet, the future looks good.