Can a gentle touch wake this sleeping beauty?

Royal Ballet director Ross Stretton tells Jenny Gilbert why he is playing safe with his autumn programme
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The Independent Culture

When Australian Ross Stretton was named as successor to Sir Anthony Dowell as director of the Royal Ballet, the question "Who is he?" was followed by a panicky crescendo of "And what's he going to do to the repertoire?" Own-label work is perceived as central to the Royal Ballet's identity. There may be bigger, flashier ballet companies in the world, the thinking goes, but none of them has a repertory wall-to-wall with Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan, chief exponents of the so-called English Style. A new director dilutes this at his peril.

So when Stretton announced his intention to bring in more contemporary work from Europe (by the likes of Jiri Kylian, Nacho Duato and Mats Ek), hackles were raised. Six months into the job, Stretton last week announced his second season. And lo, it contains no more than a smattering of frightening foreign names. What it does promise is three full-length MacMillans and a new production of a 19th-century classic. Could this be a sop to the conservative faction? A U-turn even?

"Absolutely not," says Stretton, whose signature black T-shirt strikes a defiant note behind the formal office desk. "There were a number of things to take into account for next season: the 10th anniversary of Kenneth MacMillan's death was one of them. And in discussion with his widow Deborah, we've chosen three works that show what he gave to ballet." They include Mayerling (last revived in 1994), they include the weird, fantastical Prince of the Pagodas (last seen five years ago), and Manon, which I'd swear comes round as regular as neap tide, but keeps packing audiences in.

I say I'd rather see a selection of lesser-known, shorter works from the MacMillan back catalogue. Stretton points to the inclusion of Winter Dreams (a profound distillation of the feeling behind Chekhov's Three Sisters), and Song of the Earth, glimpsed all too briefly during Dowell's final season, and yes: if forced to select the Desert Island ballets to remind me of the art form's unique emotive power, these could make the cut. There is but a single example of Frederick Ashton's work in line for 2003, he says (Scenes de Ballet, of 1941), because 2004 is Ashton's centenary, when fans can expect a feast.

The new Sleeping Beauty (to be mounted by Natalia Makarova) looks to be Stretton's most daring use of funds. After all, the company's "old" production was made – at famously high cost, emotional and financial – only seven years ago. (Remember the fly-on-the-wall tears and tantrums in BBC's The House?) Its squiffy, OTT designs must be the most reviled in the company's history, I remind him. But Stretton denies the project is merely a response to critics, though its design "will go in quite a different direction". The real reason for a new Sleeping Beauty, he reveals, is "as a challenge to myself – probably the biggest artistic challenge I've ever taken on."

Le Parc, a full-evening contemporary piece by the French-Albanian Angelin Preljocaj, is "the other big challenge" for 2002-3. "It's at the other extreme. It has Mozart's music, it's sensual, it's about relationships. It's a challenge to dancers and audiences, and that's what I like," he beams. But it's not new, I counter. Wouldn't a world premiere be even more of a challenge? Ah. Well, yes it would. But the problem is not so much funding new works, he says, as creating the right conditions – namely, rehearsal time. A ready-made piece takes six to eight weeks to stage, a new creation much longer. At present the House can't schedule that amount of time. "I've spent six months working on the problem," says Stretton. He hasn't cracked it yet, and it bugs him.

A remarkable snippet of market research arrives just in time for these announcements. It says that last season more than half of all Royal Opera House bookings were to people who hadn't been before. Surely that must influence a director's thinking? No, he says, "I can't second-guess audiences. What I'm trying to do in the most creative way I can is a diverse repertoire that most people will enjoy most of. I could never please everyone."

Stretton is clearly striving to be an exemplar of the new glasnost at the Opera House. He tries to be frank about the ballet's problems while avoiding direct reference as to how they arose. Recent jibes over the high number of seriously injured dancers are unfair, he says, because most of these injuries are long-term, the result of minor, niggling injuries having been ignored. He hopes his much more hands-on directoral style will make the dancers less anxious about their careers. "Finally, it's about trust," he says. "I need the dancers to trust me that they won't lose their place in the pecking order if they take time out to treat minor injuries. I need them to trust me to take their talents in the right direction with new work and new choreographers. We have the contact with great dance makers. And they want to work with these great dancers. But we have to get things right at management level, or it can't happen."

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