There's a new broom at the Royal Ballet ­ but no sweeping changes

Ross Stretton believes that his first season as artistic director at Covent Garden offers audiences innovative and varied dance. Jenny Gilbert is not convinced
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The Independent Culture

The Royal Ballet has just announced its debut season under Ross Stretton, the Australian who takes over from Sir Anthony Dowell. And if it's possible to imagine a new broom balancing, bristle-side up, on a fence, this announcement shows Stretton doing just that.

As the first outsider ever to lead the Royal Ballet, and only the fifth artistic director in its 70-year existence, deciding his first year's programming was always going to be a no-win operation. The result is a package that has "caution" stamped all over it.

Sweep in with a barrage of changes and unpronounceable new choreographers, and he'd be accused of neglecting the company's treasured heritage. Pander to nostalgia, and there would be howls from those who believe ballet is dying on its feet. So what have we got? One major 19th-century revival ­ Don Quixote, in Rudolf Nureyev's frisky 1966 production. One major 20th-century revival ­ John Cranko's big, passionate Onegin, based on the Pushkin novel. Some "themed" mixed bills, including a handful of signature pieces by big European names the Royal hasn't tried before, but also including others they have. Plus a string of familiar re-runs ­ Nutcracker, Giselle, Bayadère, and, for the umpteenth time, MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet.

There will be just one world premiere in the entire year: a commission from ex-Royal Ballet member Christopher Wheeldon, set to a Prokofiev piano concerto ­ hardly likely to frighten the horses. What can Ross Stretton be thinking of? Is he planning to give himself an easy time?

Speaking down the line from Melbourne, where he is wrapping up his reign at Australian Ballet, Stretton laughs ­ and it's an easy laugh, not defensive.

"Nothing's going to be easy in this job, I can tell you. But yes, I admit from my point of view it's a cautious programme. Pretty much all these works I've either directed before at Australian Ballet, or danced for American Ballet Theatre. But I'm not sure that for the Royal Ballet it's a cautious programme.

"I'm not going to change anything for the sake of change. But I do intend to bring in people to motivate this company. I don't just mean choreographers. I mean teachers and coaches, artistic staff, music staff."

He continues: "It's the kind of place where success depends on bringing in the right people for the right project. And the reason is to make dance better. I want to make audiences more aware of dance and its possibilities. Make them love the artform by showing its diversity. I have no other agenda."

But are the dancers really going to feel stretched and inspired by so much familiar material? Stretton insists that familiarity is necessary for him to be able to assess the talent that's there. This is a man who has spent his career to date in the US and Australia. He knows and loves the British tradition ­ the Ashton and MacMillan repertory, and also the works of Cranko and Tudor, which he thinks we've unjustly neglected ­ but he doesn't yet know the Royal Ballet's strengths via its dancers. And that is what this next season will be about.

"Of course, dancers want to be challenged," he says. "They want to move in a different way, in lots of different ways. And over the next year Mats Ek is going to be one of those ways. And Nacho Duato. And Billy Forsythe. And the dancers will be the stronger for it."

I suggest that die-hard fans will see such introductions from the contemporary European mainstream as a dilution of the Royal Ballet style. Stretton rejects this flatly.

"All those choreographers work from a classical base. Nothing is irreversible. Nothing's being destroyed. They just add to diversity." And what about commissions? You can well understand that he wants to avoid the disasters of the past. But does he intend to do it by not tackling any new work at all? Again, softly, softly is the game plan. Clearly Stretton does has a view on what his predecessor was doing wrong in this regard, but he is not going to spell it out.

"Successful new work isn't just about choreography," he says carefully. "And putting the pressure on choreographers to develop work and devise complete finished evenings isn't always the way. I need to take the pressure off those people, make creating a much more collaborative process. And I intend to be at the centre of that. Overseeing the end result isn't enough." When he does get round to those creations, will he be looking at British collaborators, or bringing in chums from Oz? He says he wants to search out talent here, but to do that he needs time to learn who's who and what's what.

Stretton apologises for having to dash off, but he has his final opening-night at Australian Ballet to attend. I say it must have been hard plotting his moves for next year at the Royal while working flat-out at the other end of the world.

Next year? He is already formulating 2002-2003, he says. So does he plan a more concerted attack on the old guard? "I think I'm pushing the limit in my first year, actually," he says.