Andrea Quinn, new music director of the Royal Ballet, is finally in the spotlight.
The press statement is straightforward. "The Royal Ballet is delighted to announce that Andrea Quinn will become its new Music Director." While not exactly the equivalent of sipping the poisoned chalice, taking up such a post at a time like this requires nerves of steel.

Not only is the Royal Ballet itinerant during the Royal Opera House redevelopment, but there is a new board of directors no doubt eager to make its mark. The company's performances are regularly compared unfavourably with its sibling, the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Richard Eyre's committee is preparing its report on the Royal Opera House. Nobody knows what it will recommend. What's more, Andrea Quinn begins her three-year tenure on 1 April.

But Quinn is no April Fool. Born in 1964, she has carefully built a career in areas not guaranteed the spotlight. For the past three years, she has been the London Philharmonic Youth Orchestra's Music Director. But nobody pays attention to youth orchestras, do they? She has conducted dance for the Royal Ballet, for Adventures in Motion Pictures (both Swan Lake and Cinderella) and English National Ballet. But who goes to the ballet to listen to the music? Certainly not the critics. Last year and this, she conducted Glyndebourne Education Department's youth opera Misper. But educational work isn't the real thing, is it? She has also made a speciality of contemporary music. But who listens to contemporary music?

Quinn is now joining the Royal Ballet at a particularly precarious moment in the company's history. "The important thing is not to be drowned by the uncertainty," she insists. "We have to programme positively, if anything, more positively than at any other time. The hardest thing about the current position is the difficulty in planning, but what makes that exciting is that I've been able to get involved at an earlier stage than if everything was running cosily. To have the company performing out of the Royal Opera House means that, in one sense, we're slightly out of the limelight, so there's a chance to feel my way in."

An opera company's music director is expected to impose it's identity. But things are different with a company like the Royal Ballet. For a start, there is the commitment to what Quinn calls "the heritage ballets".

"The Royal Ballet has the responsibility to show the great standard repertoire, and there should also be a duty to show the history of ballet. What is a treat for me is the possibility of conducting Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, as well as great contemporary music. I have to develop my expertise. That means spending time in the rehearsal studio, and watching the shows on stage. I watch videos at home, repeating and repeating and repeating, getting to know the names of the steps, trying to understand the mentality behind them. I have to learn what makes the principal dancers tick; whether on the night it's best to push them further, or whether they benefit most from a steady pair of hands. I'm inexperienced, and I have to pace very carefully how much I conduct. It's just as important to watch conductors who've worked in ballet for years."

Another problem the ballet conductor faces is that their "interpretation" of the music is not what they're there to give.

"One is restricted by the choreography. The dance itself is very physical, and you cannot expect dancers to dance at impossibly slow or fast tempi. It's simply not possible for a ballet company to work with conductors who insist that the dancers will dance at their tempi, come what may. That makes it difficult for someone used to conducting, say, suites from Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty, to do the complete work and achieve tempi completely different from those they're used to. You have to work with what is on stage, and perhaps that discourages some conductors."

Quinn's enthusiasm burns fiercest when she's talking about new ballets and new music. Duty to the past may take precedence, but present and future also need nurturing.

"I'm sure that for some of the audience, the music is secondary, but an audience should be stretched," she says. "And of course, a choreographer has to be able to identify absolutely with the music. You cannot impose a piece on them. It's too intimate a process; it won't work. I would love to have not exactly overall control, but some kind of lever, to encourage choreographers towards certain composers. I'm keen to see Peter Sculthorpe's music used, as it has been for Australian Ballet. Peter Maxwell Davies has written for ballet, Harrison Birtwistle's Earth Dances was written for the Royal Ballet, but for various reasons was never used. Poul Ruders writes music very appropriate to dance. There are so many fine composers, whose work is not being used. We have to have the courage to get those pieces in, to reflect what's going on today. What's exciting about getting back into the Opera House is that there will be a small studio theatre which will allow the possibility of working in a similar way to, say, Ballet Rambert, or Siobhan Davies. That will bring modern dance a little closer to the Royal Ballet, and I hope that that will then infiltrate the main theatre."

Ballet won't take up all Quinn's time. She will soon conduct a Contemporary Music Network tour of Birtwistle's Pulse Shadows; and she will be an assistant conductor on English National Opera's forthcoming production of Massenet's Manon. Yet it's clear she has every intention of making the most of the opportunity the Royal Ballet has presented. It's no less clear that the benefits will work in both directions.

Andrea Quinn (right) conducts the Royal Ballet's 100th birthday tribute to its founder, Dame Ninette de Valois, Barbican Theatre, 15-20 June (0171 638 8891); the Contemporary Music Network tour of Harrison Birtwistle's Pulse Shadows begins 18 April, Manchester (0161 907 9000), then tours to Cambridge, London, Leicester.

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