Ross Stretton

Controversial director of the Royal Ballet
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The Independent Online

Ross Stretton's last years in ballet were the stuff of high drama, which saw him rise dizzily through directorial ranks. After a career on stage, mainly in the United States, in 1997 he assumed the directorship of the Australian Ballet, where he had started, and was appointed to the same position in Britain, with the Royal Ballet, only four years later.

Ross Stretton, ballet dancer and administrator: born Canberra 6 June 1952; Régisseur, American Ballet Theatre 1991-93, Assistant Artistic Director 1993-97; Director, Australian Ballet 1997-2001; Director, Royal Ballet 2001-02; married Valmai Roberts (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Melbourne, Victoria 16 June 2005.

Ross Stretton's last years in ballet were the stuff of high drama, which saw him rise dizzily through directorial ranks. After a career on stage, mainly in the United States, in 1997 he assumed the directorship of the Australian Ballet, where he had started, and was appointed to the same position in Britain, with the Royal Ballet, only four years later.

His selection created a great deal of noise. Hitherto Royal Ballet artistic directors had been insiders, like his predecessor Anthony Dowell, but here was someone with no links to the company at all and virtually no knowledge of it, beyond its name. Some hoped Stretton would bring a breath of fresh air; others bemoaned his tenuous grasp of the company's heritage and style. The hostility did not abate, culminating in his sudden resignation just one year later, for unclear reasons.

Ross Stretton was born in 1952 in Canberra, where he learnt to tap dance. Aged 17, he discovered ballet and, after training in Canberra, entered the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne. On graduating he joined the Australian Ballet where he eventually rose to principal artist in 1976. Tall and handsome, he had the perfect looks for the important roles of the classical repertoire, but he danced in many contemporary ballets as well.

Sir Robert Helpmann, then artistic director of the company, awarded Stretton a scholarship to study in New York for three months. The experience was eye-opening and, inspired, Stretton moved to New York where he joined the Joffrey Ballet in 1979. After appearing as a guest artist with American Ballet Theatre during the 1980-81 season, he was invited by ABT's then director Mikhail Baryshnikov to become a permanent member.

As a principal artist with ABT, he danced classical and contemporary roles. When ABT was not performing, Stretton regularly featured in Baryshnikov and Company tours. He also guested with other companies in the United States and abroad.

He turned to ballet management in 1990 on retiring from the stage. First he was assistant to the directors of ABT; then in 1991 he became régisseur; then in 1993 assistant director. He also founded an intermittent ensemble called New York Dancers comprising ABT stars in concert performances.

After a worldwide search, in 1997 Stretton was appointed artistic director of the Australian Ballet. He brought works by modish modern choreographers - Twyla Tharp, William Forsythe, Jiri Kylian - into the Australian repertoire and stimulated a new interest in triple bills. As artistic director, he was also in charge of the affiliated Dancers Company, made up of graduate-year students of the Australian Ballet School performing alongside Australian Ballet principals in the lead roles.

Meanwhile, the Royal Ballet was searching for a successor to Anthony Dowell. Many applicants were shortlisted, but Stretton was the horse who galloped up from behind and overtook everyone on the inside track. It was rumoured that Kevin McKenzie, ABT's artistic director, had recommended him, and the Royal Opera House invited him to apply.

To say that his time at the Royal Opera House was beleaguered is an understatement. The old (1970) Nureyev production of Don Quixote which opened his first, 2001, season in September came, like several of his acquisitions, from the Australian Ballet repertoire. To many critics it looked provincial and jet-lagged. With some justice, one critic lamented the fact that he had not looked closer to the UK for a Don Quixote and chosen Nureyev's more recent, more accomplished staging for the Paris Opera Ballet. Likewise, his triple bills introducing choreographers such as Nacho Duato and the young Australian Stephen Baynes were considered jarringly lowbrow and tawdry.

Yet, on taking up his job at the Royal Opera House, he was elated by the dancers who were waiting for him. He was, he said, like a child in a sweet shop, energised and inspired by the talent before him. He did, though, have one failing: he was too determined to keep control over all areas, he was unable to delegate sufficiently. It earned him the nickname "Stressed Rotten".

While at the Australian Ballet he believed, according to his former assistant Janet Karin, "that dance should be passionate, exciting, challenging and inspiring; that it should make a difference to people's lives". His Royal Opera House colleagues have similarly spoken of his passion and commitment. But during his Royal Ballet directorship, the obloquy surrounding his policies and personality mounted and he resigned in September 2002.

He went back home to Australia. And, there, came the final blow: melanoma which provoked a long battle and beat him at the age of just 53.

Nadine Meisner



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