A brave new whirl

'That's wonderful - but how about we try doing it this way?' Ross Stretton, the next director of the Royal Ballet, discusses his plans for the company
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Ross Stretton gives a very good interview. Good enough to persuade Covent Garden's selection panel that he is the right man to be the Royal Ballet's next director; and good enough to respond pleasantly to the non-stop stream of journalists lined up to ask him, in turn, much the same questions over and over again. It must be his healthy Australian upbringing and his dancer's training that give him the stamina to cope in circumstances where anyone else would still be groggy from a flight half way round the world.

Ross Stretton gives a very good interview. Good enough to persuade Covent Garden's selection panel that he is the right man to be the Royal Ballet's next director; and good enough to respond pleasantly to the non-stop stream of journalists lined up to ask him, in turn, much the same questions over and over again. It must be his healthy Australian upbringing and his dancer's training that give him the stamina to cope in circumstances where anyone else would still be groggy from a flight half way round the world.

He is tall, slim, quiet-spoken. Polite and friendly. He pauses to think about just the right way of expressing himself. Then he is lucid, coherent, with his ideas well worked out. Very positive, too. And happy: "I love being a director, though it's taken me a while to say that."

His CV doesn't mention that he spent six months dancing in Britain with Northern Ballet in Robert de Warren's production of Cinderella, to the younger Johann Strauss's only ballet score. The dashing elegance of his dancing won enthusiastic praise. But that was 20 years back, when he was filling in between other engagements, and he says that he was concentrating too much on his own career to get a feel for dance in Britain.

That career of his divides neatly into four main sections. First, with the Australian Ballet where he became a leading dancer. Then dancing in America with the Joffrey Ballet and, at Baryshnikov's invitation, with American Ballet Theatre. When the time came to hang up his tights, he moved into management with ABT, soon rising to assistant artistic director; this in turn led to his becoming director of the Australian Ballet in January 1997.

He was not among the 50 or so people who responded to the Royal Ballet's advertisement for a new director. When friends claimed jokingly that he was on the shortlist, he replied "I'm actually quite busy where I am - never even thinking it would be in the realm of possibility."

Stretton reckons it was the good impression that the Australian Ballet made in a New York season last October that led Covent Garden's director Michael Kaiser to phone him a couple of months later and invite him to come for a discussion with the panel. Stretton and Kaiser had previously overlapped briefly at American Ballet Theatre. "I think it was at the end of their process," he said. He flew over for just one day, "to make them understand what I believe in and what I do. And that was it."

Stretton is not the first outsider to become director of the Royal Ballet. Norman Morrice, whose previous career was entirely with Ballet Rambert, held the post from 1977 for nine years. He too was invited in and arrived, just like Stretton, with high hopes of developing new choreographers and gifted young dancers. But he found too little support either within the company or in the press, and eventually gave way to Anthony Dowell. With a new board and administration at Covent Garden, Stretton should be luckier.

He is on record as saying in Australia that "the selection of the company's repertoire and the selection of the dancers are probably the two most influential of all the varied aspects of artistic directorship." This does not imply that he intends to make drastic changes for their own sake. He points out that at present he hardly knows the company: "I am a person who will actually sit back and assess the dancing, assess what repertoire needs to be brought in to challenge these dancers."

What Stretton likes about the Australian dancers is that "they are fearless, they are honest, they are energetic and they are open." His new charges may draw a lesson about the future he hopes for them. He speaks of the purity of the Royal Ballet's style, "where the classical form is so open", and that is something he wants to keep. "But," he adds, "I can also see that there is a generation here that is waiting to explode." He hopes to be "a fresh eye to come in and say, that's wonderful, but how about we try it this way? It will move, the image will change."

What he insists on very strongly is that "dance has changed, no matter what you say. Concepts of space have changed, how we use space. And space is now carved by light, not so much by heavy sceneries. Bodies have become taller and leaner, and the muscle structure is more beautiful. Costuming has changed. I love to see all that."

He has been quoted as mentioning several choreographers from Europe and America whom he might think of inviting, while insisting that, with two years before taking over, he has not yet made firm choices. They could be summed up as "all the usual suspects", and he is leaving all options open at present. As a generalisation, he says "I like choreographers who have something to say." (For the record, the one whose name recurs most in our conversation is the former Kylian protégé Nacho Duato, whom he admires for "his wonderful sense of music and way of using music".)

Is there a danger, I asked, that all ballet companies will end up looking alike because they all turn to the same small group of creators? No, he thinks, because there are so many variables: the dancers, the audiences, the approach. It's a question of balance in the repertoire: a combination of the classics, the great contemporary works, and new works by new choreographers. "One reason why the Royal Ballet excites me so much is that it will always be the Royal Ballet no matter what choreographers you bring in. It will still have its great repertoire."

He is also keen on the possibilities of the building. "You have so many different venues here that you can use. I think this is what interests me more than anything. There is the wonderful opera house stage where you can perform the great works. And you have got all these other theatres where you can be experimental or educational. I think it's really fantastic. Even the atrium, you can do lunchtime shows, maybe a collaboration between a guitarist or a singer and the ballet - crossing the art forms in a small way."

Doubtless he will be looking, too, for some of the ideas that helped get young audiences in Australia: relaxing the dress codes, using different venues, having special nights for people under 26 with lower prices. With the advantage of an enormous base of subscribers, who can choose classics, contemporary works or both, he aimed to keep the people who love the classics happy while making them "understand that they can get new memories too."

Obviously he has been chosen as somebody with experience, push and enthusiasm. He is not going to be a latter-day Diaghilev, making ballet influence the shape of the other arts - but there aren't such around at present. And he is determined to put his own mark on ballet, what is danced, and how.

"What you need to be able to say is that we can rework the great, great classics, the Ashtons and MacMillans, revitalising and refreshing them, but with honesty. We shouldn't be saying that's how I did it 20 years ago, and that's how it's got to be. It's saying, this dancer is capable of doing so much more, and the honesty of that human being is what we want to use."

The other essential point he recognises is the need for a specifically British element on the repertoire. "We must produce homespun talent and nurture that talent, whether music, choreography, design or theatre. That's exactly why the Australian Ballet was so successful in New York, because we took five brand-new works by young Australian choreographers. If we don't do that here in Britain it's not going to go anywhere. We have to find British choreographers, nurture them, develop them, because they will be the future of the company. They will be the new direction of the Royal Ballet."

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