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Subject: "Ross Stretton, the Royal Ballet and Creativity" Archived thread - Read only
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Brendan McCarthymoderator

10-06-01, 09:28 AM (GMT)
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"Ross Stretton, the Royal Ballet and Creativity"
   On the web edition of the Independent yesterday Jenny Gilbert previewed the forthcoming Royal Ballet season. In the welter of election coverage, it may have been dropped from the print edition (at least I didn't see it in my copy). The story is interesting because it has several quotes from Ross Stretton. The link is


Here are some quotes:

"I admit from my point of view it's a cautious programme....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. 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."

Of course, dancers want to be challenged. 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. "All those choreographers work from a classical base. Nothing is irreversible. Nothing's being destroyed. They just add to diversity."

I think there is an interesting debate to be had on this forum about how the Royal Ballet manages creativity. During Anthony Dowell's time as Artistic Director the company was often averse to risk for the simple reason that its situation was quite precarious enough already. He was often pilloried, sometimes very unfairly I think, for what risks he did take.

At the recent Constant Lambert remembrance at the Clore, Deborah Bull spoke ruefully about the fact that it was cheaper to fail in the 1930s. Failure was now very expensive; yet licence to fail, she argued, was an integral part of creativity.

Following her recent appointment as AD of the Linbury and the Clore, Deborah Bull is wonderfully placed now to be a "creator of creativity". How might she begin? Comments anyone?

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  Subject     Author     Message Date     ID  
  RE: Ross Stretton, the Royal Ballet and Creativity Ann Williams 10-06-01 1
     RE: Ross Stretton, the Royal Ballet and Creativity Simon Glass 12-06-01 2
         RE: Ross Stretton, the Royal Ballet and Creativity Susie Crow 14-06-01 3
             RE: Ross Stretton, the Royal Ballet and Creativity Brendan McCarthymoderator 14-06-01 4
                 RE: Ross Stretton, the Royal Ballet and Creativity Brendan 14-06-01 5

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Ann Williams

10-06-01, 01:30 PM (GMT)
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1. "RE: Ross Stretton, the Royal Ballet and Creativity"
In response to message #0
   >Following her recent appointment as AD of the Linbury and the Clore, Deborah Bull is wonderfully placed now to be a "creator of creativity". How might she begin? Comments anyone?<

Hmm...a difficult one for a Sunday morning, Brendan...
Since I assume we are speaking here of dance, we are back to the vexed question of new choreographers and how to find and encourage them. It seems te me that the vital question is how much 'licence to fail' is permitted to the Clore and the Linbury given that they are part of the permanently cash-strapped ROH. If they (the ROH) go ahead with plans to open the house to non-opera and ballet ventures such as pop concerts, they might earn the extra revenue needed to take some financial pressure off the two smaller venues, thus allowing Bull the freedom to commission new works by untried choreographers. This is what I am sure she really wants to do and it is the only feasible way of finding new choreographic talent, given the patchy record of current in-house RB choreographers.
I'm not clear about her remit in her new job, but it's not impossible that she'll involve herself in new opera and music too. I think she'll surprise us.
On another tack, I'm sorry that she is ending her dancing career on such a muted note. I had hoped that she would stay long enough to see if Ross Stretton would allow her at least one Giselle, Manon or Juliet, opportunities rather cruelly denied to her during Dowell's reign.

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Simon Glass

12-06-01, 07:07 PM (GMT)
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2. "RE: Ross Stretton, the Royal Ballet and Creativity"
In response to message #1
   The new season's programme has left me cautiously optimistic. To accuse any director as playing safe by making the classics the backbone of a repertory is unfair and naieve, and if Deborah Bull has any chance of fulfilling her hope of making the Clore and Linbury breeding grounds for new talents then the finanacial success of the mainhouse is vital. The National Theatre's testing ground for new ideas, The Cottesloe, has never been able to pay for itself and it's success rises and falls with the profitability of the Olivier and Lyttelton. Likewise the RSC has all but abandoned London completely, the cost of breaking even, even with substantial subsidy, and having the space to fail artistically is untenable in today's artistic/financial climate.

If one looks at the productions Stretton is bringing forward it is indeed a very gentle start at revitalising the repertory. His Don Quixote is the exciting, difficult Nureyev production, which was eschewed in favour of Dowell's real strike-out of a production. Likewise his mixed bills are very well thought out. Unlike the festival of international choreography which opened the house, which was a case of eclectisism at the expense of innovation, Stretton has chosen well. The Nacho Duato piece is hailed as a masterpiece elsewhere, and so has a good provenance, likewise the Wheeldon piece. It is important that if one wishes to establish new choreographers in a previously untested ground that the pieces be more than 20 minutes pieces d'occasion. Likewise the Tudor piece was one written for his new found home, ABT, after his self-imposed exile. Along with these works previously unseen on British shores, he has blended them with homegrown classics, M&A, Month etc.

In this way, one can see Stretton is already trying to broaden and enrich the rep of the Royal, by bringing it's prodigals back home. Afterall Duato trained in Britain, Wheeldon was a RB member and both had to go abroad to find their artistic voices.

The Dowell gala was remarkable for the fact that it celebrated the dancer, not the director. As a director that he has raised the technical level of the company is unequivocal, albeit at the expense of promoting homegrown talent, only one male first soloist and principal is British. There is a wealth of extremely interesting dancers in soloist and First Artist level who should have been pushed much sooner, the glorious Vanessa Palmer, Yohei Sasaki to name but two. Likewise that Bull an exiciting and unusual dancer has never been given a crack at some of the more mature classics, is another example of Dowell's playing safe.

So it is seeing the new season, which at first glance seems safe, but actually contains wise, innovative and unusual choices, pairings that one indeed has reason to believe that Stretton could indeed shape up into a AD of true flair and innovation.

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Susie Crow

14-06-01, 09:26 AM (GMT)
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3. "RE: Ross Stretton, the Royal Ballet and Creativity"
In response to message #2
   I would question whether the choices of new work for this season could be called "innovative". These are in the main works tried and tested and which are already in the repertoire of other companies - I do not think they represent the most ground-breaking works in those choreographers' oeuvre, but are rather safe, a prudent starting point. I think that it is stretching it to describe Nacho Duato as a returning "prodigal". By such wide criteria - having trained briefly in the UK - you could include a huge swathe of the international dance population, and it does not necessarily imply direct contact with/experience of the Royal Ballet's tradition.

One wonders also how much impact the introduction of these works can have either on company or audience when they are to be given so few performances. With such a high proportion of performances of classic 3 act ballets to be prepared and rehearsed in multiple casts how much time will be available for the in-depth assimilation of visiting choreographers' working methods and styles?

I am sorry that further performances of some of the major works from the retrospective programmes of this season which have been justly admired and praised have not been included.

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Brendan McCarthymoderator

14-06-01, 01:12 PM (GMT)
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4. "RE: Ross Stretton, the Royal Ballet and Creativity"
In response to message #3
   LAST EDITED ON 14-06-01 AT 02:21 PM (GMT)

LAST EDITED ON 14-06-01 AT 02:21 PM (GMT)

Susie Crow and Jennifer Jackson have written a (characteristically) thoughtful piece in the spring edition of Dance Now on the role of the Artistic Director. In the article they trace the transition from the charismatic founders of British ballet (de Valois, Rambert) to the present generation of leaders. Today’s artistic directors, they say, must balance artistic imperatives, political pressures, financial accountability, and the duty to treasure and revitalise the dance heritage, while simultaneously looking forward. The setting for this, as Crow and Jackson see it, is that ballet’s survival appears to “hang in the balance, its pool of creativity dried up”. If creativity is to manifest itself in a ballet company, they argue, the issue rests most reductively with choreographers. But Crow and Jackson warn against putting the choreographer on a pedestal. Other players too must be empowered:

“Management structures are needed which…inspire creative classes, encourage ever greater yield from the distinct resource of ballet language, revitalise re-productions, facilitate access for dancers and repetiteurs to the sophisticated technological aids and research into repertoire that is now happening in educational establishments, programme fewer casts, and more performances to allow for deep engagement with the canon. The artistic director must put into practice policies that nurture the depth of enquiry and curiosity that breed creativity”.

How then to begin? The thing that strikes me about ballet people in the earlier part of the 20th century is that they were not sectarian. De Valois performed in music halls throughout the land (needs must). Ashton learnt much of his craft in the cabarets and revues of the 1920s and 1930s. In the US there was regular traffic between Broadway and the world of academic dance; Jerome Robbins is the great example. Lew Christensen was no stranger to vaudeville. Balanchine was very aware of the commercial theatre; otherwise I doubt he would have choreographed Stars and Stripes. Here in Europe Roland Petit and Zizi Jeanmaire are as absorbed by cabaret quite as much as by the classical repertoire(Petit said memorably of his work, The Blue Angel, “It is the most passionate and dramatic of my ballets. It is completely hellish and heavenly with the fol-de-rols of the cabaret, with plastic and with feathers”). In the last few days this forum has carried several notices of Graeme Murphy’s surreal dance-musical ‘Tivoli’. So that sense of dance as theatre lives.

But dance in Britain has arguably lost touch with theatricality. It may be a question of national sensibility, but somehow I doubt it. Ashton was a consummate man of the theatre (if his mantle has descended on anyone in our day it is on Matthew Bourne). If there is learning for the Royal Ballet it is, I think, in reconnecting itself to the wider theatrical world. Ross Stretton’s track record with Australian Ballet suggests he might see the truth of this (presumably he had a hand in ‘Tivoli’, a joint venture between Australian Ballet and Sydney Dance Company).

Deborah Bull has taken on the creativity agenda at the ROH and has wrought some useful connections between the RB and the world of contemporary dance. It is fascinating to see how choreographers like Wayne MacGregor have come alive to the grammar of ballet and to hear him speak animatedly of the possibilities of pointe. My misgivings are, however, that many figures in the contemporary world are so fascinated with the business of ‘making dances’ that they have lost sight of how their dances ‘cross the proscenium arch’. The suspicion lurks that they are not really men and women of the theatre. Few seem to be interested in ‘dance as story’. There are exceptions – Matthew Bourne most obviously, and I think one would have to mention Cathy Marsden, choreographing ‘Ballet Shoes’ for London Children’s Ballet, while simultaneously preparing ‘Co-habitants’ and other pieces for the Clore, and a more commercial commission for the recent Japanese week. It’s just the kind of messy stew from which one would expect her to learn much and to produce good things in the future.

Should Deborah Bull be exploring connections between the RB and the National Theatre or the RSC? With writers and directors who might be interested in working with dancers? With directors and choreographers in the commercial theatre? I think there are limits to what can be learnt from the more austere reaches of the contemporary dance world. It would be dreadful if too many Clore programmes were to become characterised by the rigour of a testing evening at the Wigmore Hall.

The Royal Ballet has struggled to produce its own choreographers since the passing of Ashton and Macmillan. Christopher Wheeldon found his voice by leaving the RB. While several contributors to ballet.co have decried what they see as the RB’s neglect of Wheeldon, I think their emphasis is mistaken. The culture of the Royal Ballet (and the Royal Ballet School) is geared to producing interpretative artists. Creators need different influences and to breathe different airs. It is probably inevitable that nascent choreographers will feel a need to leave. I suspect (although I don’t know it) that the culture of the company and the school is constricting and that there is little sense of connection to the wider world. I would expect much the same to be true of the Menuhin School; composers and orchestral musicians emerge in quite different ways and I would expect that to be true of dancers and choreographers. That said, it was striking at the recent Clore commemoration of Constant Lambert to hear Leo Kersley speak of how ballet was ‘part of the intellectual ferment of the 1930s’. Lambert himself was a frequent contributor to left wing magazines. And World War Two had a searing influence on the world of ballet, as it did on English society at large. Indeed it marked itself on the imaginations of both Ashton and Macmillan. How many in today’s Royal Ballet are socially alert in the same way? I think the answer to this question bears heavily on the issue of the company’s creativity.

One final point. There is much angst about ballet’s creativity being ‘dried up’. But this can be overdone. The sense of being ‘stuck’ is an issue for all the arts and is not one unique to dance.

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14-06-01, 05:45 PM (GMT)
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5. "RE: Ross Stretton, the Royal Ballet and Creativity"
In response to message #4
   A postscript to my last posting. Tomorrow's Sydney Morning Herald (available now on http://www.smh.com.au/news/0106/15/features/features8.html ) carries a piece by Valerie Lawson which has some important keys to Ross Stretton.

She hears a rhetoric from Stretton in advance of his arrival at Covent Garden similar to that he used when he took over Australian Ballet. (as in "I intend to bring in people to motivate this company"). She has not heard him use the words "creativity, energy and passion" yet, but senses it won't be long.

Lawson credits Stretton with attracting new audiences, especially younger ballet-goers, and encouraging Australian choreographers to make ballets with Australian themes. One of Stretton's best legacies, she says, was an increase in commissions and successful collaborations. She describes him as the first AB artistic director to be entirely comfortable with his own Australian background. He was unafraid, according to Lawson, to commission works reflecting Australian society in all its aspects.

The downside was the departure of many members of the company. Of 62 dancers with AB in December 1996, 22 remain.

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