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Subject: "Stretton slips away ... silently" Archived thread - Read only
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Conferences What's Happening Topic #1778
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Trog Woolley

17-06-01, 11:57 AM (GMT)
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"Stretton slips away ... silently"
   Here is an article that I OCR'ed from "The Australian" - 15/06/01

Ross Stretton wants his work to speak for itself. So what does it say? Lee Christofis assesses his 4 1/2 year stewardship of the Australian Ballet

WHEN Ross Stretton takes his final bow at the Victorian Arts Centre on Sunday night, surrounded by dancers and streamers, it will be the symbolic end of a not uncontentious reign of 4 1/2 years.

The Australian Ballet's artistic director - who takes over at London's Royal Ballet in September - will not leave the company until after its July tour of China. But Sunday's gala farewell, arranged by artistic director-designate David McAllister and associate Danilo Radojevic, will highlight Stretton's achievements and metaphorically close the door, in fine style, on his tenure.

In keeping with his longstanding reluctance to talk to the dance-loving public via the press, Stretton has declined interviews on his departure. So it is the work that must speak for him.

Stretton's achievements at the AB are not unimpressive, even if there are too few unalloyed episodes to call his tenure a runaway success. From the outset he rid the AB of his predecessor Maina Gielgud's old-fashioned style and affectations, and profiled more works by AB resident choreographers Stephen Baynes, Natalie Weir and Stanton Welch, as well as Sydney Dance Company director Graeme Murphy and Bangarra Dance Theatre director Stephen Page.

Ditching cultural cringe, he presented Welch's Madame Butterfly and an Australian triple bill including Rites in the US, earning himself and the AB considerable respect. Stretton's triple bills raised standards for one-act ballets, boosting their ticket sales to unprecedented heights, notably in 2000.

These programs had a contemporary edge heralded in 1997 by Twyla Tharp's athletic phenomenon, In the Upper Room, and later by emotional, mysterious works by Jiri Kylian (Bella Figura) and Nacho Duato (Por vos Muero). But Stretton was building on a contemporary field instigated by Gielgud and realised stunningly by her dancers. And, like Gielgud, he managed only one worthy international commission, Canadian James Kudelka's imaginative Book of Alleged Dances.

Perhaps Stretton's greatest strength is taking up risky ideas that would send weaker heads scurrying under the desk. Clifford Hocking wanted a Rite of Spring, but in an Australian context, for his 1997 Melbourne Festival Stretton delivered Page's unique fusion of Aboriginal and contemporary dance, Rites, combining Stravinsky, Bangarra and the AB. Baynes conceived 1914 from David Maloufs World War I novel, Fly Away Peter.

We got an inspired idea and an all-Australian production, albeit a flawed one. The latest is Tivoli, Murphy's dance-musical homage to the Tivoli theatres, a joint AB-SDC-Melbourne Federation Festival treat now on tour.

These were grand events among many fine performances Stretton oversaw but, ultimately, the AB's bread and butter is the artistic health of its repertoire and its dancers - for whom, he said early on, he came home. Certainly the AB is dancing with more vitality, elan, clarity and individuality than it often did under Gielgud, but at what cost?

Stretton's favouring of a more American look - speedy, snappy, stretched - and promotion of only a handful of dancers left some artists struggling to get that look, and others floundering in the classics. The result looks like a company fractured and insecure under the surface of hard work, but saved by the dancers' sheer determination.

His casting sometimes seemed ill-judged when junior artists opened seasons in roles clearly beyond them and mature artists waited in the wings for weeks.

I remain unconvinced about I Stretton's ability to shepherd ballets from creation or revival to stage because, despite his claim to be a very hands-on director, he seemed to let go of his artistic product at crucial moments.

For instance the AB's cash cow, the sparkling Merry Widow, made for stars to dance with stars in their eyes - Marilyn Rowe, John Meehan, Lucette a Aldous, Kelvin Coe and even Margot Fonteyn - was caned by critics last year, as was this year's Giselle in Sydney. Each was thin on artistic intelligence, or a mutually comprehended viewpoint that would galvanise the entire company, musical staff included.

Furthermore, Stretton's reticence to engage guest coaches meant that dancers were denied the wisdom of many fine artists living in Australia - including, until last year, the pre-eminent American ballerina Gelsey Kirkland.

Despite being assisted by a loyal ballet staff, Stretton's directorship is, in my book, marked by the absence of a deeply engaged, and distinctive guiding hand, His inability to create a cohesive whole out of the AB's enviable artistic and production resources - the ultimate directorial test - could well be the singular weakness he must overcome if he is to survive the byzantine Royal Opera House and the invariably demanding British ballet press.

Lee Christofis is The Australian's Melbourne dance critic

Some quotes follow the main article under the corny heading :-
Peer pleasure in pushing the boundaries, with all the Rites stuff

Stephen Page, artistic director, Bangarra Dance Theatre: "Ross approached me about doing Rites, he trusted me and obviously wanted to push the boundaries. We're not here to fold napkins, we're here to challenge. Maina Gielgud breastfed the dancers for a long time and Ross Stretton challenged that company."

Ted Brandsen artistic director, West Australian Ballet: "Dance in Australia suffers sometimes from an image problem, with people still associating ballet with tutus and old-fashioned work that is irrelevant. Ross's repertoire has emphasised the athleticism and energy, which has made people think differently about ballet."

Karen van Ulzen, editor, Dance Australia: "Ross has done good things for the repertoire and brought in some really interesting additions through his US connections. He has also stood by the Australian choreographers. Overall the company is looking pretty strong and more modern than in Maina Gielgud's time. But it seems odd that for a company which is so busy, deserving dancers have been overlooked and are sitting on the sidelines. He hasn't been good as a public figurehead and has withdrawn from the public gaze."

Graeme Murphy, artistic director, Sydney Dance Company: "The world of ballet is in danger of not expanding its audience, yet that's one of the broad legacies Ross has left behind - he has opened the company up to collaborations with other companies. Each new artistic director needs time to nurture each person and Ross hasn't had that time because he has only been at the helm for four years."

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