Now that Anthony Dowell has left the Royal Ballet, the debate over his tenure as Artistic Director may have run its course. There is a fair consensus that his achievement is a heavily qualified one, that the company has been unadventurous in its programming, that it has not been completely mindful of its choreographic heritage, and that it has lost something of its Englishness.
But there is a bureaucratic story that bears raking over, not merely because it is interesting in its own right, but also because there are deep-seated problems that could come to plague any new leadership.
Think back to 1985 when Anthony Dowell was appointed Artistic Director. There was no choreographer from the original line of succession who could be appointed. Under Norman Morrice the company had actively shown new works. But dancing standards had slipped and morale was declining. Anthony Dowell could potentially address these defects – and did. He meticulously attended performances, dealt firmly with sloppiness, and set about a new production of Swan Lake. While it was not an unbridled success, it was at very least an honourable failure (and in my view very much better than that).
It seems clear to me that his appointment should have been for one period only. Dowell did what he knew – and delivered all(indeed more than all) that could reasonably have been expected of him. But the administration of the ROH, the ROH main board and the board of the Royal Ballet appear to have sat on their hands and not tried to identify a potential successor.
Sir John Tooley, the ROH’s General Director until 1988, had a strong voice in Dowell’s initial appointment. In “In House”, his account of his years at the ROH, Sir John wrote:
“I hoped that in spite of his private and introspective personality, he would be right to lead the company through a rapidly and difficult scene into a modernised opera house and beyond. The company by then needed a Royal Ballet trained dancer at their head, and somebody whom they respected and admired. Dowell, after a most distinguished career as one of the Royal Ballet’s greatest dancers, was just such a person. In dealing with the dancers he has been good, but his touch with programme making and choosing new works has been less sure. He seems not to be well informed of what is going on in the rest of the dance world, and has made some surprising choices of choreographers and versions of nineteenth-century ballets as well as of designers. His re-appointment must surely have been questioned”.
Questioned by whom? Sir Jeremy Isaacs had taken over as General Director. His time at Covent Garden was highly controversial; Isaacs’ record has been attacked in scathing terms both by Tooley, and by Mary Allen, one of his successors. It is clear from his own account of his time at Covent Garden “Never Mind the Moon” that artistic decisions were a matter for the executive – and not the ballet board (“the subsidiary Boards’ view of repertory was general, encouraging, supportive” – p.43). Isaacs was critical of Dowell:
“In my years, Anthony Dowell’s strengths grew. But his leadership, at any rate early on was leadership by stealth. Quiet and reticent, Dowell spent too long shut up in his office, with his closest colleagues, the door guarded by a dragon, a caring personal assistant, jealously rationing admittance”.
I wonder if Isaacs ensured the renewal of Dowell’s contract partly in reaction to the insurrection of such figures as Wayne Eagling? Eagling was a truculent union negotiator and, as Isaacs found, a troublesome adversary. Eagling had told Isaacs that Dowell should never have been appointed as artistic director. Isaacs seems to have interpreted this as a challenge to his leadership and a test to his mettle. At any rate Eagling left. Dowell stayed for a further term.
But the Ballet board seems to have been quiescent in all of this. Indeed through various accounts of these years at the ROH I can find only one exercise by the board of any muscularity of its own. In 1996/97 Tessa Blackstone insisted on one fewer three-act ballet and one more triple bill.
In her account of her time as the ROH’s Chief Executive (“A House Divided”) Mary Allen, dismisses the ballet board as an irrelevancy:
“…. a group of elderly people – many of them having been connected with the company up to twenty years ago – telling us what we ought to have been doing about the rep and other matters. There is no obvious connection between this set of governors and the ROH board although they seem to see themselves as having a similar role”.
The point of all of this is that Anthony Dowell has strong, but very qualified, strengths. He was an artist of the greatest distinction. While he was not without leadership skills, a proper board would have seen it as a duty to reinforce him with advice, protection, and complementary skills of its own. But did it? Not that I can see. Dowell must have found the crisis years of the 1990s intolerable. MacMillan was dead, there was a hostile reaction to Dowell’s own production of Sleeping Beauty, and the ROH’s financial situation became ever more parlous. Faced with lack of support and the insistence of a powerful General Director, Dowell found himself making unsavoury compromises. In October 1998 he was interviewed by Norman Lebrecht of the Telegraph:
"We would be asked once a programme had been planned - and even printed - to make changes. For instance, one season we had our Christmas fare of Nutcracker and Cinderella, and they said, could you add Swan Lake and Beauty? It put enormous strains on rehearsal time and we only just got things together. We kept getting asked to make savings, or help revenue, by adding populist works. I'm a practical person and decisions had to be taken to keep the company together. I didn't want to lose 10 dancers. A ballet company is a team, you can't cut off bits and pieces."
Next month Ross Stretton will move into Anthony Dowell’s old office at the ROH. But what will his relationship be like with the board? The board of his previous company, Australian Ballet, had occasion to caution him about his people-management skills. Would the board of the Royal Ballet show similar confidence in dealing with a difficult situation? Is Mary Allen’s assessment of the board’s ineffectiveness well placed? Some answers would be interesting.
For the record, the membership of the ballet board is: Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, Dame Beryl Grey, Deanne Bergsma, Michael Berkeley, Dr Christopher Kirk, Ross MacGibbon, Brian Nicholson, David Norman, Dame Antoinette Sibley.