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Subject: "After Dowell: questions about the RB board " Archived thread - Read only
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Brendan McCarthymoderator

06-08-01, 11:26 AM (GMT)
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"After Dowell: questions about the RB board "
   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.

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  Subject     Author     Message Date     ID  
  RE: After Dowell: questions about the RB board Paul A 06-08-01 1
     RE: After Dowell: questions about the RB board Eugene Merrett 06-08-01 2
  RE: After Dowell: questions about the RB board Bruce Madmin 07-08-01 3
     RE: After Dowell: questions about the RB board Brendan 07-08-01 4
         RE: After Dowell: questions about the RB board Alymer 07-08-01 5
         RE: After Dowell: questions about the RB board Brendan McCarthymoderator 10-08-01 6

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Paul A

06-08-01, 11:55 AM (GMT)
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1. "RE: After Dowell: questions about the RB board "
In response to message #0
   The problem is the structure of the ROH board - and how it represents the house as a whole. As a business, the board should be the working body that is responsible for the actions of the house. At the moment it is the fundraising department - the subsidiary boards are too far down the structure to be influential, irrespective of their composition.

A big failing of everybody concerned was how Bintley felt he needed to remove himself. True he didn't have the biggest of successes with his ROH creations at that time - but he was the obvious choreographer to ensure the continuity of the English tradition. Dowell's failing was that he could not convince the boards of the viability of seasons that truly represented the company's heritage - until his valedictory season that is.

The worry is that judging by what has been announced for next year we will move to an Any Company, Anywhere style. Certainly there is a high quotient of seen before elsewhere (including what Stretton has staged in Australia).

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Eugene Merrett

06-08-01, 01:48 PM (GMT)
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2. "RE: After Dowell: questions about the RB board "
In response to message #1
   A board of governors is essential to any non profit organization. But as much as possible all artistic decision should be made by the artistic director. If I was on the board I would be closely involved with the production of the major ballets such as Swan Lake as these are vital to the success of the company. They cross-subsidized the newer more adventurous works. A bad Swan Lake production could seriously endanger the company - but mistakes are affordable in Triple Bills. In fact in order to create one worthwhile new work - it is generally necessary to endure many mediocre and bad works. I expect new works to be pretty bad but I am willing to endure them as a matter of principle.

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Bruce Madmin

07-08-01, 10:48 AM (GMT)
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3. "RE: After Dowell: questions about the RB board "
In response to message #0
   An interesting and thought provoking piece (thanks Brendan) which raises lots of questions - for me anyway. I decided to put the odd title in my responce to make it perhaps more approachable

AD Contract Length
How long was Dowel's initial contract for? What was the 14 years made up of in contractual terms? One got the felling that an AD was hired and the job was theirs until they'd had enough or some gross misconduct happened. I'm not absolutely sure about Stretton but he must be on a fixed term contract - naturally renewable as desired. There are natural milestones in such a set-up and its easier for a board to manage.

Ballet Board and Main Board
I'm on the edge of my understanding but I think ballet is only at the Opera House because the Ballet Board are comfortable with that. They actually have real power, though not enough money to exercise it. Now if I understand rightly the ROH board is very much the place where decisions are taken and I think Southgate made it so - its a comparatively recent change anyway. Before that there were three boards which had fingers in the pie and now the ROH Board is the main one. The Ballet Board having chucked its lot in with ROH now exercises little power - other then the power to up sticks and go... but hard to see that given all the new facilities etc.

As an example of the power of the Ballet Board (not), the search committee for the new RB AD was I think Southgate, Eatwell, Kaiser and Grey. Of the four only one is on the Ballet Board. So who is Stretton going to jump for - Ballet Board or main Board? Pretty obvious really. That's my take - happy to be told I'm wrong, or its very different.

What Boards do
There is a lot of talk about what boards do - and I fundamentally disagree with Eugene that its acceptable for a board to closely involved in a new production for example. Boards are there to select and monitor the performance of the executive officers. Its for the executive to make a success of the enterprise, to suggest appropriate changes and convince the board that they are doing a grand job in the context of agreed general objectives. Its not for the board to dictate or overly steer the exec about what it should be doing - if they are doing that then they selected the wrong execs. That said they should offer support and advice when they think its needed. But if they do too much of this the exec don't own the enterprise and less buy-in and commitment would result.

If a board is unhappy with an executive then they really need to have the wherewithal to make a change. I suspect poor contracts between board and exec in the past has not made this easy. And yes perhaps the boards and those up top have not planned succession properly. Though I guess this came low on the agenda given their difficulties on the rebuilding of Covent Garden itself.

I think the ballet board has ultimate power with regard to RB, but is now a neutered part of the general ROH setup and that's where the real power currently resides. Its a relatively new set-up but Stretton knows who appointed him. The contract between him and the House will fundamentally be different to the Dowell one and Stretton is secure, for 14 years even, if he is perceived to make the most of the money and assets available. If he is not then there can be change - rather than ringing of hands. It will be interesting to see how it all works out...

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07-08-01, 11:42 AM (GMT)
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4. "RE: After Dowell: questions about the RB board "
In response to message #3
   I've been asked about my source for writing that Stretton had been spoken to by the board of Australian Ballet about his people-management skills.

It was a piece in The Age by Neil Jillett, which ran on 17th December 2000. The quote is:
"After Stretton had been the AB's boss for only a few months, complaints that he was brusque and aloof caused the board, acting with unusual firmness (an insider told me at the time), to advise him to show dancers more consideration. The situation apparently improved, but in recent months there have again been rumors of unhappiness among the dancers, although it has not shown in stage performances". The URL is http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/2000/12/17/FFX41D3QQGC.html

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07-08-01, 05:00 PM (GMT)
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5. "RE: After Dowell: questions about the RB board "
In response to message #4
   What about the role of Anthony Russell-Roberts?. If Dowell has a distaste for confrontation, then surely Russell-Roberts should have been backing and supporting him and according to Mary Allen this doesn't seem to have been the case.
We should bear in mind that the composition of the ballet board has changed over the period of Dowell's directorship, but I suspect that their real powers are limited. The big decisions come from the ROH board. For instance, I remember hearing that the ballet board was not too thrilled to learn that Dowell's contract had been renewed last time, but given the circumstances then prevailing - the house about to undergo rennovation, no home found for either company, etc., felt it was not appropriate to contest a decision which had already been taken.

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Brendan McCarthymoderator

10-08-01, 08:06 AM (GMT)
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6. "RE: After Dowell: questions about the RB board "
In response to message #4
   I have now been told on definitive authority that the suggestion (for which I drew on a story in The Age) that the Board of Australian Ballet spoke with Ross Stretton about his people-management skills is quite simply wrong. Apologies.

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