The Royal Ballet: Masterclass: Don Quixote given by Ross Stretton, Director, The Royal Ballet, Alina Cojocaru (Kitri), Ivan Putrov (Basilio) and Henry Roche, Piano
The ROH’s Linbury Theatre was the setting tonight for Ross Stretton’s first Masterclass as Director of the Royal Ballet. On this occasion the word “Masterclass” was a misnomer, as there was no attempt on his part either to direct the dancers regarding either technique or interpretation. This may have been partly due to the fact that he and the two dancers had been hard at it all day in rehearsals and just didn’t have much puff left (or as Stretton put it, the rest of the company on wasn’t on stage to give them the necessary energy and support). Whatever, the result was not a studio workout where an artist is led to a deeper and more powerful interpretation, but a set of mini performances from Acts I and III, rather like those commercials for coming attractions you get at the cinema.
Nevertheless the evening was valuable as an introduction to the RB’s new artistic director’s view on Don Quixote, dancing and dancers and the Royal Ballet itself. Ross Stretton had decided on this particular version of Don Quixote because it was short, tight, happy and fun, and because its variety of roles would give him the opportunity to assess the company. (He was determined that permanent RB artists should open his first season.) It is Stretton’s intention to bring this version of Don Quixote back in the summer season when he hopes that Darcy Bussell will dance Kitri. That would be a first as Ms Bussell, while wanting to perform the role, has not in the past ever got farther than the dress rehearsal. Maybe this time she will get lucky.
While he rated Sleeping Beauty as the hardest role for a ballerina, he thought that Kitri and Odette/Odille were also demanding. He assessed Don Quixote’s Act I as being the most difficult of the three Acts with Kitri hitting the stage “on fire” and being all about the “power of the legs”. (Basilio gets an easier introduction). Act II has a calmer feel with the ballerina dancing in a fluid style. Act III makes rigorous demands requiring and enabling dancers to show off both their techniques and their joy of dance.
Stretton explained that for the past two weeks he had been working with Cojocaru and Putrov (replacing the still not fully recuperated Johan Persson) to discover “what looks good and what does not”. It was a process whereby the dancers got to know each other and gain confidence together as a team, being able to identify the colour of each other’s eyes as well as the feel of each other’s weight without costumes getting in the way. There were differences between the two that had to be ameliorated if they were to gel on stage. In this context Stretton mentioned the different way they each heard the music, his enormous elevation and strength (particularly on his left leg) and her quick timing and being “quite fine”. In the next two weeks before the performance they would be closely monitored as to what they did or did not eat, drink or smoke; a process not dissimilar to preparing a racehorse for the Grand National. While he indicated that Cojocaru and Putrov would certainly dance together again, he did not make an absolute promise of a future partnership, although certainly some of the audience on this showing thought they should become one.
Good partnerships are obviously very important to Stretton. Changing partners at the last minute, while often unavoidable, is a dangerous practice often leading to injury. And an injury in a company, as he observed, frequently has a ripple effect. Yet some dancers, such as Jonathan Cope could dance with anyone being wonderful partners.
Stretton stressed his conviction that dancers must be pushed outside their “comfort zone” to realise their full potential. Yet on occasion they must also be held back from their intense desire to be perfect. Dance for him is very much about musicality. (In this he saw the role of the conductor is crucial, as he or she could literally destroy a performance with the beat of their baton.) It is also about dancers pacing themselves properly and their mental as well as physical preparations for a performance.
In Stretton’s eyes the RB is unusual in being a place for nurturing dancers. Not just a company, but a home base. For it is through these dancers that, as Valerie Lawson said in her biographical notes for the Masterclass, Stretton will achieve his ambition to “touch people’s hearts and minds, and overwhelm them with physicality”.