Jane Simpson

Death of Ross Stretton

47 posts in this topic

The Sydney Morning Herald gets hold of an oral history interview given by Stretton to the National Library of Australia. It’s quite something. Story by Valerie Lawson.

On the 10th anniversary of Sir Kenneth's death, Stretton programmed nine of his ballets but "Deborah wanted nothing to do with it. She wanted all other ballets, all the things that were dear to her but not to me. So there was another conflict. When I was in Australia [with a tour of the Royal Ballet in the winter of 2002], she flew out to see me and her agent flew out separately to see me about doing Manon [a MacMillan ballet] in the round at the Royal Albert Hall, choreographed by [the former artistic director of the English National Ballet] Derek Deane, and produced by Raymond Gubbay, who is an entrepreneur, who has bad-mouthed the Royal Ballet, hates the Royal Ballet. Derek Deane has bad-mouthed the Royal Ballet, didn't get my position, hates the company. You know, there was bad blood all over the place."

The chief executive of the Royal Opera House, Tony Hall, also flew to Australia to discuss Lady MacMillan's request but Stretton would not budge, "after which, Stretton said, she gave an ultimatum to the board that he step aside or she would pull the MacMillan repertoire from the Royal Ballet".

Share this post


Link to post

Thank you for this Dirac. It's very rare we allowed to hear about the business side or day-to-day practicalities that go into running a ballet company.

Share this post


Link to post

After reading two dance biographies in a row, Rudolf Nureyev's and Vera Volkova's, and seeing the biases and influences of major critics, who are often enlisted in writing obits, and reading this new article, I have to wonder who was feeding info into The Guardian obit and had influence over the tone it took, or whether this was a hatchet job on a public employee, meant to embarass an organization getting public subsidies.

Share this post


Link to post

Wow. It is something. I guess it's important to realize we're not seeing it unedited, and also that oral histories aren't necessarily corroborated. It sounds like there was, as Stretton says, bad blood everywhere.

Share this post


Link to post

How interesting--Lady Macmillan does seem like a piece of work though! The idea of restaging Macmillan's Sleeping Beauty is appalling--it was truly one of the worst disasters I have ever seen, at least up to that time. It opened to a gala audience, who simply refused to applaud. I have seen worse since, I'm afraid.

Share this post


Link to post
It's very rare we allowed to hear about the business side or day-to-day practicalities that go into running a ballet company.

Especially discussed with this degree of candor.

Share this post


Link to post

I will say, for what it's worth, that Stretton's account is consistent with the back story that dance writers were getting, off the record (not by Stretton) at the time. This doesn't mean that Lady MacMillan and the others don't have a side, of course, nor that there were not other issues involved.

One thing I will say from trying to piece together a life story starting from interviews is that written evidence trumped oral history every time. NOT that people were lying. There were three dancers who told me one "fact" and could have passed any lie detector test. They absolutely believed what they were saying and had no angle and no evil intent -- but they turned out to be wrong.

Share this post


Link to post

I wouldn't say candor. I'd say rancor. I'm not sure anyone is telling the whole truth here.

Share this post


Link to post
I wouldn't say candor. I'd say rancor. I'm not sure anyone is telling the whole truth here.

Candor and rancor aren’t necessarily exclusive (and candor and honesty aren’t the same thing, while we’re on the subject). I meant his talking candidly about subjects such as who was getting paid more for doing less, for example. Obviously he wasn’t recollecting in tranquillity with all passion spent, but considering the circumstances that’s not surprising.

I suppose nobody ever does tell the whole truth, because they can only know their truth, not the whole truth. This doesn’t excuse dishonesty or egregious omissions, but we can only ask that witnesses they tell it as they saw it, and it’s up to responsible reporters and biographers (and writers of obituaries) to determine as much of the ‘whole truth’ as we can know.

Share this post


Link to post
I wouldn't say candor. I'd say rancor. I'm not sure anyone is telling the whole truth here.

Ross had an interesting and largely successful career. My husband was a fellow dancer for a short amount of time in the Joffrey ballet and thinks of him as a totally decent and generous person. I'm sure that Ross tried his best and did what he thought was right in any situation. Dance historians, a few years from now, can look back and sort it all out.

I think an unusual amount of venom came out in the article, perhaps because it is too soon to make judgments. Obviously passions run high - it is unusual for an obit to be so negative.

Share this post


Link to post
How interesting--Lady Macmillan does seem like a piece of work though!

Her influence continues to be damaging as Luke Jennings points out in a response to next seasons programming (scroll down to the end for his comment).

http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/theatre/2008/0...pera_house.html

Oddly enough someone remarked to me only last week, in response to the disastrous revival of Dancers at a Gathering, that what the RB needs is someone like Ross Stretton to rid the company of its 'dead wood'

Most interesting in the interview from my point of view, is the explanation of the Royal Gala debacle which I still remember with horror. Sounds like it was less an act of incompetence than sabotage.

Share this post


Link to post

In today's Telegraph, a rebuttal from Deborah MacMillan.

“At no point did I say 'him or me’. It wasn’t as black and white as that. That summer there had been many problems with him of other kinds. I said to the Board, 'Next season’s schedule is safe, but from the following year while Ross is here I don’t have any faith in his ability to look after Kenneth’s work’.

Seems to me the lady is being a trifle lawyerly. In any case, the Board got the message.

Thanks for that link, Mashinka. Jennings' tone isn't exactly negative, though. He adds that it's too bad no one is holding the Royal's feet to the fire on Ashton's behalf. There's a case for having works of the second rank preserved and performed along with the very best.

Share this post


Link to post
"Most interesting in the interview from my point of view, is the explanation of the Royal Gala debacle which I still remember with horror. Sounds like it was less an act of incompetence than sabotage."

I find it hard to believe that Stretton was given only 24 hours to prepare that gala. He must have known that there was to be a gala for the Queen's golden jubilee and the the ballet would be playing a major part. Certainly most of the interested public knew several months in advance. If the news really was kept from him then that in itself must be quite a story, or does he mean only one day's stage and technical rehearsal. Even so, the programme consisted only of extracts from work that had been given that season - there was nothing new or specially prepared for the occasion, a major point of dissatisfaction. I would add however that although the gala was generally regarded as a disaster I think Southgate's public criticism was totally out of order.

Reading only extracts from the interview in Valerie Lawson's story it's hard to form a balanced judgement. But certainly hostility towards an outsider from some members of Royal Ballet staff is an old story. That Norman Morrice faced the same difficulties I know on reliable evidence. And one or two of Stretton's quoted criticisms of the state of affairs in the Royal Ballet probably have a more complex back story than appears here.

Deborah MacMillan certainly does have a reputation as a fearsome champion of her husband's work and that was the case long before he died. I can't help wondering though, whether having now granted performing rights for Manon to English National Ballet who give regular seasons of in-the-round classics at the Albert Hall, she will get her wish and we shall see Manon in the round in the near future. Presumably with 60 whores rather than the 60 swans the company fields for Swan Lake.

Share this post


Link to post

I'm sure there are two sides - indeed, probably more than that. Ismene Brown responded quite sharply in today's Telegraph. I didn't think she was quite fair, in all honesty, but plainly feelings are still running high. :off topic:

Share this post


Link to post

It's too early to figure out what happened, but Stretton's final comment surely sets a record for either bravery or folly:

Asked whether he was sorry he ever took the job, Stretton replied: "No, no, no, I loved it."

Share this post


Link to post

Being fair is never easy to achieve, but the effort to be fair must always be paramount. There are some very wayward accusations in this discussion concerning Sir Kenneth MacMillan's widow, hence

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml...stretton120.xml

Carlos Acosta enlightens one corner of the story in a recent interview in The Australian (not by me):

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story...7-16947,00.html

Quote: "His one serious setback in recent years was during Stretton's short-lived tenure at Covent Garden in 2001-02, when the Cuban found himself sidelined from important roles.

"Ross Stretton had a problem with me and with high-profile people. I think it was his insecurities. He couldn't handle big artists because if you are going to direct big artists you need to know more than them but he was never a star," Acosta says.

"So if you are going to be in a room and correct my Don Quixote, a role I know a great deal, you need to know it better than me. And I think he always tried to go for very young dancers (who) know no better so he could have authority, so people like Sylvie Guillem and myself, those people were pushed away. And all of a sudden I was in a position when I had like 10 shows all year. From 30-something the year before I had seven or something ridiculous. So I had to book myself in places like Dallas, Budapest, jetsetting all over the world just to keep busy because I wasn't getting the roles."

Ismene Brown

Share this post


Link to post
Being fair is never easy to achieve, but the effort to be fair must always be paramount. There are some very wayward accusations in this discussion concerning Sir Kenneth MacMillan's widow, hence

Ismene Brown

I know nothing of the inside story about the Stretton debacle except that the Board of the Royal Opera House were at fault in their decision on employing him and they should have resigned for the shocking damage done.

Thank God, Monica Mason was there to provide a safe and rescuing pair of hands, as it is my opinion, that no one else in the whole ballet world, could have possibly have done the job as successfully as Dame Monica has done.

However, it is also my opinion that the MacMillan revision of "Romeo and Juliet" is a very pale shadow of the original production and the peformances of the 1960's and other McMillan works have not revived so well. Perhaps they are more of their time, rather like "kitchen sink" dramas in the theatre.

The mere thought of "A Different Drummer" (booed at the premier) being revived, as well as the disastrous "Isadora" (after protests divested of (seemingly by some) as an obscene dance with a pole) - I was not witness to the rehearsals but saw the finished work - one can only wonder what pressures exist to re-present these two ballets that did nothing to support the best of MacMillan's oeuvres.

There are many, yes many other works from the RB repertoire in my opinion more worthy of revival to sustain the RB aesthetic.

Share this post


Link to post

I enjoyed this bit from Ismene Brown's article in the Telegraph, since I am the ignorant American nethead, I guess! Though not so ignorant as to call someone whose background I knew nothing about (1) American (I actually grew up outside of the US, and spent some time in London, where I saw a lot of the Royal Ballet long before she started writing0 and (2) ignorant, since a complete ignorameous would neither know nor care about Lady MacMillan.

"that she's "a piece of work", as some American nethead described her to the world from a position of complete ignorance. "

But we should be very pleased and flattered that writing on Ballet Alert is the equivalent of broadcasting to the entire world!

Share this post


Link to post

To anyone with experience of new-broom CEO's in the academic world and business, the following comment by Carlos Acosta certainly rings true. (I have eliminated the names, which enhances the universality. Where the word "artist" remains, it's quite possible to replace it with "academics," "excecutives," etc.)

"XYZ had a problem with me and with high-profile people. I think it was his insecurities. He couldn't handle big artists because if you are going to direct big artists you need to know more than them but he was never a star."

[ ... ] And I think he always tried to go for very young dancers (who) know no better so he could have authority, so people like ABC and myself, those people were pushed away.

It's amazing how often a new executive brings in his own "team" of followers and admirers and butts heads with all sorts of people, even those who are the most valuable, in the institution.

Lady MacMillan's role, on the other hand, remains controversial and not at all resolved. There are clearly defenses that can be made on both sides.

Share this post


Link to post
There are some very wayward accusations in this discussion concerning Sir Kenneth MacMillan's widow, hence

I don't think anyone's trying to accuse her of anything, certainly not here. We're trying to sort out conflicting accounts of her role and influence. In any case, MacMillan seems to be able to defend herself articulately and with vigor. (Thanks very much for contributing, BTW.)

Thank God, Monica Mason was there to provide a safe and rescuing pair of hands, as it is my opinion, that no one else in the whole ballet world, could have possibly have done the job as successfully as Dame Monica has done.

It seems as if everyone can agree on that. :thumbsup:

He couldn't handle big artists because if you are going to direct big artists you need to know more than them but he was never a star,"

Well, that's certainly something a star would say. Obviously there were problems with Stretton's directorship, to put it mildly, but as a general principle annoying stars, "butting heads," and pushing young people forward is sometimes part of an AD's job.

Share this post


Link to post

From a quick reckoning I calculate that MacMillan's Romeo accounted for 18% or the Royal Ballet's performances this season. A triple bill which included two of his ballets accounted for a further 6%. If Lady MacMillan holds the rights to these works and then tells the Board of the Opera House (of which incidentally she has been a member), that she will probably withdraw the rights, then it's disingenuous to say the least to pretend she does not have considerable influence over their decisions.

But perhaps more interestingly, what would have happened if she had carried out her threat? The ballets would not have been lost as they are notated and several are in the repertories of companies other than the Royal Ballet. At the very least it would have resulted in a major re-think as to what the company should be doing, and might have brought about the 'up-dating' the Board claimed it wanted from Dowell's successor.

And a final thought with regard to the Acosta interview:

"So if you are going to be in a room and correct my Don Quixote, a role I know a great deal, you need to know it better than me

I'm sorry to learn that he's not prepared to accept correction. It might account for some of the performances he's given in London this season.

Share this post


Link to post

I agree. That's a distinctly not-ready-for-prime-time attitude on the part of a dancer. It's obvious Mr. Acosta has never had a ballet master along the lines of Antony Tudor, who would have you wondering if you knew your own name after a couple of rehearsals.

Share this post


Link to post