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What is happening at Royal Ballet?


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If English press is to believed the new broom, Ross Stretton, has already swept Mukamedow and Sara Wildor out of the company. As Carlos Acosta is heading West as well, one may want to ask What can Stretton bring to justify the "sackings" and to avoid other talented dancer to take their talent elsewhere?

When Frank Andersen was first appointed Ballet Master in Copenhagen he announced that it would be his policy to build on the young dancers, which immidiately led to a situation where the young talents fleed the company, because they now knew that they could only expect a short career if age was the guiding factor. By dropping older, established stars Stretton likewise sent the message to the young ones he wants to keep, and I suppose Acosta being one of those that RB is not a good career choice for the long run.

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Although I don't hold any particular brief for Ross Stretton, I do think he's getting a lot of flak at the moment for things that aren't his fault. Carlos Acosta only actually joined the Royal Ballet for one season and has been a guest artist since then - if anyone failed to hang on to him, it was Anthony Dowell. He's scheduled to dance both Don Quixote and La Bayadere with the company this season. Mukhamedov has also been a guest artist rather than a member of the company for the last 2 or 3 years, and though Stretton's way of telling him he wasn't being used in future seems to have been extremely tactless, there's no reason to believe that Dowell would have kept him on either. Mukhamedov's technical capability has been fading distressingly for several seasons and as he won't consider any but leading roles, this had to happen either now or very soon.

Sarah Wildor is another matter entirely, I agree.

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I also note that Stretton is only casting principals in principal and even soloist roles, and that the soloists are not being given a chance to do very much. Now this may only hold true for this year, a year in which Stretton is getting to know the company and the strengths and weaknesses of its various dancers, but I think if I were a RB dancer I'd be very nervous.

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Oh piffle.... *waves hand dismissively*

There was a similar 'uproar' when Stretton came to the Australian Ballet, only on a lesser scale because the Aus isn't as steeped in tradition as the Royal.

At the time I said that change of director is a natural time for people to move on, for people to get their noses out of joint and all the rest. The same stands here. I think the Royal is safe in Stretton's hands - he did good things for the Aus and they appointed him with the EXPECTATION that he would shake things up.

Give him a chance to DO something before pointing accusing fingers, is my opinion.

(Edit: isN'T not is steeped in tradition..)

[ October 24, 2001: Message edited by: Katharyn ]

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While I agree that any new director needs to be given a chance, there are early signs that are disturbing. The Nadine Meisner interview looked rather like early damage control. And with all due respect to the Australian Ballet, the RB's tradition includes great native choreography -- any company has noses-out-of-joint problems, yes. But putting Ashton in a vault and dragging out a few ballets in four years for his centennial is, to me, a danger signal. Also, the notion that Tudor/Cranko are interchangeable "British choreographers" for Ashton/MacMillan indicates that Stretton isn't looking at his job as upholding any traditions -- and yes, he may well have been hired to do just that. (I don't mean that there's a quality difference, although arguments could be made, but Tudor and Cranko aren't part of the Royal tradition, so getting them to fill some British choreographer quota really misses the point.) As for Stephen Baynes being on the level of Ashton and Balanchine. Piffle! (Great word, Katharyn.)

All this said, we still won't know how Stretton will do until he does it. I'd argue that casting principals in principal roles is not a bad thing, especially if he moves away from the Anybody Who Can Do the Steps Can Do the Role mindset. He shouldn't be judged until the end of the season, when he's not only got a whole season behind him, but the next season's plans are out. But it doesn't hurt to keep an eye on how the canary in the coal mine is doing.

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>>The Nadine Meisner interview looked rather like early damage control.<<

Yes it did didn't it. And in that he implied that what happened with Irek was a done deal before he arrived. And when I watched Ballet Boyz second film they talked to Irek then and he said it was his last night of doing Manon forever and he was gone.

Interesting then, the recents reviews of Mukhamedov's dancing in his gala evening. Leaner and still wowing them in London.

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I don't think any of these events are out of the ordinary. There is always attrition in the ranks and fidgeting in the press when a new AD takes over anything (ballet, opera, symphonies, record lables, etc.). I will hold my judgement for another year or two. Hopefully he will be given enough of a break that he will be able to show his strengths as an AD and not get his hands tied right away.

As for talented dancers leaving, that always leaves room for other maybe even more talented dancers to fill their places.

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My concern for the Royal Ballet and the consequences of new management is fulled by our experience in Copenhagen from the last 10 years where we have experienced 5 new ballet masters of short reigns but negative results. One thing was they did not bring much but between them they managed to drive away several highly talented dancers, shorteneds carriers, dismiss teachers and directors with experience and links to the "golden years" and the heritage in order to bring in repetoire from their former and lesser tradition, friends and associates as teachers and directors which little knowledge and taste. When you are taking over a company with tradition, it is important that you value the tradition and keep it alive and the only way you can do that is to ally with the people who are part of the tradition not by allinating them. I am sure that Dowell had his mistakes as well, but he was a part of the company tradition and have worked with Ashton, McMillan and de Valois first hand. It is a very critical stage for a new broom o take over. Please sweep gentle.

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I think that what happened in Copenhagen may well become a "model" (a bad one) for other companies with tradition, as well. There are signs of similar policies and choices at Paris Opera and Covent Garden. I don't know enough about what's going on in Russia to write about it -- we know there's been upheaval, but how deep it's gone is hard to say.

One thing I'm sick of hearing (along with "standing classicism on its head!!!" "kicking ballet's butt into the 21st century!!!!) is "My job is to shake the company up." Says who? Have you ever read that about a new opera company director, or a new conductor? If there are shakeups in institutions, it's to get rid of dead wood, or make it clear to people that they actually have to show up at rehearsals themselves, not send a student, etc. It's not to turn the place upside down, bring in one's friends, invite the three choreographers one knows personally to stage the repertory, etc etc That may be fine for newer companies that don't yet have a tradition worth saving, but it's the wrong path for institutions. You can see it coming, like snow building to an avalanche, and when the avalanche finally falls, and the people who made the bad appointments start pointing fingers at each other -- or, as happened in Copenhagen, at the "childish" dancers -- it's very frustrating to watch. It's more than seeing a favorite dancers taken off roles. (And the notion that it's good to get rid of dancers to give others a chance is a perfect way to go if you want to guarantee constant turnover, instability, and the inability of a strong tradition to grow.)

Lara, I agree -- the Mukhamedov comments were one red flag for me, the Wildor ones another. And it's Stress Rotten, not Stressed Rotten, the active rather than the passive form. That's been known for some time, in the States as well as in London. (Apparently the Royal Ballet dancers give everyone a nickname, and often they're not flattering. They aren't picking on Stretton.)

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I think you are absolutely right on target, and is has to do with the fact that the larger companies have not been very good in forseing their management needs. The culture is an autocratic leader, but that was based on a genius autograt, not just someone pulled out of the corps or from a foreign continent. What is needed is a carefull guide who can teach, direct and cast and who can find choreographic talent to build on. But the autocratic model put the fragile companies in dire straits because the autocratic leader is able to place all responsibility on himself, like Aage Thordahl or Peter Schaufuss commisioning works from themselves, eventhough they have hardly done any original chorography prior to be appointed ballet master. But all may not be lost in Copenhagen, Arne Villumsen, our greatest James have come back from retirement to direct La Sylphide. I cannot tell yet ,as I have not seen the performance yet, whether Arne is as great a director as he was dancer, but at least Thomas Lund and the other new cast members have the posibility to learn from ad ancer who knows every detail and who was taught by Kronstam and Brenaa, thereby reestablishing the missing link. These last few years have seen directors who had never danced the leading parts themselves May the Royal Ballet dancers keep their link to the tradition as well.and may we in Copenhagen see more productions where the living history is a present part of the production team.

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What makes the situation in England interesting is that Dowell's last season was a very traditional one -- and it was (judged by what I read on the internet :) ) successful with both critics and fans. If someone had come in two years ago as a Mr. Shake It Up, the changes may not seem so stark. But we do need to give him at least a year :)

(Effy, I think the Danish model, with a director in charge of a production, the way a director in the theater is in charge of a production, with the extra responsibility of teaching/coaching the parts step by step, is unique. Or was unique.)

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Alexandra — >> the Mukhamedov comments were one red flag for me, the Wildor ones another. <<

The Sarah one was really bad! Saying that he just couldn't understand why she left as she was slated for Onegin was major spin control. I think I wrote a friend that the man comes off rather slimey slick.

But he is getting good press today after last night's opening of Don Q.

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I agree, but I kept thinking, what is a journalist's responsibility for an interview? I can't blame someone for doing spin control, really. It's usually a journalist's job to get the other side of a story. But often, especially in the arts, things aren't checked, the person is given a "let him tell his story" type of interview. This wouldn't happen in business, or politics, or sports, but in the arts, different rules apply.

I'm very glad the opening went well, but if we're looking at the Royal Ballet's tradition, what is that company doing dancing Don Q? (I know it's been in repertory for several years.) That's a Festival Ballet (ENB) ballet. (This is a rhetorical question :) )

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Sounds like we're all getting a little personal and emotional here. Maybe it would be different if I were from London. However I remember all the same things being said about San Francisco Ballet in the '80s when Tomasson took over. I think they came out alright.

I really think we ought to give him a chance.

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Yes, there was a lot of turmoil in San Francisco. And in Boston and Pittsburgh and Alberta and lots of other places. The SFB example was the reverse of what's been happening in the decade since (there was a long, very interesting piece in Atlantic Monthly about it years ago). There, the board did get rid of the artistic director and deliberately went out and found another director. Their motivation wasn't just to sell tickets or stir things up, though. They wanted to build a first-rate classical ballet company, and there were at least some people on that board who knew what that meant. But the larger point is, these smaller, younger companies do not have the same histories or traditions -- or role in their countries' art establishment -- as

do the handful of companies in ballet's Ivy League -- the Great Classical Institutions.

(LMCTech, if you disagree, fine, please express it, but please do so without accusations or characterizations of other posts or posters.)

In looking at the GCI's (great classical institutions) the departure of a dancer may have an effect on repertory, the introduction of a ballet or ballets may have an effect. These are matters that go far beyond someone's favorite dancer or favorite ballet and must be looked at in historical context. Until recently, there was such an emphasis on choreographers that what was going on backstage, the balletmastering, got overlooked, but it needs to be looked at (I write as someone who, as most of you know, studied the history and politics of one of these companies very closely for the past ten years.)

No artistic director can be fairly judged until a few years after he's retired, but there's nothing untoward about questioning early choices of dancers and repertory, either.

[ 10-24-2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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The Royal Ballet is governed by a board. There was a search, and there were applicants who grew up in the Royal Ballet. I'm sure the board had its reasons, and I'm not trying to second guess them. I'm not saying that Stretton IS unsuitable; I don't know that, and we won't be able to judge it until he's been in there for awhile. All I've tried to do -- in this case, as well as several others -- is to suggest that there are different criterion for different companies, and that, while it's perfectly understandable -- and OK -- for balletgoers to mourn the loss of a favorite dancer or favorite ballet, there's more to it than that, so when people question company administration, choices, etc., they may be looking at the larger picture.

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I think we need to consider that there are different types of companies. There are a handfull of classical companies with a historic tradition, Royal Danish Ballet, Bolshoi, Kirov, Paris Opera, Royal Ballet (London), NYCB and perhabs a few more. Any ballet master in charge must take care of tradition and make certain that the family silver is kept intact, as well as developing the companies. Then there are another group of ballet companies like Nederland Dance Theater, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Ailey, Roland Petit, and other which are dominated by a resident choreographer. When he dies or leaves the company, they face a different task and depending on the legacy may move up to the first group. Then there is a group of Wannabe Classical companies ABT, San Francisco, Boston, Harlem, Canada, Australia, National Ballet, Swedish Royal Ballet etc, that do not have a specific legacy to preserve but it constantly trying to build a platform an gain a personality au pair with the true classical companies. Each type of company needs a different type of artistic management. You cannot be a new broom at NYCB and swep out all the Balanchine and Robbins inherency. As the inventor creator in group two companysyou build accordingly to your own needs as choreographer. In awannabe company your job is to build identity and take risks. But if that is your background you may not be suited to the other groups. Do not get me started on the consequences of putting four in a row of those into a classical company

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