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The Buzz, 9-26: Hello! Goodbye!
DTW Opens Brave New Era; Stretton Quits Royal Ballet

By Darrah Carr
and Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

NEW YORK -- Before a crowd so large half a city block had to be closed, Dance Theater Workshop staff and associates Wednesday evening proudly cut through ribbons stretching across the sparkling glass facade of DTW's Doris Duke Performance Center. The brand new building at 219 W. 19th Street, with its brushed aluminum detailing, beige brick, and large, airy windows is not only sparkling, it is spacious, inviting, and perfectly tailored to the needs of the artists and audiences it will serve. Longtime executive director David White gave props to the donors, staff, and supporters who enabled what was only a dream in 1991 to become a reality, noting that now "the future will be built by the artists who use the space." The center, said White, was "built for kids and for the public constituencies we work with." He enjoined those gathered, "Come on in, it's your building," and quipped, "When the going gets tough, the weird turn pro."

Indeed, the $11.5 million facility is absolutely state of the art. Located on the site of DTW's former building, the new center comprises 28,700 square feet and occupies the first three floors of a soaring 11-story building designed by Ed Rawlings (who happens to be married to a dancer). The 192-seat Bessie Schonberg Theater boasts a house and stage nearly twice the size of its predecessor, offering excellent sightlines. In one of just many examples of the design's incredible attention to detail, radiant heated flooring will keep the dancers' barefoot toes warm, even as the audience relaxes in the air-conditioned theater.

Speaking of flooring, the sprung wood floors of both upstairs studios will make those dancers' toes smile also, as will the name of the Cheryl Henson-funded "Miss Piggy Dressing Room." The back studio opens onto a beautiful terrace with a striking view of the Empire State Building. The facility's other amenities include expanded office space, the Lucky Star Gallery (whose glass doors beckon the passersby), and an artist resource and media laboratory. Nicknamed ARM, the new center for technology aims to further DTW's commitment to artist services. Choreographers will be able to edit videos of performances and rehearsals and create computer-generated designs and pictures.

After a very busy few days (between the Bessie Awards and last night's open house/ribbon cutting ceremony) DTW's staff deserves to have a few not so busy days -- but only until October 2, when the new center officially opens with an evening-length premiere by Ronald K. Brown/Evidence. Meanwhile, the building height isn't the only thing that's soared. Ticket prices for some events, including the seasons of Ron Brown and David Drake, are $30, with other events going for $20. Becoming a DTW member, for as little as $65 per year, drops the ticket price by 40 percent. (This last note on price from PBI; the rest of the report above from Darrah Carr.)

LONDON -- Yesterday was a busy day on both sides of the Atlantic. While DTW was saying hello to its new building, Ross Stretton was waving goodbye to the Royal Ballet after just one year as its director, effective immediately, according to a company spokesperson.

Stretton has been dogged, particularly this summer, by accusations from dancers, critics, and audiences about last-minute changes to announced casting, James Morrison reported in London's Independent newspaper earlier this month. "Of the 22 shows in the ballet's summer season," the paper said, "only two went ahead with the originally advertised cast."

According to the Independent, the performers union, Equity, was to meet with the dancers earlier this month to discuss concerns "about the unorthodox management style of...Ross Stretton. The union is investigating a series of complaints about the maverick Australian, who has been accused of infuriating his company by making last-minute casting changes that leave them unsure if and when they are to perform." Before coming to the RB, Stretton, a former assistant director of American Ballet Theatre, served for 18 months as director of the Australian Ballet.

In August, veteran dance critic and historian John Percival, also writing in The Independent, summarized audience frustration with this pattern by noting:

"The Royal Opera House has just set an unexpected world record. Every patron attending the Royal Ballet's summer season found themselves with only a one in ten chance of seeing the cast that had been announced when the box office opened. People who paid as much as 65 (pounds) a ticket -- and had to send the money months ago to be sure of their first choice -- found that they weren't getting the dancers they chose. Some of them are rather angry." Among audience favorites who were replaced after having been advertised as appearing were longtime principal Darcey Bussell, replaced in 'Don Quixote,' and Tamara Rojo, replaced in John Cranko's "Onegin."

Percival allowed that "ballet is a hazardous job and every company gets its share of injuries, but the Royal Ballet right now seems worse than most. Possible causes are choice of repertoire, overworking dancers through casting policies, and the quality (or lack of it) in teaching -- all of which must end up on the director's plate. Not a wonderful end for Ross Stretton's first year in charge."

Percival found little to cheer about from a critic's standpoint either, saying that Stretton's "ideas on repertoire are probably the biggest single cause of complaint; witness the almost unanimous critical drubbing of his gala to mark the Queen's Jubilee, consisting of bits and pieces from the year's productions. Next year doesn't look like being any better. First, in spite of claims about enlivening the programmes, he seems to rely even more than his predecessor, Anthony Dowell, on the 'safe' classics: compare the number of Tchaikovsky performances announced for next winter and spring with those allowed for modern works."

The Dance Insider attempted to reach Mr. Stretton so that he could respond to these accusations, but, according to Royal Ballet spokesperson Simon Magill, he will not be commenting, beyond the explanation for his resignation given in an RB press release issued Wednesday:

"The last eighteen months have been enormously challenging and rewarding both professionally and personally. Even though I have enormous respect for the great heritage of this Company, my interest lies primarily in developing the future of ballet, and that is what I want to spend my time doing. I have discussed this matter with the Royal Opera House Board, and I feel that I am choosing the most appropriate course of action. I am delighted that I have had the opportunity to experience this remarkable company first hand, and work with a team of dedicated and world-class dancers and artists. I feel I am leaving The Royal Ballet in the same good health that it was in when I arrived here, and wish the dancers and staff all best wishes for a successful future, in particular over the coming season."

Sir Colin Southgate, chairman of the board of the Royal Opera House, said, "It is with deep regret that I have accepted the resignation of Ross Stretton with immediate effect.... The Royal Ballet has been introduced to some new and interesting works under Ross's stewardship. In the last season he has brought us John Cranko's 'Onegin' and introduced audiences to further work by some of the finest living choreographers, including Mats Ek and Nacho Duato. As we enter the 2002/3 season we look forward to seeing further examples of such work, as well as the strong line-up of heritage ballets in particular the work of Sir Kenneth MacMillan and Sir Frederick Ashton."

As to the preservation of "heritage ballets," in his summation of September 5, Percival noted that "even looking only at British creations, the neglect is scandalous. We have a remembrance of Kenneth MacMillan coming up to mark the 10 years since his death, but it won't include anything out of the ordinary, and meanwhile, the Royal Ballet's greatest choreographer, Frederick Ashton, will have only a single short work to represent him. You can see more Ashton ballets from American Ballet Theatre (and much praised they are, too). No doubt there will be an Ashton commemoration in 2004 for his centenary, but I am worried about this apparent pushing of him and MacMillan into a ghetto, to be called out on special occasions. What's the betting that we soon start losing some of their best ballets simply through neglect?"

The RB announced that assistant director Monica Mason will lead the Royal until a new director is appointed.

From the other side of the Channel, I'd like to humbly offer two suggestions to Sir Colin as he looks for a director who will fit the needs of the Royal Ballet's dancers and audience.

First suggestion: Next time you hire a director, TALK TO THE DANCERS OF HIS/HER FORMER COMPANIES.

Second suggestion: Judging from press reports in the UK, audiences and critics are looking for a Royal Ballet which will both cherish its storied past, and create a distinct future in its choice of modern ballets. There's only one ballet director I can think of with links to the RB's own past -- specifically, its font, the late Dame Ninette de Valois -- and a commitment to encouraging new but rigorous work in the ballet vocabulary: Maina Gielgud. (Royal Ballet report and commentary by Paul Ben-Itzak.)

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