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The Clark Kent of kinetic intelligence

Karen Pearlman talks with Australian Ballet director Ross Stretton about influences, being Australian, programming, and nurturing choreographers

Karen Pearlman is a dancer, choreographer, writer and filmmaker.

Ross Stretton Ross Stretton
photo Jim McFarlane
What can a national ballet company be? It hardly seems fruitful to argue whether one should exist, one does and is not likely to be disbanded barring a violent revolution in culture and government. So, given that a lion’s share of resources for dance is poured into a national ballet company, it is very good news that ours is being directed by Ross Stretton.

In fact, after our conversation in July, I am convinced that the Australian Ballet could be on the verge of becoming something great. Ross Stretton strikes me as a sort of a Clark Kent of kinetic intelligence. It remains to be seen whether he will evolve into a dance super hero, but his mild manners are working just fine at the moment for gently introducing some pretty radical ideas, methods and works.

Stretton is serious and thoughtful on the subjects of great choreographers, great dancers and great dance. And he has specific plans for creating them, as well as for opening up the AB’s resources to dance as a whole and cutting down on the cross-aesthetic bashing which seems to be the basic mode of discourse in dance in Australia.

With the aim of creating great things, the AB seems to be developing a special relationship with Twyla Tharp. Stretton has just sent six dancers over to New York to workshop a piece with her and to soak up her intelligence and input. One has to wonder here about the possibilities which might have been exploited in this relationship had the new Kennett Dance Company come under the aegis of the Australian Ballet. The dance community seems relieved that the company went to an artist rather than an administrator, but Stretton is both and his interest in running such an enterprise represents radical new thinking about the Australian Ballet in the wider context of dance in Australia.

Ross Stretton’s aesthetics and ideas were shaped by his kinetic experiences with choreographers like Twyla Tharp whom he worked with closely as dancer and administrator in New York and continues to work closely with now. He says about Tharp and about Glen Tetley, the other seminal influence he cites, that they share the quality of intelligence. “Great choreographers”, Stretton insists, “are intelligent choreographers”. Intelligence manifests itself in their ability to “explain the final result” before a work is finished. “Clear understanding of what he was doing” comes first in Stretton’s description of what it was about Glen Tetley which affected him so strongly. This was followed by “the power and intelligence behind him” and “a skill for choreography, not just thoughts he put out in the studio, but an understanding of where it was going and an ability to articulate it”. This is both a physical and verbal ability to articulate; Stretton says it was what Tetley or Tharp or a handful of others did as well as what they said which impacted on him.

Ross Stretton danced in the American Ballet Theatre in the 1980s when Baryshnikov was running the company and expanding its reach and repertory to take in works by Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp and others. This was radical at the time, but is now being taken up by ballet companies around the world. However, when Stretton and Baryshnikov were doing it, they were not picking up works from a menu, they were having them created on their bodies. Stretton, in fact, bristles a bit when I bring up the subject of the shopping list company which gets one ‘greatest hit’ from each of today’s biggest dance hit-makers. He’s obviously been accused of taking this approach, and it’s not what he has in mind at all. He recognises that dancers will grow most from their direct contact with choreographers, not from having works set on them by assistants (and the same goes for audiences). “My love is for creating new work. I want works made on my dancers, by Australians and by internationals”.

So Stretton’s New York experience is about to have a big impact on Australian ballet. But it is not a one-way street. Stretton believes that being Australian made a difference in his meteoric rise to a position of artistic influence at the American Ballet Theatre. He made an “instant transition from dancer to administrator” there, when Jane Herrman (then General Manager) asked him to run her artistic department after Baryshnikov left.

What was it she saw in him, to elevate him so rapidly? “Someone who understood the choreographic process and as a dancer had helped choreographers create their work. Someone who knew all of the dancers but didn’t have any grudges, vendettas, axes to grind or personal problems with people.” (I note a plethora of descriptive words breaking forth from a usually understated use of language. There must have been a lot of opportunities to develop this vocabulary at ABT.) Jane Herrman invested in Stretton “somewhat with an element of trust”, but, he says “she saw I knew and believed in dance”.

And, Stretton says, being Australian was part of it. It “helped him keep a distance on the backbiting” for one thing. But he also knows that Australian dancers are good. “They are adaptable, eager to please, talented, and non-threatening. No-one ever thought of me as someone who might do what I did—move from dancer to administrator, no-one was ever threatened by me”. So, the mild-mannered Clark Kent makes his first strike as Executive Apollo, bringing to the job the full force of a seasoned dancer’s creative ability to make the choreographic process flow and help choreographers realise their vision.

Ross Stretton believes that this is a most important ability in his new job, and thinks he got it from working with great artists. At ABT he had “the greatest” coming through his office—designers, choreographers, composers. He misses that and wants to create it here, “to create those collaborations of the greatest”.

His relationship to these artists and their creations is active. He understands that choreographers need help. “They can’t always just come up with the goods. They need understanding and someone to turn to, not just to be put in a studio and left to flounder—they may have a block, or may need to talk through their work. As a producer I may not know that unless I am working with them on developing the project”.

He says that development is about more than just giving choreographers space and dancers. “Choreographers are always on the output”. He is hosting a workshop right now to give them input. “A week of talking and listening about how concepts of dance can be combined with elements of design and lights. A think tank.”

Stretton believes design is one of the big things that is changing in ballet—“Scenery and costumes have changed, space can be carved out by light, there is more room to dance onstage”. This workshop which is focussed absolutely on process, not product, will be a week of discussion, moderated by Dr Michelle Potter, between three choreographers, three lighting designers and three set/costume designers.

Ross Stretton sees it as part of his job to reap the “seeds that have been planted to make great Australian choreographers. They need input, not just space, but guidance from people who understand how to choreograph. Someone to cut the earth from under them and make them understand the form.”

Lest I whip him into the nearest phone booth before he’s ready to unmask Clark Kent as a radical force, he is quick to add, “I want newness, but I’m not getting rid of the past”. He will keep up a relationship with the traditional classical repertory. For one thing, it is part of his job to keep the company afloat. But for another thing, he really believes in the “classics” (which are actually mostly “romantics”—ie Swan Lake, Giselle etc) for their expressive possibilities. As he said in his Green Mill keynote address, “Sometimes in the middle of a performance I would be overwhelmed by a total sense of identification with the character I was dancing—my dance and the dance became one. It always left me completely stunned, in awe of the power of dance”.

Great dance, he says, “is from the body”, it’s what he’s drawn by, what he loves. “It is when 14 dancers go to another place—it’s what happened last night in In The Upper Room—14 dancers were transported onstage by what they were doing, giving them such pleasure. The dancers’ pleasure is what the audience feels—twice as much. The audience’s pleasure in dance lies in that excitement, that purity, which can be in any kind of work.”

Ross Stretton is motivated and informed by his kinetic experience, his notion of intelligence springs from that source, as does his administrative instinct. In putting together a program he says he “is guided by music” almost, I think, in the way that a dancer’s performance in a ballet would be. And he thinks that it is fair enough for a dancer’s art to move a choreographer. He believes that the choreographic process works best “when a choreographer finds in a dancer a muse, rather than trying to impose their personal dance on a dancer. If a move is well co-ordinated a good choreographer goes with it, draws it out and develops it”. In other words, the best in a dancer will bring out the best in a choreographer.

And Ross Stretton is dancing well now, in his role as Executive Apollo. His co-ordination of a program by Twyla Tharp, Stephen Baynes, and Stephen Page (choreographing Rite of Spring at Stretton’s suggestion, using Bangarra and AB dancers) is an activitist piece of lateral thinking about history and contemporaneity, culture and dance. It could, if it reaches its promise, also be an outstanding example of Apollonian intelligence in dance.

Karen Pearlman is a dancer, choreographer, writer and filmmaker.

RealTime issue #20 Aug-Sept 1997 pg. 39

© Karen Pearlman; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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