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Ross Stretton, 53; American Ballet Theatre Dancer Became Artistic Chief of Australian, U.K. Troupes

June 18, 2005|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Ross Stretton, a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre and later the artistic director of the Australian Ballet, as well as the Royal Ballet of London, has died. He was 53.

Stretton died Thursday in Melbourne of melanoma, according to a statement from the Australian Ballet.

A native of Canberra, Australia, he became interested in tap dancing as a teenager but changed his career plans after he discovered ballet. He entered the Australian Ballet School and, after graduating, joined the company. As a soloist and then a principal dancer, he had leading roles in the classical repertoire.

Tall and blond with a powerful physique, Stretton easily captured attention.

"Ross loved dance. He devoted his life to it," recalled Janet Karin, one of his first ballet instructors, in a statement this week. "As a teenager he bounded across the studio, hair flying, intoxicated with the pleasure of moving.

"As an artistic director, Ross believed that dance should be ... challenging and inspiring. It should make a difference in people's lives."

A scholarship to study dance for three months led Stretton in 1979 to move to New York City, where he joined the Joffrey Ballet. The following year Mikhail Baryshnikov, artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre, invited him to be guest artist during the company's 1980-81 season. Stretton later credited the Joffrey for immersing him in modern ballet.

"They worked at me and pushed me into all sorts of new areas," he told the Advertiser, a newspaper in Adelaide, Australia, in 1997. He became known for his elegance in both modern and classical works.

Stretton moved to the American Ballet Theatre as a permanent member in 1983 and soon became a principal dancer. He was cast as Prince Siegfried in "Swan Lake" but also performed in modern works by Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp and others.

During summer months, the off-season in New York, he was invited to join Baryshnikov and Dancers, a small, innovative troupe that toured the United States. "It was one of the most creative periods of my life," Stretton later told the Advertiser.

He gave up dancing in 1990 to become deputy artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre. Seven years later he was appointed artistic director of the Australian Ballet.

From the beginning he encouraged dancers to develop their own style, and they threw themselves into the challenge. On opening night in Melbourne a few months after he assumed his post, Stretton watched the performance from the wings.

"They came out with barrels blazing," he later recalled. "All three principals fell over in a heap on the floor, and I loved it so much I almost cried. It was passionate and free."

As director there and later in London, Stretton made waves. In Australia, under the banner "Caring for tradition, daring to be different," his management style and casting decisions led dancers to quit.

When he moved to London in 2000, he lasted just 13 months in the job. The powerful widow of Kenneth MacMillan, the company's principal choreographer for 15 years, complained that Stretton did not make good use of her late husband's works, which had become part of the Royal Ballet's identity. A number of dancers left.

He resigned but said he was not planning to retire. "Even though I have enormous respect for the great heritage of this company, my interest lies primarily in developing the future of ballet," he said. "And that is what I want to spend my time doing."

It was, however, his last position.

Stretton, who was divorced, is survived by his three children, Luke, Adam and Kyra.

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