MANY BALLET FANS will never forget the impact Ross Stretton made on the stage -- the tall, slim Australian was one of American Ballet Theater's most noble and classically pure dancers. By all accounts, he is making a similarly indelible mark on the Australian Ballet, which Stretton has headed for the past two years. Local audiences can see the fruit of his efforts this weekend, when the company performs at George Mason University.
Stretton trained and danced with the Melbourne-based company in his youth. But he forged his career with ABT, becoming assistant director after retiring from the stage in 1990. He was first asked to be assistant director of the Australian company under Maina Gielgud in 1995, but Stretton says he wasn't ready to leave ABT then.
"I hadn't finished what I was trying to do in the United States," he says by phone from New York, where the Australian Ballet performed last week. After Gielgud resigned, the Australian Ballet contacted Stretton again. This time the answer was yes. Stretton headed home for the first time in 17 years.
The changes that greeted him were remarkable, he says, especially those to Melbourne's artistic landscape.
"There was an underlying current of talent in the arts which was ready to explode," Stretton says. He got right to work increasing the eclecticism of the ballet's repertoire, bringing in works by such popular dance makers as Jiri Kylian and Nacho Duato.
He also cultivated choreographic talent within the company. Now it has three resident choreographers (all Australian), one of whom has a work on this weekend's program. Stephen Baynes's "At the Edge of Night," set to Rachmaninov, joins William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" and Stephen Page's "Rites."
The latter, set to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," marks an especially proud moment for Stretton. Page, who heads Bangarra Dance Theatre, an aboriginal troupe, united his company and Stretton's in what has been called the first-ever collaboration between a colonial ballet company and an indigenous one.
Stretton takes particular joy in his role in igniting the project. Until Stretton gave Page a tape of the Stravinsky score, "he actually never had heard the music before," Stretton says. "He had no preconceived ideas about it. . . . That's what really excites me. It started from nothing and comes to a complete fulfillment. That's the highlight of what I do."
THE AUSTRALIAN BALLET -- Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at George Mason University's Center for the Arts Concert Hall, Braddock Road and Route 123, Fairfax. Call 703/218-6500.