Director, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 7 April 2014.
DAVID BAIN WELCOMED KEVIN who began by reviewing his first two seasons as Director. Kevin said it had been quite some 18 months. It began with Swan Lake when Natasha Osipova came as a guest, an experience she very much enjoyed and which gave her the feeling that The Royal Ballet was the place she wanted to be. He was very pleased that his first mixed programme included the work of the company’s own choreographers. He brought Liam Scarlett’s Viscera into the repertoire, along with Christopher Wheeldon’s Fool’s Paradise, and Infra which is one of Kevin’s favourite Wayne McGregor ballets – all three are choreographers the company are investing in and are part of The Royal Ballet. Shortly afterwards Liam felt he wanted to retire from dancing in order to concentrate on his choreographic career and Kevin offered him the position of Artist in Residence with the company. Kevin wanted him to continue as a part of the RB family and also wanted to help his career progress with those he could rely on. This year Liam has already choreographed for several other companies.
Asked how the roles of the three choreographers work, Kevin said it was very organic, especially with Christopher and Wayne to talk about the season, any ideas that come up, new dancers and many other topics. They discuss it face to face, or by Skype or email when they are busy travelling around the world but they always keep in close contact and use Associate Director Jeanetta Laurence as a sounding board for ideas, future or present as some things can evolve very quickly.
In terms of repertory, everything is done for a purpose. The MacMillan triple commemorated the 20th anniversary of Kenneth’s death and Kevin wanted to programme something that hadn’t been seen for a long time – Las Hermanas had only had a couple of performances in the House during the 70s. It wasn’t clear how it would work on the big stage so before starting work on the ballet the set was put up on the stage and opened out a bit. The ‘stone’ flooring looked like a rug so was changed which initially caused some problems for the dancers but both casts were excellent and enjoyed the work and, with Monica Mason and Ray Barra to help with the staging, it was a success and will be done again.
For The Nutcracker some of the younger dancers including Francesca Hayward, Meaghan Grace Hinkis and Tristan Dyer, made their debuts in roles they’d been hoping for. Kevin also wanted to put in an alternative Christmas programme, Firebird, Raymonda Act 3 and In the Night, a lovely experience for the dancers. The schedule takes careful putting together. The run of Nutcrackers can be strenuous with added matinées to consider. This also makes for less rehearsal time which can add to the pressure. With Onegin there were wonderful debuts for Marianela Nuñez and Sarah Lamb, and Alina Cojocaru and Laura Morera were able to revisit the role. Unfortunately Johan Kobborg was injured but Jason Reilly was able to come over from Stuttgart Ballet as a guest for those performances.
There were two big new ballets alongside Apollo in the next programme. Alexei Ratmansky, an extremely interesting man, who found working with the company for the first time an interesting experience, came to make 24 Preludes. Kevin would like to ask him back in the future. Christopher Wheeldon was pleased to have the opportunity to create Aeternum, something totally different from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and he created a beautiful ballet. Alice came back, and there were some more debuts in La Bayadère. Then there was Raven Girl and Symphony in C. Kevin liked the contrast between the two ballets and thought the transfer from the dark world into the white tutus was effective.
Ashton’s work is so varied it was lovely to bring back Monotones 1 and 2, and Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin returned for some performances of Marguerite and Armand. The Opera House season finished with Mayerling with extraordinary performances from five casts, alongside the emotion of retirements and departures. The company enjoys performing the ballet but the wider audience really gets Mayerling now and it’s a firm classic of the repertory. It’s a particular challenge for the male lead and First Soloist Bennet Gartside had the opportunity to dance it for the first time due to another’s injury. Kevin said Benn had no idea what was going to happen when he asked him in to his office so when he offered him the role of Rudolf Benn was so thrilled he asked if he could hug him!
The tour took the company to Monte Carlo where the sea and sky were blue but the audiences were on the small side, which was a bit disappointing, perhaps because the prices were twice those for Monte Carlo Ballet. The company then went on to Japan where they could have done a month’s run of Alice. Kevin had had to persuade the management there that it would be good to programme it as the Japanese tend to be wary of new works – they needn’t have worried. Alice, along with a gala, and Swan Lake put smiles on many, many faces. Since the tsunami, ticket sales had been a bit down but all the company’s performances were packed out. Fortunately there are wide aisles in that theatre as extra seating had to be added. And there it was sad to say goodbye to Alina and Johan.
So far as bringing back unseen works of MacMillan and Ashton, Las Hermanas hadn’t been seen since 1995 in Peter Wright’s last year as Director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Certain works tend to be programmed much more frequently than others but Kevin said when working out a programme it’s a mixture of what will look good together and what will work for the audiences of today. It would be wonderful to rediscover to a gem that hasn’t been seen for many, many years.
For this new programme he was looking for a hidden gem. Symphonic Variations has to be in the middle so it’s a question of what to put on either side. Kevin had thought of Lament of the Waves but there’s very little of it on record and would have to call on Carl Myers, who created one of the roles.
Moving on to this season it was lovely that Don Quixote had come back into the rep in a new production and Kevin knew Carlos Acosta was the person to do it. Some people think that Don Quixote isn’t suited to The Royal Ballet’s style but the company had good fun with it and will continue to grow into it. It’s easy to watch and extremely enjoyable and there aren’t a lot of flash, bang, wallop ballets in the rep! The company will take it to Shanghai this year with a few tweaks. There was trouble with the floor initially which was problematic because of the patterned vinyl but the first night went really well. David asked who decides on who did the new orchestration. Kevin said this came from Carlos who, as soon as it was suggested to him, started thinking about the production and the music. Martin Yates has worked with the company not just as a conductor but was used by Deborah MacMillan to re-orchestrate Manon. Kevin was pleased with the choice as he knew Martin to be a good collaborator.
Romeo and Juliet provided an opportunity to welcome Evgenia Obraztsova to dance with Steven McRae. While Kevin doesn’t intend to bring in many guests, it’s occasionally a good thing. Natalia Osipova had now joined the company full time and because of slight difficulty with planning and scheduling it wasn’t possible for her to dance in Don Quixote but this wasn’t a problem for her as she has danced the ballet so often.
For the next mixed programme, Kevin invited David Dawson, a very talented choreographer who trained at The Royal Ballet School, whose work hasn’t been seen here much, to create a new work. Kevin, who prefers to bring in someone to create rather than just bringing in existing ballets, saw his latest work last June which was excellent. Kevin was very pleased with The Human Seasons and the programme had a sort of contemporary feel, with Chroma, The Human Seasons and Rite of Spring. Kevin is trying to be a bit stricter with choreographers when they choose the same dancers as spreading the load makes it easier to give more rehearsal time. In the classics you tend to stick more with the hierarchy while still giving people chances and pushing careers forward. The great thing with choreographers is that they can choose who they want and you want to keep a bit of that while maintaining a fine balance. If they are coming from outside it’s fairer but with our own choreographers you can suggest certain other dancers.
The Nutcracker has, over the last few years, been refurbished and is now looking splendid. Sometimes it needs a break but it’s a wonderful work for The Royal Ballet at Christmas – helping to reach a new audience – and there’s a long run so lots of dancers get their opportunities. Jewels is really suited to the company and there were some fantastic performances this year.
With Giselle, again there were some amazing performances from Laura, Sarah, Roberta Marquez, Marianela, Lauren Cuthbertson and Natasha and it makes you see how different a ballet can be when the individual performances are so strong. The cinema programme goes from strength to strength. Kevin went to see the Encore performance of Giselle at Kensington Odeon and said it was fabulous to see the production on the big screen.
We also had the triple bill including Rhapsody where Steven McRae and Laura, as well as Yuhui Choe and Valentino Zuchetti and Francesca Hayward and James Hay, gave great performances. There’s something lovely about seeing the younger dancers taking on the classical roles and Kevin admitted to a tear in his eye! He recalled as a child going to Saturday matinées to see dancers making their debuts.
With so many young, talented dancers in the lower ranks, how do you decide who to give the opportunities to, asked David. Kevin said you know them all and there’s a lot of talent so you try to give opportunities to people who suit the role and what will best suit their way of dancing, or also slightly challenge them. Often an opportunity comes up through injury. In Nutcracker Yasmine Naghdi was learning Rose Fairy and suddenly the moment came and you knew she would do a good job. She did five or six shows, improving with each one, and it came at the right point in her career.
David said this was a different stance from Monica Mason in her early days as she said people need to have been through the corps but later changed her ideas. Kevin said it is still very important to do the corps de ballet work and the dancers know that’s their first priority but having opportunities helps to motivate them and they become stronger as artists and dancers. It is a balance but there are a lot of good dancers and you don’t want them to feel they won’t get the opportunities. When dancers come to audition and Kevin watches them in class the quality of our own dancers is apparent. Ten dancers have been taken from the school since he became Director.
With The Rite of Spring, Zenaida Yanowsky had already danced it but Claudia Dean came to mind as a young dancer who seemed perfect for the role. She was 21, the same age as Monica when she created it, and Claudia had the chance to work with Monica thus passing it on to another generation. She worked really hard and did very well and made the most of the opportunity. Then she had another opportunity with Myrthe, the Queen of the Willis in Giselle, again coached by Monica. Neither is an easy role, but at that moment there were two ideal roles in the repertory for her while another year it might not have been the same. Tierney Heap, who joined a couple of seasons ago, also took good advantage of the role of Myrthe when she was cast in it. She’s a lovely dancer and a very modern woman with a great personality but with an old fashioned theatricality about her which reminds Kevin somewhat of a young Pamela May.
Now we have The Winter’s Tale to look forward to. Kevin said he’s trying not to get too excited about it but feels it’s everything we hope it should be. Chris is extraordinarily talented and has made a real classical ballet though a contemporary work both in the way it looks and sounds, scenically and musically. Fingers crossed the audience will love it! There’s lovely work for the corps and some great soloist roles. Any ballet with Lauren, Edward Watson, Federico Bonelli, Zenaida, Steven and Sarah all dancing in it can’t be bad. Karen Kain arrived today and is looking at how to cast her dancers for when the ballet goes to the National Ballet of Canada who are co-producing it. It’s new for the company to be working on big full length ballets, spending a lot of time in the studio together which is the way it has to be. Kevin is used to this having worked with David Bintley for so long. Ross McGibbon has also been around as he’s directing the ballet for the cinema and said it reminded him of creating Mayerling. Even when they’re not needed everyone has to be in the studio to make the rehearsal work and this can be hard for the company. David mentioned how relaxed Christopher was when he came to talk to us about it recently. Kevin doesn’t know how he does remain so calm. So many different elements have to come together and there’s so much going on at once. He is quite extraordinary in how he puts things together and he should be hugely applauded and lauded for his work and we’re very lucky to have him around.
There are two mixed bills to end the season. The first is an especially big programme. Pat Neary arrives on Monday for Serenade, Liam is in this week for Sweet Violets, and DGV will also start this week. There’s a lot of dancing for a lot of the company which is great. Then there’s The Dream and Alastair Marriott’s new piece, and The Concert which hasn’t been seen for a long time. Jean-Pierre Frohlich from the Robbins Trust will come to teach The Concert. He’s also New York City Ballet’s ballet master and worked closely with Jerome Robbins. He came to watch and cast the ballet when Rite was being performed – quite a contrast – but got a lot of people in the room to decide who he wanted. He came again a month ago to do most of the work and will be back a few weeks before for final preparations. It’ll be the chance for some dancers to portray humour and the company really enjoys the comedy.
David commented on the number of injuries at present. Kevin said they were very proud when they opened the Mason Healthcare Suite. Before Tony Hall left he had given The Royal Ballet more room and they knocked down walls and put in glass to open it up and make it more integrated. There were so many different elements that needed to work well together for the dancers’ benefit. It was decided to name it after Monica as she had originally begun the remedial work in earnest. It was unfortunate that suddenly everybody decided to make use of it by getting injured! Kevin recalled how busy they’d been when initially putting on Alice, Swan Lake and another programme, so deliberately put The Sleeping Beauty before the mid-season break, to allow time for preparations of The Winter’s Tale. But still with all the injuries it has been a nightmare, though people are now coming back. Helen Crawford and Claire Calvert are back, as well as Mayara Magri and others with shorter term injuries. The situation was so bad that some Auroras were not so popular as they didn’t have as many friends as usual! Peter Wright’s version has six friends so Kevin decided six would be fine. They may have had a record when at one performance Beatriz Stix-Brunell’s Lilac Fairy became a Friend and then went back to being Lilac Fairy again. You look to see if it’s the schedule and wonder are we doing too much but sometimes, as in Natasha’s case, it is just an accident. But there have been too many injuries recently. Kevin said that he himself had never suffered from injury but by the time he was 33 he was extremely tired as he’d worked solidly throughout his career and at that point sustained a major knee injury. Injury gives you time to rethink and reassess how your body works. Matthew Ball from the School was offered a contract but he had a bad knee injury requiring surgery so didn’t join the company until Christmas. Now he looks stronger than previously as, with the help of the medical team, he’s reassessed how he works.
Next season: Manon is coming back – there’ll be casts that we know and those we don’t. The Ashton ballets will be Symphonic Variations, Scènes de Ballet and A Month in the Country. As Scènes is only 22 minutes and Symphonic 18 minutes, Kevin thought of putting something else in which will be the Isadora Dances which Lynn Seymour is coming to teach. Anthony Dowell will be there for Month and Lesley Collier is already there.
Then there are the ballets created in the last 18 months. There’s Kim Brandstrup’s very atmospheric piece which he made for Snape with Ed Watson and Marcellino Sambé, a very talented young dancer. Liam is doing his next new work and there will be Chris’s Aeternum. So it’s the tradition of Ashton alongside new works. After that we have Don Q and then Alice.
At the same time there’s the programme in the Linbury to consider so he’s invited Kate Prince and her hiphop company ZooNation, to come in at Christmas, who will do The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party to complement Alice on the main stage. There are family days and education days so they’ll try to get the hiphop fans to see what The Royal Ballet does. Ludovic Ondiviela is making a new work, Cassandra, in the Linbury. He took a year off to concentrate on his choreography and has research and development time for this piece which will happen in October. Kristen McNally will be making a work for the Ballet Boyz. The Linbury gives an opportunity to develop choreographers and bring new people in or bring back some who’ve moved on to other things. The Northern Ballet is bringing a mixed programme which they wouldn’t normally perform in London. Onegin returns and people who’ve cut their teeth on it will get to take it further and there’ll also be a few debuts. Then Swan Lake and Song of the Earth ( the latter one of Kenneth’s masterpieces) and The Four Temperaments. Kevin is an admirer of Hofesh Shechter who, he says, will shake us up! The company are very excited and interested in working with him and he has come to see several ballets. Fille will be back in springtime. Wayne will make a full length work and it will be great for him to have the place to himself. Alessandra Ferri will return as a guest and recently sent Kevin an email saying ‘you never know how life will end up’. Jerome Robbins’ In the Night will also return. A busy season and lots to look forward to.
The number of programmes has gone down by one. Kevin explained that doing a lot of new work takes more time and not many companies do so many works in a season and he doesn’t want to push the dancers to extremes. The box ffice has been incredible and the theatre is 98 per cent full for every performance including the mixed bills. Kevin is looking for any avenue to ease the pressure on the dancers.
At the end of next season is a tour of the US, the first time for 11 years. Kevin said the audience had missed out on great dancers and performances and they may try to make it a regular tour. This time it will be Washington, Chicago (Don Q) and New York with a mixed programme. In Chicago they’ll be at the theatre where Kevin retired. It’s a huge, 3,500 seat auditorium and not the friendliest of places. It’s a three weeks tour and there might be a South America moment afterwards.
This season ends with a tour to Moscow, Taipei and Shanghai starting with the newly refurbished Bolshoi Theatre, a wonderful opportunity to dance on that stage which is really the home of ballet. People do have concerns over human rights issues and now the situation in the Ukraine has happened. They have talked about it with the company and it is the individual’s right to decide whether or not to go, so watch this space. Kevin hopes the tour will go ahead. He believes culture should be separate from politics and once in the political sphere you get in a lot of hot water. This is an invitation from the Bolshoi not the Russian government and anybody can attend the performances. It’s also important they come to perform here.
Back to new choreography. The Royal Ballet has a Resident Choreographer and Kevin invites one from outside the company every season. This will probably be the pattern. It’s interesting when they look at the company with fresh eyes. Before he took over the reins, Kevin spent a lot of time flying around to look at choreographers work. It comes down to personal taste to a degree and he wants the best for the company and for it to have its own identity and not replicate others. Turning to female choreographers, the last female to make a ballet for us was Twyla Tharp. Kevin is a great admirer of Kristen McNally and she will be perfect to work with the Ballet Boyz and it’s a great commission for her. Internationally he has a female choreographer on the cards but no date is set yet. It’s not just because she is a woman that’s she’s in the frame. Kevin saw one of her pieces some years ago and loved it and they talked about her coming to make something for the company. There’s not a great record of females choreographers considering who founded the company. Kevin mentioned that Madam herself said something like ‘women are housekeepers and men are creators’ but times have moved on since then and he continues to look for the right person and focus in the right way when making choices.
Asked how it was decided which students were offered contracts by the Royal and which by Birmingham, Kevin says he talks to David Bintley and sometimes there’s a bit of a tussle over people. In his day when both were Royal Opera House companies it could be more easily worked out between the directors. Now they are still linked but entirely separate companies so the dancers can be offered a job in either company whilst to a certain extent making their own choice. David and Kevin both have ideas of what they want for their companies. It’s interesting to see dancers who have gone to BRB and done well whom he thought would do well there, and vice versa. It’s great that dancers have opportunities. William Bracewell danced Oberon in The Dream and was very good. Ultimately it’s Kevin’s choice but he asks Jeanetta for her views, and Samantha Raine for the ladies and Gary Avis and Chris Saunders for the men. He likes to go in May to watch the assessments classes for the second years with an eye to the future.
Kevin confirmed that he’ll be inviting the Ballet Association members to a rehearsal.
Questions from the audience
A member said that culture and politics can be separate but if it’s about human rights it could equally apply to China. As a company Kevin felt they should stay out of politics.
Concerning the BBC: they wanted to do a fly on the wall programme about going to Russia but Kevin had said no.
The uptake on triples is good but they aren’t broadcast. Kevin said sponsors didn’t like them. He disagrees as if you go to Trafalgar Square you can just watch one ballet and leave rather than have a three hour marathon sitting on cold steps. They are working on the cinema, and the idea is that more or less every programme would go to the cinema. It’s wonderful that The Winter’s Tale is going to be broadcast. It isn’t an obvious title but it’s the newest thing we are doing which can be seen across the country and abroad. Kevin had just received four letters, one from someone who is enjoying the season, one who said how much she enjoys the cinema and sent £5 for the pointe shoe appeal, and two complaints about casting. That’s his job!
Lights are less bright in the cinema than on stage. It is a problem. They put the lights up but it’s hard to get right with painted backcloths. Nutcracker was better this time but you can’t have the spotlights too bright. Alice jumped out at you and watching Winter’s Tale on TV in his office, Kevin thinks it will transmit well even though parts of it are dark. On timings it’s seen in Europe the same day, in the US the next day and in Australia a month later.
In thanking Kevin for a very interesting evening, David said he hoped he would continue to emulate his predecessor in coming to see us every two years and it was a privilege to have Kevin as our guest and we were most grateful to him for giving up his time.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Kevin O’Hare and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2014.