Director, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London, 19 May 2016
DAVID BAIN INTRODUCED Kevin O'Hare, the Director of the Royal Ballet. Kevin reviewed events and productions at the Royal Ballet since his last interview two years ago.
The Winter's Tale was a thrilling work; the idea first started in Canada at the premier of Alice in Wonderland and at that time Kevin didn't know that he was to become the Director. During discussions with Karen Kain (Artistic Director, National Ballet of Canada) and Christopher Wheeldon, the latter said that he had just been to see the play and Nicholas Hytner had suggested it as a good ballet story. There are not many plays of Shakespeare in the repertoire but it felt like a good idea which would be welcomed by whomsoever became Director. It was a good team, Bob Crowley, Joby Talbot and Natasha Katz. It was a difficult time, there were lots of injuries in the Company and Chris's dad died during the later stages of rehearsal. Chris and Joby went to a cabin in up state New York and made a strong story line without a dramaturg. Chris then cut the story down into sections with timings. Joby had the idea of an on-stage band which brings life to it. The result feels like a ballet but is fresh and modern with lots of layers. There are six principal roles and lots of corp de ballet dancing. For the revival they have taken time in the opera rehearsal rooms, which means they can put some of the set up to make it a lot easier when they go on stage. And the technical teams can work all night if necessary. They are trying to create classics for the future and different casts do change the emphasis in the story and the choreography.
The Royal Ballet can't have previews like they do on the West End. Kevin feels everything should have another go within a couple of seasons with reworking as necessary. Dancers coming back to the roles, after the roller-coaster of the premier, make it fit better and the whole is more cohesive.
Sweet Violets was worth seeing again, there are great roles. There were polarized opinions about it and it was tough to watch. They worked on it, each scene melded into each other better than the first time.
From the audience surveys Kevin knows that it is appreciated to go to a triple which has the same feel, for example a contemporary programme. But there is a place for traditional triple bills which have an opening, a meaty story in the middle and something daring at the end. Serenade and DGV is an example of this which shows the Company off in a great way. And Kevin likes that you can see so many principals in a triple.
Alastair Marriott created Connectome, a great collaboration with designers and Natalia Osipova had just joined. It would be her first principal role and it worked well with Edward Watson. It showcased younger men such as Marcelino Sambé, Tomas Mock, Nicole Edmonds and David Donnelly, most of whom were from the school. It can kick start their careers. Choreographers can bring out something in the young dancers which helps Kevin to cast them in other performances.
When he became Director, his mum told him that she liked The Concert, and he thought he should put it on. Sarah Lamb, Lauren Cuthbertson, Melissa Hamilton, Tom Whitehead and Bennet Gartside had great fun with it. It was nice to see a lot of people watching it for the first time.
The tour at the end of Summer 2014 opened at the Bolshoi. There were concerns about what was in the press and Human Rights, and the Company was a little concerned. The Head of the British Council came in and spoke to the Company about why we go to different countries. It wasn't making a political statement. Anyone in Russia could watch the ballet. And then events in Crimea took place just as they went to Moscow. Kevin gave the dancers an option, and the tour is not absolutely in the contract. Two people felt strongly and didn't go, and two others said they would go if he [Kevin] really needed them. But in a different mood, Kevin gave an interview in a room in which, he was told, Tchaikovsky signed a contract. They performed Rhapsody, Tetractys and DGV on the historic stage. Less contemporary dance is seen there. The audience was really warm. Four shows of Manon were successful. After the last show, there was champagne on the stage with the Bolshoi management. Carlos and Natalia took a glass in between curtain calls. Traditionally the lights in the house go up early in the curtain calls which is nice.
One night after everyone left and the lights had gone down, Kevin did a sneaky grand jété so that he could say he had danced on the Bolshoi stage.
In Taipei they put on Romeo and Juliet where normally the audience see contemporary dance. There were also big screens, Federico Bonelli had learnt some Mandarin and spoke at one of these screens after the show. On past tours they had rung an ex-dancer at a local school to bring along students to fill the theatre but, now they are getting bigger audiences, in part because of the live cinema broadcasts. They even put extra seats in the aisles. They are very strict on mobile phones and have laser zappers to pick out culprits and the audience was well behaved. But then at the curtain calls, everyone held up their phones [to record video] so there was no clapping!
On one occasion when Thiago was injured, Matt Golding stepped in to dance in Don Quixote with Marianela Nuñez. Normally Kevin sits on the end of the row in case of emergency but this time he was stuck in the middle of the row. Marianela started the act but when the music for Matt started he was nowhere to be seen. Sam Raine was on the end of the row and went off immediately. Marcelino jumped in and started ahead of another dancer. Then Matt came on and gave a guitar to Marcelino. Kevin said it's a dancer's nightmare and always happens once in a career. The tannoy in Matt's room was not working and he hadn't heard the calls.
At the start of the 2014-15 season Don Quixote returned, followed by Age of Anxiety, Ceremony of Innocence and Aeternum. In Age of Anxiety it is fascintating to see the boldness of Liam – extraordinary. Tristan Dyer had been promoted by Kevin and the casting by Liam showcased this emerging talent. Alice in Wonderland at Christmas is a big piece, with 70 dancers. Francesca Hayward made her debut and Vadim Muntagirov joined the company. Thiago and Marianela came back to Onegin and there were great debuts, Itziar Mendizabal was wonderful, Natalia Osipova too. Natalia was great, then in the general rehearsal she didn't quite do the pose at the end. He encouraged her to do it and told Johanna [stage manager] not to bring down the curtain until she did. In the end it worked out fine. He could expect calls from the Cranko Foundation if this wasn't the case.
Kevin has been a long term admirer of Hofesh Shechter and Untouchable was an experience for the dancers because of the way he works. There were 20 dancers in the piece. He went to dinner with Hofesh after a show and waited for him at the stage door. When Hofesh came out all these 19 and 20 year old girls were asking him [Kevin] to take photos of them together with Hofesh, and Hofesh was saying, “but this is the Director of the Royal Ballet” however, the girls weren't concerned.
Kevin is grateful to Aud Jebsen for sponsoring the Aud Jebsen Young Dancers Programme. These are one year contracts and go mostly to dancers from the Royal Ballet School. There is extra coaching, for example this year all the girls are tall and Darcey Bussell came in to do coaching. There will be three girls and three boys on the programme next year in the Royal Ballet. He has to wait for positions to become free, dancers have to give three months notice of leaving, but he can't tell students to wait just in case. But, this year, all the apprentices will join the Company.
La Fille mal gardée seemed to come back very quickly. Some thought Laura Morera and Vadim was odd casting but she won an award for her performance at the Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards. Kevin will bring it back next season.
Woolf Works was a real risk, Kevin was particularly pleased when Wayne McGregor said Alessandra Ferri would dance. Kevin had seen all her debuts when he was a student – Manon, Romeo and Juliet, Valley of Shadows. He liked how McGregor incorporated the three stories, the hard hitting Orlando, the gentle start with Mrs Dalloway,and The Waves. It was amazing to see the audience reaction and watch “word of mouth” work. They held the curtain on two nights as they were still selling tickets in the box office.
Kevin likes to see shows from the amphitheatre but now is getting a bit of vertigo and he couldn't be seen to walk out part way through.
In the triple bill (In the Night, Afternoon of a Faun, Song of the Earth) Kevin bought back Song of the Earth from earlier in the season. This is important to do, for example in this case it enabled him to get another cast on. Lauren Cuthbertson was fabulous.
On the tour to America, Carlos Acosta had an ankle problem before Don Quixote in Washington. He hobbled his way through the rehearsal, but next day at breakfast he was bright and cheerful as usual. Nothing was going to stop him, his fantastic technique helped. It was a fabulous performance. And the same in Chicago which was Carlos's last full length performance with the Royal Ballet.
They couldn't go to the Met in New York because they are doing the lighting for opera. They couldn't do Aeternum because the sets wouldn't fit in the theatre, and they weren't able to stage Alice in Wonderland because Canadian Ballet has the rights to perform in the US. He chose mixed bills of The Dream and Song of the Earth, and then Age of Anxiety, Infra, with gala pieces. The critics wondered why he chose The Dream as it is in ABTs repertoire. Sam Raine has worked wonders with the Corps and the Fairies in The Dream were sensational. Sam is great. It was a good end to the season.
At the start of this last season there were a lot of debuts in Romeo and Juliet and it was 50 years since it's opening. The Saturday matinee is a special event for a debut, and so it was for Matthew Ball and Yasmine Naghdi. Kevin had put them together in Onegin and they had gelled, hence the Romeo casting. Francesca Hayward also had a debut. Connectome came back and Raven Girl too with alterations by Wayne. Beatriz Stix-Brunell made a wonderful debut in the latter.
For the quad bill (Viscera, Afternoon of a Faun, Tchaikovsky Pas de deux, Carmen), Carmen had its detractors but it was a celebration of Carlos, and it is what he wanted to do. It is important sometimes to give people that space. Carlos is a role model and he deserved it. Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite was originally going to be used but because of some other changes they had to change and Martin Yates orchestrated, based on Bizet.
Christopher Carr had never before staged Two Pigeons, and he had to set it on the bigger stage. You had to be stony hearted not to like it. Whenever he speaks to students at the school they always talk about Two Pigeons. Kevin was delighted with how fresh it came out. The dancers weren't sure but grew to love it. There is lots of corps de ballet work and soloist roles to get their teeth into.
Kevin asked which was the best combination with Two Pigeons, Rhapsody or Monotones? Members were divided in their opinions. Kevin thanked the Ballet Association for helping bring back the original staging of Rhapsody, the return to the simple costumes was in harmony with the clear lines on the backdrop. He is pleased it is back in the repertoire and it won't be 30 years before it returns.
Nutcracker in one big block is not great for the fans. It's a tough time, lots of matinees and dancers get sick at this time of year. The shows met a high standard and they worked on it all the way through. Some people said they were “even enjoying the Waltz of the Flowers” this time round.
The Company does Giselle so well. There were fabulous debuts, Akane Takeda was particularly special. Kevin thought she looked like a Giselle in waiting when he saw her perform Moyna/Zulma in the last run. Sarah, Lauren and Nela had a great go as they hadn't had many chances before.
The next triple (After the Rain, Strapless, Within the Golden Hour) was to celebrate what Christopher Wheeldon is to the Company and the dance world. Kevin is not keen on bringing in too many works from other companies but it was appropriate on this occasion. Both casts for After the Rain were great and Golden Hour is a joy. They did work on the costumes of the latter but were sensitive as the designer had passed away. The projections now work well. For Strapless Kevin wanted to see a narrative in a short time scale like Sir Fred achieved with The Dream and A Month in the Country, condensing a whole story down. Both Chris and Kevin have the same ideas about how to enhance it next time. It's important to work on it, you can't just sit down and say oh well that was it.
Frankenstein is a bold and ambitious work. Liam believes in, and loves classical ballet and created it in that idiom. Liam is very clear how he wanted to present it, but of course there will be revisions. Liam wouldn't feel honest to do it in a different way. John McFarlane created some great designs, the music works well, it is a tough score to play. When you think about Winter's Tale, Woolf Works and Frankenstein, how extraordinary it is to have three very different ballets to cater to a lot of different tastes! Every night at Frankenstein there has been a fantastic response from the audiences and he's not just saying it because the critics didn't like it. It is a fact, if you're there, people last night were on their feet cheering. And it is sold out.
As Wayne says, no one is doing these things lightly, the choreographer, the dancers, and the artistic director. Kevin believes that Liam tells the story very well and clearly, there may be other things which may need to be changed. Finding a dramaturg that can work well with the choreographer is not easy. Experience in the theatre is already there, for example John MacFarlane, there are 1,000 people working there. Dramaturgs don't always work.
Next is The Invitation, it will be fascinating to see. Wayne has a cast of men, it will be wonderful to see them tearing across the stage. He really wants to see the Company do The Invitation again, Kevin was never in it but it was one of his brother Michael's very first roles with Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet. It is a strong work with good roles for people, something Zenaida can make her own. Kevin apologised about the casting but he wanted to see how it fitted in the studio first.
Kevin is bringing back MacMillan's Anastasia next season, but is also thinking about Judas Tree, Danses Concertantes. Valley of Shadows is being considered, it may be reworked according to Kenneth's suggestions or as the original.
Finally Kevin talked about how hard it is to sort out the casting. And he is thinking that they need to do something a bit lighter for the next new productions.
David thanked Kevin for coming to talk and for the privilege of members attending the rehearsal of The Invitation that morning. Kevin thanked the Association for their support and hoped it would be possible to provide something similar next season despite building works.
Report written by Chris Scott, corrected by Kevin O’Hare and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2016