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    Kevin O'Hare 2020

    Kevin O'Hare

    Director, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    Zoom video conference, September 10 2020


    In welcoming Kevin, live from his office in the Royal Opera House, David explained that we had a large audience and there may be a few technical issues to contend with.

    Kevin began by saying he was very happy to be with us, it was shame that the dinner didn’t happen, but hoped we were all keeping well.  He then reviewed last season from the beginning. Despite the Opera House closing in March, they had had a full season up till then and had done many and varied performances, probably more than many companies would achieve in a whole year. This will be celebrated during the annual interviews which are happening now rather than the end of last season.

    They began with Manon. It’s a heritage work which they love doing. They’d last put it on fairly recently and with a revival Kevin is keen on bringing it back soon afterwards so those who have made debuts have the chance of revisiting the role. One major debut this time was Matthew Ball as Des Grieux with Lauren Cuthbertson. It’s a role which suits Matt very well dramatically, he makes the right choices and finds the character within the choreographic steps and it was fascinating to see what he did with it. Lauren can interpret and appear to do things on the spur of the moment and they made a great combo. There were many highlights. Roberto Bolle was here last time round and came again to partner Marianela Nuñez. It was a marvellous opportunity – he is a great friend and is always a welcome guest of the Company. He and Marianela make a great pairing. David Hallberg, now director of The Australian Ballet, was here for Manon and was then scheduled to dance Sleeping Beauty with Natalia Osipova who always has her own fascinating take on the role. There were fantastic performances from Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov who are beautiful in the roles and did the cinema relay last time. This time there was also Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell with Cesar Corrales as Lescaut and Mayara Magri as the Mistress. Then came the horrible memory of Steven McRae, dancing with Akane Takada who debuted last time with Alexander because of Steven’s previous injury, and it was a big moment for him to come back from this. All had gone well in rehearsals, working with Lesley Collier, but during the performance with Akane he was looking good and then he had a horrible accident when his Achilles went at the beginning of Act II just when he looked so free on the first jump. Kevin said it was probably one of his worst moments in the theatre. Knowing Steven had put in so much hard work and dedication it was the worst possible luck as he so wanted to get himself back in the right shape and it was a harrowing experience.  It was interesting to see how the Company reacted, and they are incredible. Akane was distraught but Kevin had to think what to do next while trying to comfort Steven, and everyone offered ideas. Reece Clarke who had made his debut the season before with Melissa Hamilton was in the performance, so they got him into costume and within 20 minutes there was a new and much taller des Grieux on stage, and he and Akane just got on and performed. So, there are mixed memories tinged with sadness knowing Steven has another long haul back to recovery.

    David mentioned changes to Manon over the years - the music, the differences with Julie Lincoln coaching and different lighting. Kevin said he talks to Deborah MacMillan who owns the rights and it’s always important to come to it fresh. The dancers are great exponents of the ballet but you want to inspire them with new ideas and several coaches – Robert Tewsley, Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson - were there this time. Ed has been announced as a new repetiteur but had already begun coaching after injury when he had taken himself out of some of the big roles. He is proving to be a fantastic coach and a great addition to the ballet staff. It’s all about trying to keep the ballets fresh and it’s always evolving with elements added to see what will work. When you’ve seen it many times you notice differences, and may or may not like them but it’s always interesting to hear peoples’ views. When they had the new Swan LakeKevin wanted it to be for this generation of dancers so they could put their own stamp on an iconic production, and with Manon it’s a bit similar.

    The next production was in the Linbury. Kevin was thrilled with this triple bill which they did twice in an evening but only four performances.  It came out of a conversation Kevin had with Daniel Squires who was at the Royal Ballet School around the same time as Tom Whitehead and had a career as a contemporary dancer in New York with the Merce Cunningham company. He’s also the partner of Kevin’s great friend, Monica Zamora. Daniel came to see Monotones and loved it. Kevin told him the story of when Sir Fred had gone to see Merce Cunningham at Sadler’s Wells and was inspired to make something different from his norm. They decided to find something of Merce’s to go with Monotonesbut Kevin felt it also needed another voice. He sees as much as possible live at Sadler’s Wells, the Barbican, around England and beyond, but just as they were about to go on tour to Madrid, he heard about Pam Tanowitz and started to look at her work. Before her star had really risen she made a piece to the Brandenberg Concerto in New York. Kevin thought it was beautiful and pure, and when reading about her discovered she’d trained as a Cunningham dancer so he felt she could make an interesting third part to the programme. Speaking by phone from his hotel room in Madrid, they hit it off, he invited her to come and she was thrilled with the idea. Soon after that phone call, she created Four Quartets in New York (later seen at the Barbican) which was a milestone in her career and put her on the map. Working with the company was fantastic. Pam was very interesting to work with and was great with the dancers. For this type of work Kevin likes to bring in former First Soloist Deirdre Chapman who has a contemporary background so is good to have with such choreographers. She was with San Francisco Ballet, and came to the UK to join Rambert from where she joined the Royal Ballet. She has so much experience of different styles and comes to the Company as a guest teacher. Everyone Keeps Mewas a really individual work which Kevin loved and it felt like a modern version of Dances at a Gatheringwhich came into the rep later on. The dancers were being themselves and after the first night Fumi Kaneko thrilled Pam by saying that for the first time she felt like herself on stage. It was a very successful programme which Kevin would love to bring back and meanwhile he expressed his gratitude to the Association for our help in supporting it.

    Then came Concerto, Enigma Variationsand Raymonda, a big Royal Ballet classic programme. Concerto is a wonderful piece which was revived during Kevin’s first season as Director, and he wanted to bring back Raymonda as the Company has the dancers to do it. Marianela had a small injury first time round, so it was good to see her this time and also Vadim and Sarah. It’s a showcase for soloists and corps as well, the same with Concerto. Enigma hadn’t been performed for about 11 years and Kevin felt it shouldn’t be left for too long and be lost. Few other companies do perform it. He and Christopher Saunders staged it and they had an enjoyable time with Deanne Bergsma, Wayne Sleep and Lesley coming to coach, though unfortunately Anthony Dowell had other commitments so was unable to come. It felt like a celebratory Royal Ballet programme. It was great to bring these ex dancers in which also included Alfreda Thorogood for Concerto, and people enjoyed performing it. The DVD is now out and in the classic Top Ten of DVDs. There were many debuts in Enigma and Concerto and Kevin wanted more performances so it came back in December.

    Sleeping Beauty: We always talk about it as the signature work of the Company and we know its history – it was Monica Mason’s and Christopher Newton’s production – we have a wealth of talent, and opening night felt like a lovely moment to celebrate the new generation of principal dancers, Yasmine Naghdi and Matt and Marcelino Sambe and Frankie. Kevin loves all the dancers but it’s great to watch the new ones flourish and it makes you feel like a proud father. He thought the Company danced beautifully and really did it justice across the board, from Principals to the Corps. It was great to have Monica there and Darcey Bussell who concentrated on Fumi, and Reece, and also worked with Yasmine. Darcey loves being in the studio and is wonderful, opening the eyes of the dancers with a fresh take on these roles. For most of the company Manon was a good way to start the season, followed by the Triple Bill so they were ready for Sleeping Beauty in November.

    Christmas brought Coppelia in place of Nutcracker.  The marketing team took a deep breath when Kevin told them! He has loved it since he saw it as a child in Hull and he knew Peter Wright’s production but hadn’t seen Anthony’s revival of Madam’s version. When Act II started with the horse it took him back to his childhood.  It could be a ballet that gets lost and there’s a great role in Swanilda. Marianela was the only one who had done it previously and this time there were seven casts with Laura Morera (who amazingly had never performed it), Akane, Yasmine, Francesca, Mayara Magri and Anna Rose Sullivan and their various young men. Christopher Carr revived it, they tweaked a few things and a few bits came out of Act III (no more candles). It won’t be as long before they do it again. In Peter’s production Franz had more to do in Act I and it would be good to put some of that in - he’s sure Madam wouldn’t object. It was joyous to bring it back and it’s a good contrast to Sleeping Beauty - more of a fun ballet to perform and they also did it in January. Merle Park and Leanne came to coach. Merle was Director of the School in Kevin’s last year there so it was lovely to work with her. She was very generous and sent a lovely note afterwards to say the Company was in great shape and how she admired their spirit. Stephen Wicks, who’d been Dr Coppelius, also helped with coaching. Asked by David if it was true that Dr Coppelius’ costume had to be changed following the Dress Rehearsal, Kevin confirmed it was so. That’s what the team is about - if it doesn’t feel quite right, as in the case of the hat - it has to go! They didn’t lose the essence of the ballet and it didn’t make a big difference and Madam would have been very practical and got on with it.

    Onegin was another revival after Christmas which everyone wants to dance. It looks as if it was made for the Royal, and there are so many links between us and Stuttgart. It fits us well, and everyone – principals, soloists and corps – love doing it. Kevin enjoys working with Reid Anderson. Reid knows the work inside out, is very strict about certain elements. Reid knows every little moment in the choreography which is good when people are learning. No end of new people were to do it including Vadim but after a few little rehearsals which were fine he admitted he thought it wasn’t the right moment for him to take on the role. Kevinlikes to listen to the dancers and have those conversations, and it was sad but at the same time commendable that he took himself out of it and Reid understood his decision and agreed. They look forward to him returning to it one day. Reece stepped in, having been promoted to First Soloist half way through the season, and it was thrilling that he had such a success with Natalia who is extraordinary in the role. Matt was Lensky, Frankie was Olga, Gary Avis was Gremin. It was a wonderful first night. Another change was Itziar Mendizabel who went in instead of Lauren with Thiago Soares as guest artist, and David Donnelly and Meaghan Grace Hingis as Lensky and Olga. Then there was Marianela and Ryoichi Hirano with Akane and Nicol Edmunds. It was also a debut for Yasmine with Federico Bonelli and Anna Rose with Joe Sissens. Kevin has to spend a lot of time in the office but they were his cast and he looked after them after Reid had left and loved having the time in the studio with the dancers. Yasmine hasdanced every role in the ballet and there was variously Tomas Mock, Lukas Bjorneboe Braendsrod and Benn Gartside as Gremin. The audiences seemed to love it, it was performed well and appeared fresh.

    Then came what was to be a double bill of new ballets but finally there was only one new work. Kevin said Liam Scarlett was no longer with the Company and he wouldn’t want to comment on that episode.

    Kevin had been considering Dances at a Gathering for some time. Instead of having a holiday the summer before, he had agreed to curate the Joyce Festival and had a great time.  This year they were thinking about it as the festival’s anniversary came round with everybody coming out of lock-down but no-one travelling. It was going down scale but everyone was working together in a brilliant way. Jean Pierre Froelich, Ballet Master at NYCB, who had put on The Concert for us several times, was saying it would be good to have another Robbins work. That cemented Kevin’s idea of Dances. As a programme it worked well contrasting with the new work – maybe it’s easier not to have two new works on the same programme. It was a great experience for the dancers in rehearsals. Previously people were very nervous about it as Jerome Robbins was very particular with the dancers he wanted and didn’t cast till the last minute, so everyone had to learn all the different roles, and it was quite onerous for the person staging it. Ben Huys and Christopher Saunders and Helen Crawford worked really well together so it was stress-free, the dancers thoroughly enjoyed it and it had the right atmosphere. It was broadcast as one of the Friday online premieres. Cathy Marston has a long history linking her with the Company. Kevin wanted hers to be a big piece, they talked through ideas and as soon as she mentioned Jacqueline du Pre he was taken by it. His mother was very into classical music so as a youngster he knew she was a star performer in the classical world. It was a lovely process with Cathy who’d been at the School, was an Associate of the Linbury, went abroad as a company director and did more works around the world before coming back to the Opera House. He found the piece very moving and Lauren, Matt and Marcelino were very good. Also, Beatriz Stix Brunel, and Calvin Richardson’s portrayal as the instrument was very different from Marcelino’s and brought something else to the role. People were sobbing at the end. They’d wondered about having a new score but Cathy thought they shouldn’t go down that route. She had a good team around her and it was great working with her. As it progressed Kevin went into the studio to spend time with Cathy during the lead up and they bounced ideas off each other. It really touched people and came over well in the cinema. It’s a fantastic addition to the rep and Kevin hopes to bring it back.

    Swan Lake.   Finally, there were only a few performances and because Liam wasn’t with them Kevin staged it with the team, Sam Raine was back from maternity leave, and again he likes to use people who know the Company so Johannes Stepanek helped with Acts I and III.  He has a great eye and he’d done some work with the Royal Opera while he was still dancing and he had also helped Javier de Frutos with his work at the Barbican. There were quite a lot of debuts: Frankie and Cesar, Fumi, Mayara, and Marcelino. He had seen most of them on stage and speaking to Frankie today she was pleased to know she’ll get another stage call before her debut. The first night was the original cast with a couple of changes. It was an amazing performance from Marianela and Vadim. Akane and Federico were filmed for NHKTV in Japan. When they were on tour there they were asked if they’d do Swan Lake in the 8K film format. It’s extraordinarily crisp and clear but you have to go to special cinemas to see it. Natalia was to have danced with David Hallberg but he was stuck in Australia having his final interview for the directorship. He got the job and had to stay there so it was a great opportunity to bring in Reece who gave a tremendous performance and Natalia trusts him implicitly. It’s a great partnership developing. The final performance was on 12 March. There was a lot in the news about COVID and Kevin had talked to the Company every day during that week assuring them they were trying to keep things safe and were listening to government advice. The 12 March was again the first night cast and there was something in the air. From Marcelino’s very first solo, the audience were ecstatic and everybody danced their hearts out which was quite tremendous. It gives Kevin goosebumps even thinking about it now. The audience were incredible and nobody wanted the curtain to come down and how right they were. On the Sunday Kevin sent his email to say he’d rather they didn’t come in on Monday and by 5pm on Monday everything was shut and it was the start of a new world.

    Lockdown. The last six months have been quite something. Kevin wanted to make sure they kept the Company connected, staying in touch as much as they could so they didn’t feel they were on their own. He said anyone who didn’t have family in the UK or felt they wanted to be home should go as it looked as if it would last a while. He wanted people to feel comfortable. On that Monday they knew they weren’t performing again and a few dancers came into the studio, socially distanced, and collected their things and made their decisions. They had a group email connecting the dancers and anyone working with them at the time and messaged every night to give an update just to let them know what was going on and keeping connected. They set up Zoom classes three days a week with Brian Maloney who was fantastic and the other two days there was Pilates and strength training. Kevin got out his phone book and they started Guest Teacher Saturdays which included Olga Evreinoff, and it was a great way of keeping in touch with everyone. Kevin donned his ballet shoes in solidarity and did class in his kitchen but made sure the camera was high so his head and port de bras were seen rather than his legs and feet! It was sort of fun.

    There was an unbelievable amount of meetings about the possibility of upcoming performances, but as everything was constantly changing many versions of new schedules were taken back to the drawing board, but it was important to keep planning in the hope to get back on stage whenever it was safe to do so. The big worry was the financial situation of the House. Then the government initiated the furlough scheme whichwas a huge lifeline. The opera house had to make as much use of this scheme as possible.

    The dancers were ingenious in their way of thinking and getting things together. Although we couldn’t have directed rehearsals because of the furlough rules, it was great to see the dancers working together themselves to keep fit and motivated.

    The ROH launched a digital programme – ‘Our House To Your House’ and so it was really great to have the massive back catalogue of productions, some of which haven’t ever been seen before. We have done everything we can to keep things going during a very difficult time. In June there were very small concerts mainly for the opera but it’s hard for the dancers to perform suddenly after just dancing in their living room so we did work suited to the occasion. Since July we’ve been back in the building. Within furlough rules you are allowed to train so that’s a great saving. The last week of the holidays was in August and though still on furlough from September it felt like the start of the season so now they can work. The rules are a bit broad and each ballet company is doing what they can and all the directors keep in touch with each other but each company does it slightly differently. The Royal Ballet version which got approval was doing class as if you are going to the supermarket - you wear your mask and keep your distance.  Pas de deux is different and they have to be tested in their bubbled pairs.

    About 9 October’s gala Kevin can’t yet say anything but he is determined to get everybody who wants to be there on stage at some point in a socially distanced way. Sometimes you don’t want to do the gala from hell which goes on and on but the audience can be in your sitting room and pause the show if you feel it’s too long. They have to find the right pieces and some things still have to be worked out musically. The opera gala last Friday was a great success with the orchestra in the stalls where it’ll be for the ballet as well. For the dancers to have the orchestra right there after six months is extraordinary and very exciting.

    The interviews with dancers are normally at the end of the season which wasn’t possible this year so it’s just started this week. Asked if there will be promotions, Kevin said not until they are back on a fuller performance schedule as now just isn’t the right moment. It’ll be done as soon as possible and the dancers understand that but when it can happen they’ll acknowledge the great work people did during the season with great performances. So far only Erico Montes and Tristan Dyer have left. Kevin said you imagine people are re-evaluating their lives and some are thinking about their next step. The last season’s Aud Jebsen dancers will be with the Company. Aud Jebsen dancers for this year were announced at the start of the performing season.

    We plan for a performing season and then suddenly there’s a new dictat from the government and everything changes. The Opera House which is struggling like everyone else to survive will open doors as soon as possible. We want to be ready to perform for as many people as possible but things might not be the same. BRB have announced performances at Birmingham Rep and Sadler’s Wells socially distanced.

    When you do start performing, will it be possible for them to be live streamed as well? Many of our members are more concerned about using public transport rather than the theatre itself.

    This is definitely being considered and discussed at length. Streaming does come with its own additional costs but we realise the importance for audiences at home.

    What is coming back from the rep and heritage, particularly Ashton? Would Daphnis and Chloe come back?

    Daphnis has been on Kevin’s radar - it’s a great choral ballet. Wayne’s piece Dante – the first part has already been made and a lot of the set has been done which is great and it is an amazing work with wonderful music, a few references to Mayerling. There were fantastic first performances in LA and great to see Wayne’s work on stage.

    What about Wayne’s other piece based on the Margaret Attwood trilogy?

    Kevin said that this is a co-production with National Ballet of Canada and it would premiere there first.

    David thanked Kevin so much for coming to talk to us and expressed our gratitude for his support of the Association since becoming Director. It was sad that COVID meant we also lost the open rehearsal in the studio. Hopefully that may be possible again. Kevin said he loves it when everyone comes to the rehearsals, and connections with the dancers, following them through their careers - some know them personally and others not, but the support is lovely.

    The Royal Ballet’s association with the BA is a strong link with the audience of people who care about the Company. Here’s hoping people are back in the studio and in the seats watching soon. He’s ever the optimist and believes they will be back as strong as ever. The Company was in such great shape and he didn’t want to lose that but he’s seen in the last weeks that their spirit is there in abundance.

    Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Kevin O’Hare and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2020