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    Kevin O'Hare 2022

    Kevin O'Hare

    Director, The Royal Ballet Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    American International Church, Mon 09th May, 2022


    In welcoming Kevin, David suggested he began by telling us about the rationale behind the next season’s programme. Kevin said with the breadth of their rep it becomes more difficult to fit everything in but the different choreographers who work with us, as well as our own, along with the classics, are things which attract audiences and dancers alike. There are fewer programmes than normal this season and next because of the events of the last two years. They’ve been trying to get through Covid and everything that entailed to make sure they could survive. There were 270 redundancies throughout, including 73 in the technical department which had a huge impact and which will affect them for some time to come. Kevin had to make the commitment to stick to 90 dancers, not including apprentices, for a couple of years. He slightly modified this to 90 dancers’ salaries because a higher ranked dancer leaving could mean two of a lower rank could be paid. They open with Mayerling to mark Kenneth MacMillan’s 30th anniversary. Deborah MacMillan was in agreement for this to go ahead. Because there are fewer programmes they’re doing more performances than recently, so there will also be new casts as some have left the Company. The dancers have watched the ballet since starting at White Lodge and see themselves in those roles. Crystal Pite is coming back with a new work. She has ways of telling a story which connect with people of our time and manages to harness that and creates something beautiful as well as making it pertinent to today. She’s keen to use the whole of the Gorecki symphony so it’s like a sequel to Flight Pattern. She’s beloved by the Company so there’s a great rapport between her and the dancers and it’s wonderful to have her in the building. As she’s just had a premier in The Hague her ideas on casting haven’t yet been discussed but that should happen this week for the opening in October. Flight Pattern will use lots of the corps and middle ranks but Kevin wants principals to have something to get their teeth into too. It’s also the 60th anniversary of the Friends of Covent Garden who want to celebrate so there’ll be Diamonds on its own, and it offers a good opportunity to invite other choreographers. Chris Wheeldon had produced a beautiful piece called For Four some while ago for four men to the Death and the Maiden quartet which he’s about to cast for four principal male dancers. After the success of Scherzo/Anemoi, Kevin wanted Valentino Zucchetti to be involved and thought of a work to mirror Chris’ piece by using the female principals. In the Linbury, Pam Tanowitz will do a duet along the lines of a companion piece to Jewels. Our emerging choreographer, Joseph Toonga, will create a work and there’ll also be some pas de deux. The Diamond Gala and Mayerling will go out live in cinemas on the first night.

    Following on, Nutcracker comes back with new casts and more than any other ballet it brings in the new audience. Sleeping Beauty follows - another classic work of the Company. Just before Covid, it showed the Company to be in good shape, at the time led by Matthew Ball, Yasmine Naghdi, Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé with Fumi Kaneko as Lilac Fairy, and other performances during that run felt strong so it’s important to build on those. Then Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works comes back as it should have been done in the 2021 season. Alessandra Ferri will come for some performances and there’ll be two new casts of the main roles. The highlight of the season is the return of Ashton’s Cinderella on its 75th anniversary. It’s 12 years since they put it on when Kevin felt the production didn’t really work so well and needed a new look at designs so it’s taken time to make it happen. Tom Pye is the designer who’s worked on stage, screen and ballet mainly in the States, Oscar-nominated Alexandra Byrne is the costume designer, trained in theatre and went into film, being involved in Mary Queen of Scots and Emma. David Finn is doing the lighting and Finn Ross the video projections, with Chris Fisher who worked on Harry Potterbeing the magic consultant. The production needs to be as magical as possible to match the magical choreography and it could be a first introduction to a new audience. Then there’s another run of Beauty and at the end of the season there’s the mixed programme with Anastasia Act III, Corybantic Games and a new Wayne McGregor work with designs by Carmen Herrera, the Cuban who sadly died last year and only became known in the visual arts world in her 80s. Wayne spoke to her about it five years ago and she created the stage designs three years ago which are very simple and beautiful. Then there’s a tour to Japan but before anything else they’re in Doncaster for their education project involving all the schools plus a Chance to Dance. They’ll be opening the season there on 24 September with a gala over two nights. The Linbury will have Pam Tanowitz repeating Everyone Keeps Me and a companion piece to Anna Clyne music.

    David then posed a number of questions to Kevin, including some that had been submitted by members.

    Will performances come back to the previous level? Kevin said after next year there should be 11 productions. When he took over they had about 12 productions which is more than most other companies. It was a shock to the system when they created a new ballet (Alice), the first for many years, and everybody found it difficult to do that as well as their normal works. Here we have no rehearsal periods so once the season starts in October they don’t stop and even if they are doing known works it’s hard to get everybody in the room at the same time. Other companies work in chunks - lots of shows, followed by a three-week rehearsal period every day, then performances again whereas at the Royal every week they have up to five shows.

    Relating to the mixed bills, this time there’s only two, one of which is the Diamond celebration with only three performances. Kevin said it’s all about logistics. There was to have been another ballet but he felt it would be too much. Everyone is taking time to get back after Covid and you have to be careful not to push too much. In the past he’s just squeezed another one in and people have been on their knees. It’s a question of balance.

    Anastasia: why only Act III? There is a reason which will become apparent but that was how it originated and it works well. The ballerinas who did it last time were so good and will do it again. The Martinu score is very effective. The Gorecki for the Crystal Pite programme is only about 56 minutes long so it will be a short evening but the piece will be powerful and it’s important that it’s seen on its own and it would be hard to put something against it. It’ll be interesting to see the audience reaction.

    Why only three Diamond celebration performances?  It’s about stage time. From a distance it seems simple but the complexity with scheduling between the ballet, the opera and orchestra is massive and that was what was available to them.

    Lack of lighting in some productions and use of side lighting in particular which means if costumes, floor and backdrop are black, from upstairs you only see faces and hands. Kevin always tries to get it right on stage. The most difficult is Solo Echo though they had more light this time than previously while keeping true to the lighting design. But it goes in phases with lighting designers and what choreographers choose. David mentioned one of the dancers recently told us coming on in Inferno she aimed for a person she thought was there and on arrival found it was a different dancer.

    Cinderella is being done jointly with another company. What are the logistics of this and how does it come about? It’s a challenge to put on a new full-length ballet, and the only way is to get other people on board and it’s very important to make it work. The opera has done it for some time but they are one of the first companies to do this and it makes sense. However, what’s disappointing is that sometimes we don’t get to perform in other countries because we have to divide the territories between us. For example, we didn’t premier Alice or The Winter’s Talein the USA as both productions were with the National Ballet of Canada (NBC) but Kevin feels it’s worth it to get the shows on. There’s been a relationship with NBC for a long time. They had a version of Cinderellaand Kevin felt they might be looking for another so he spoke about it to their Executive Director as Karen Kain was just about to leave but her successor, Hope Muir, was very happy to have this production and the production teams worked together to make it happen. Depending on whether it’s new or an older ballet we do send staff to help. With The Dante Project they were more or less on their own but after the premier of Inferno in Los Angeles Kevin talked to Aurelie Dupont at Paris Opera Ballet who had heard about it, liked the music, knew Wayne’s work and wanted to come on board which was a bit of a bonus. Paris will premier it next year.

    Concerning the portrayal of the Sisters in Cinderella and the datedness of some of their repartee, Kevin said it’s something they’ll look at. Wendy Ellis, who owns the ballet, has ideas so before going on holiday they will have a workshop to make sure everything works. They have to be true to the choreography and the humour works so well with the Widow in Fille and other Ashton ballets but this one is harder to pull off.

    How do you ensure a balance between heritage, classics and new works? Looking at the year, Kevin tries to divide them equally in thirds. Thinking of 2022 and 23 it may not seem logical but for example there’s not much of Chris Wheeldon but that’s because he’s about to put on a massive new ballet in three weeks’ time. In general, they’ve not gone with ballets from other places as they have so much of their own rep with Ashton, MacMillan and the classics which are so important, together with new work.  Mats Ek was an acquisition the year before last. They’d talked about it before they closed down, they then did one gala and closed again which was very frustrating for everybody, and Kevin wanted to find things that were interesting in the studio even if they couldn’t be performed on stage. He talked to Mats who said he had a duet and if it could be squeezed in he’d be happy to do it. It gave the Company the experience of working with him and five couples were in the studio though only two performed it. Crystal Pite did things on Zoom and sent two stagers who worked with the Company so they did The Statement and Solo Echo. They had a great time in the studio, doing various solos which were good for the young dancers. Also, the principals coached during that time which would never normally happen.

    How do you balance the requirements of different principals and first soloists? Kevin said the rep has to come first. For the last Ashton programme most principal dancers were involved which was fantastic. That’s what you hope for and with the extraordinary mix of dancers that they have they can do that while also wanting to encourage younger dancers.

    The recent Ashton Triple Bill was very successful and got a fantastic reaction. Are there any plans to put on Ashton works we’ve not seen for a long time? Kevin said that every season they consider something but Cinderella is so huge and with only eight programmes it’s not possible to have more this time. Sometimes there’s a mix of rep in the programme which can work but it’s quite rare and because his work is so varied with story-telling, abstract and joyful it’s good to put them together. There are plans afoot for next year when there will be opportunities to see works not seen. It’s about four years since they had Symphonic Variations,which is a masterpiece, so you shouldn’t wait too long before it’s seen again. Likewise, Two Pigeonsand The Dream so the dancers have another chance to perform it. Other works not done for a while will be delved into. One third of the work should be heritage which Kevin considers as Ashton, MacMillan, and De Valois because they were the grounds the Company was formed on. Although Nijinska is not our heritage since Kevin took over, he’s tried four times to put on Les Noces and it will happen but is very expensive so is always the one that has to go when they’re cutting cloth to fit the budget. Four soloist singers, a chorus, four pianists and four grand pianos are costly. (David mentioned that when Gemma Bond, former dancer with the Royal, was being interviewed recently in Cuba she said that Nijinska was her biggest choreographic influence.) Kevin also loves some of Glenn Tetley but it’s a question of space though they might get Pierrot Lunaire in the Linbury. Where does he place Balanchine and Robbins whom both he and the dancers love? They recently did Dances at a Gathering, a beautiful ballet, and they’ve also had Afternoon of a Faun and In the Night. Balanchine can work well with new works and also on its own as a triple so there will be something in the next couple of years. When it comes to other people’s heritage, for example, the company didn’t celebrate Anthony Tudor though the school did so. Ashley Page was the main choreographer during Anthony Dowell’s tenure and we haven’t seen his work since. Once again, it’s to do with timing and different opinions as to what people want. It’s very hard but they haven’t had the connection with him for a while.

    Are ‘woke’ values going to influence ballets like Fille and Bayadere?  Kevin doesn’t like that word, saying we all learn every day and look at things with fresh eyes and every time they do a ballet from the past they have to look at it afresh, especially their favourites which they want to celebrate. It’s about putting it in context so people understand why they do that work and if there are issues which people might find offensive how they should be dealt with. They look at the way they are presented so people coming for the first time understand the context. Kevin mentioned on a recent visit to see Raymonda at Dutch National Ballet he also took the chance to go into the Rijks Museum. Their exhibits have the usual label with the name of the work and artist, but now a second label giving a more detailed history of the people who are portrayed so viewers are aware of the background and context of these people and what they did. In visual art it’s easier to do than in dance where we hope we make people believe in the story we have to tell but the last thing anyone wants to do is to cause offence so it has to be put in its context. David mentioned that one of our guests had said they thought Bayadere would never be brought back. Kevin said that’s not true, though it isn’t down to be performed and has never been a staple of the rep.

    Some members are still agitated at the House having no paper cast sheets, as some have no computers or smartphones. They have to collect tickets from the Box Office so couldn’t there be cast sheets available just for them? The cast sheets are up in the foyer and are as accurate as possible - and the House is saving paper - but Kevin will ask the question. Also, for those on line, could casting be announced earlier on the day of the performance? It should be there some hours beforehand as if the audience are travelling from out of London it needs to be up by say mid-afternoon.

    Intervals used to be much shorter but are now often 30 minutes. Why? The crew need time to change the set and lighting, and there are Health and Safety issues to be considered now which weren’t there previously. They try to get it down to the least possible. Swan Lake intervals this time were only 20 or 25 minutes. They need to be finished by 10.30 or else there are overtime implications.

    An audience member asked about dancers’ pay. They all took a cut in pay over the pandemic. Kevin would love the dancers to be paid the salary they deserve. There’s a lot to be done back stage as well. Also it would be good to have the luxury of time - if they could have some dark nights when there were no performances of either company, they could rehearse in a different way, would feel more prepared and the work/life balance would be better. We’re still in tough times and the House is losing money. For example, the cost of steel behind the sets for new productions has tripled in price, plus the cost of living is going up. The ‘new’ building is already 20+ years old, a lot of stuff is on its last legs and needs replacing. It’s also important the graduates from the school can come into the Company.

    There are a lot of Aud Jebsen apprentices at the moment and Kevin said some will become Company members. Aud has been such a blessing for them. She made it possible for more to come into the programme and they need to make sure they get into the Company. A question had been posed concerning two black female apprentices in the corps, one who alternates between wearing brown or pink shoes and tights, and the other always wears regular tights or brown shoes. Kevin said they talked a lot during lockdown about how we navigate the way people look on stage. They have a diversity and inclusion group holding many discussions and the decision was that everybody in the Company has a consultation and should be free to decide how they want to be seen on stage, be it their hair, tights, shoes, or undergarments. If it’s part of a costume that’s a different matter. People make different choices but may change their ideas next year. It doesn’t make any difference to how the corps looks on stage and they have been tremendous this year.

    This season we have Like Water For Chocolate coming up. So far it has been a joyful experience, particularly with the author being so wonderful and lovely in the way she works with Chris Wheeldon, collaborating and making sure it’s right and how it should be presented for the audience of today. The recent Insights will be put on line shortly. The Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra is also involved as musical consultant, and the Mexican Ambassador and an agency in Mexico have been consulted. It is a ballet and not intended to replicate Mexico but it needs to feel right. Alondra has said within Mexico they are their own universe, different and diverse, the music is great, dancers are having a lovely time, and there were three wonderful casts in the studio today. Chris is an amazing man and some great news is that his Broadway musical about Michael Jackson has just been nominated for ten Tony awards.  They saw during his workshops for American in Paris and The Winter’s Tale, how much he’d learned about how to tell the story. At the Insight recently in seconds he captured realistically the death of the cook in Like Water for Chocolate. They’re in the opera rehearsal room next week and open in three weeks’ time.

    Although not Kevin’s responsibility, there was a comment that the orchestra isn’t very diverse. Kevin had been in with the orchestra for Joby Talbot’s read through, and agreed that was the case though they are working hard on it but will take time to change.

    The Ashton programme. Kevin thought all three works came out looking very fresh.  He had wondered what Scenes de Ballet would look like with no sets so they did this for two calls and he thought it looked absolutely fantastic – very clean and smart. However, it was a celebration of Ashton so it was important to keep the original and the sets were put back. Kevin loves Month, which has a sentimental value as it was the first ballet he saw in his White Lodge days, there were three wonderful casts who each brought their own take to the roles. He was delighted with Rhapsody which had some great performances with Marcelino Sambé and Cesar Corales taking it on, and it was thrilling to see Steven McRae dancing so well and growing back in confidence. It was all joyous. David recalled it was the first production the Ballet Association supported when Rhapsody was brought back with something like the original sets and costumes. Often, it’s been at the beginning of the programme but it works best at the end. This time we were a very good audience for Scenes. Antoinette Sibley said it was once performed in the middle at Drury Lane and went down a storm and when Kevin checked the Ashton book, he discovered it was done once without sets and he wondered if it was on that occasion. Coming to it for the first time, people might be looking for some meaning but Anthony Russell Roberts said Sir Fred had told him there was no meaning whatsoever but supposedly it was his favourite ballet. As for the origin of the hats, Ashton had seen someone wearing a hat like that in a teashop!

    Iain Webb at Sarasota Ballet has brought a lot of ballets back from the Sadler’s Wells rep. Have they talked about working together? Kevin said yes, they were going to do Valses Nobles in the Linbury but then Covid happened.

    They’ve had an amazing season in comparison to most other places in the West End and in the country but the DGV programme was the least sold programme which was a shame. Apart from the dark look, the audience reaction to Solo Echo was tremendous, and the Kyle Abraham piece very beautiful and touching. It used the dancers really well, not just the ones we know - Fumi, Natasha, Anna Rose, Calvin Richardson, Joe Sissens - but also the younger dancers like Liam Boswell, Joshua Junker, Amelia Townsend and Stanislaw Wegrzyn who looked fantastic. Visiting choreographers often look at the younger ones with a fresh eye and pick people out. It was great to see DGV again as the last time they performed it was at the Bolshoi in 2014.

    Asked if there’d be a recording available of the Swan Lake performance for Ukraine, Kevin said it was recorded on a fixed camera but he hasn’t seen it so doesn’t know how good it is. It was a great night – a wonderful atmosphere out front and back stage they were cheering each other on. It was a dark night when they could have rested but everyone wanted to be involved for a great cause.

    The Association had given a donation towards streaming of the Ashton Rediscovered programme. In giving his thanks Kevin said although it is the responsibility of the Ashton Foundation, the Company did put a lot of effort into keeping it going.

    In thanking Kevin very much for joining us, David said it’s great having him come every couple of years to be fired with questions. In reply Kevin said it’s always good to have a discussion, we all have our own wish lists and he tries to make it happen. These are challenging times but the Company looks tremendous and the works have shown them off to advantage. They give 150 per cent which they’ll keep on doing to entertain the audience. He emphasised the importance to the dancers of knowing that there are people who care for and follow them.  There will be an open rehearsal for us to enjoy in September. More details will follow.

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

    © The Ballet Association 2022