In these unsettled times, simply asking how you are can seem like a loaded question. One doesn’t want to insinuate that anyone might be losing the plot or going bonkers but the cagey way we ask, implies that we are not sure what the response might be. When I ask Kevin O’Hare, director of The Royal Ballet, I am in no doubt that the last year has not affected his ability to lead one of the greatest ballet companies in the world through a crisis and reach even greater heights because of it. He is undaunted, a mix of high-octane positivity and charm. My immediate thoughts are that the question is somewhat irrelevant – he’s much more interested in how his company is and what has been learnt from the experiences of the previous 12 months. He’s also keen to point out that there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I’m alright actually,” he says with hope in his voice. “Crazy times! But last week, with the sun coming out, definitely felt like a spring in the step and it was good to know a bit more where we’re going. As much as we can make an educated guess, we are going to open on May 17th, with our first performance on the 18th. The last performance we did before the first lockdown was on March 12th last year, a long time ago. The weeks go quickly, but then that, thinking about it, seems like an age. Someone said to me, it’s like the days go by but they’re filled with just the rubbish bits!”
I want to hear about the positives – the few performances that took place last year seemed to defy the odds, the dancers were better than ever.
“Yes, totally! It has been extraordinary the way they’ve been. When you look at the timescale, March to June we were in kitchens on Zoom. After that, we’ve been here [at the Royal Opera House] which has been fortuitous but I do think people have taken the attitude that they are just going to work on this or that, focused on a certain part of their technique. They’ve opened their eyes to other things, other companies or art forms. The ones that have taken it upon themselves and done films – all these things have added layers to them. Someone like Vadim [Muntagirov] has grown even more – other people have noticed it too. As good as he was, it’s as if he’s grown up, even greater than before.” There is some discussion about how impressive the live performances were when the dancers returned for the autumn galas, in particular I mention the exhilarating performances of Marcelino Sambé and Anna Rose O’Sullivan. “Because it was such an important moment – coming back on stage, I talked to them, I tried to find out how they would feel about dancing certain things. Of course I had my ideas. So with Marcelino we decided on Ashton’s La Fille [Fanny Elssler pas de deux] which he had danced a couple of years ago with Francesca [Hayward] and to put him with Anna Rose. She had never done it but has also grown in stature. She’s always been confident with this wonderful technique, but without looking too stylised, it did look as if it had been thought through carefully and then she was free to just dance. You know what it’s like, you go through the school, get into a company, there’s no let up actually, so having some time to reflect is no bad thing. We have this massive repertoire which is of course, why people want to join the Company but then to have time to reflect on how they would do a role – having conversations about some of the roles that may come back next season and how they might approach them now – it will be really fascinating to see what happens.”
I wonder how difficult it was for O’Hare to cushion the blow of cancelled debuts in important roles at the beginning of lockdown. “It was very tough. We all knew on the night of the 12th March that we were going to stop, but didn’t know for how long. It was the first night cast of Swan Lake and it was just incredible. The atmosphere was beyond electric from the moment the curtain went up, unbelievable, amazing. Obviously Marianela [Nuñez] and Vadim were superb but also right across the Company. It was a standing ovation, it was as if the audience didn’t want them to go. So we knew – but after that it was a question of just being there to listen. The main thing to say was that all that work they’d put in will come to fruition. I brought in Zenaida [Yanowsky] to work with Mayara [Magri] and Fumi [Kaneko], and Francesca was working with Lesley [Collier], so that in itself was a great experience for them. A lot of it was about being a comfort and giving them that reassurance that nothing is wasted. Saying to them that they will get another chance and they may have benefitted from that extra time. On a lighter note, Francesca joked that at least she would get another stage call! There is nothing worse than being disappointed at losing a show because of injury so I think the fact that we were all in this together somehow helped. One of the things from the team here was to keep the company feeling ‘as one’. It was really important.”
Losing a whole season at any point in a dance career is devastating. “Yes – there were a few people who were just coming through this season. You see it and start to get excited about where they’re going to go with it. At every level it’s tough whether you’re young dancers that have just joined the company, somebody just getting that role for the first time, those dancers that are riding high and going even further and then the more senior dancers. Nobody has had it easy or had any let up from it. We’ve done everything to try and keep everybody motivated but in the end it’s up to the individual. You can give the support and we’ve tried to do that – their resilience has been absolutely extraordinary. When you see them doing class with those masks on every day, having to be spread out, the teacher’s in one room with the cameras relaying everything across the studios – you only get a ‘live’ teacher once every four classes, it’s all that sort of thing. There was a moment after those first few weeks, when we realised this wasn’t over, the worry about furlough and the worry about whether the company was ever going to be the same. Can we really survive this? We rely so much on box office and philanthropy. If you don’t have the shows, how can you keep motivating the people to keep supporting us? When you budget for more than 90% capacity, there is a real concern that it will just evaporate. Even now, I’m super excited about being back on stage but we still keep hitting brick walls. We have to work out how to do it in a Covid safe way; how we can costume it; musically we’ve had to reduce; things like not being able to change a floor cloth in the middle of a show because then people will be too close together. It was a miracle that we even got The Nutcracker on. With all the rejigging of the choreography, with Gary Avis and Samantha Raine, the help of Will Tuckett for the battle scene, the stage crew, the wardrobe – I jokingly said it was CSI Nutcracker, it was so forensic!”
With everything that has happened and the digital side of showing performances, is there a temptation to film everything/every cast just in case?
“Well, we were kicking ourselves that we didn’t film the first Nutcracker because we lost all those shows. It’s exactly that – shall we just film everything? I think we do feel lucky that we had a such a back catalogue of filmed productions even if they’ve been shown before, people can re-visit them and it does feel good that I was very much behind the cinema programme and we are seeing the benefits of that now. We are actually going to film some new creations in April, it’s still raw, but a sort of Draft Works on the main stage, so that’s great.” So is digital the future? “I think what’s been useful is that we have learnt how to do things in a different way, we’ve been able to do it more economically and we will be able to put more out there. It was good when we first started streaming in cinemas across the country. Now we can be in people’s homes for those who can’t come and see us. But for me, I don’t think it replaces [live performance] at all. The whole of The Nutcracker sold out in a day, there was a massive hunger for that and I think people want that shared experience. It’s all about that feeling in the audience, the excitement before. I think they’re irreplaceable. But for people who can’t come – we’ve had a lot of letters from people saying that [online streamings] have saved them in lockdown and we want to continue that. I think that we can use the technology in filming to create things that are different, there’s lots you can do that could be interesting but for me it’s a bonus, not a replacement. We’ve got this wonderful stage, we’ve got this wonderful orchestra – I always say to choreographers – use it! We’re so lucky!”
Black Lives Matter was the other major world event of last year and the Royal Opera House presented one of the most interesting and moving Insights for Black History Month last October. Hosted by Kenneth Tharp, he interviewed six of the Royal Ballet dancers of colour about their experiences. O’Hare agrees that it was a very open and honest exchange but says emphatically, “There’s a lot more to be done. We already had a diversity and inclusion group within the Opera House where people could express things. I thought we should use this time and set up our own group for the Company. I certainly didn’t want it to be me in front – I wanted it to be their voices being heard. But I am totally beside them. Yes, we need to make changes but I’m saying let’s make it a comfortable space, one where you feel you’re presenting yourself authentically on stage. We are talking to each individual about the details of their presentation on stage, from how their hair and make-up is done to the colour of their tights, across the arc of our productions. We have this amazing tradition and heritage and we want to make this accessible for everyone; we also want today’s generation to have their own traditions as well. There’s much to do in many areas but we are so lucky to have the dancers we do – so this work is a real priority. We go out there and get these young people really excited about dance with our Chance to Dance community programme but where do they go from there? Can they afford to go to the local dance school? My dream would be that we go into all the schools, do amazing workshops, help them with local teachers, then join the Junior Associates and get into White Lodge and so on. It’s a long term thing but I think it’s needed.
“People say dance is elitist, but I’m from a very working class background and nobody is ever stopped from going to White Lodge because they can’t afford it. There’s a brilliant system of means-tested support from the government for vocational training. But what about before then? Some people have got large families, can they afford ballet classes on top of everything else? And it’s very important to make sure the people we have here already feel that this is totally the right place for them.”
I wonder if it is possible to work more closely with a company like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and if that is too far removed from the company’s tradition. “No, I don’t think it’s too far removed. We did Chroma with them sometime ago and it was exhilarating. It was celebrating Wayne’s [McGregor] 10 years with the company. We decided we were going to do a mixed programme and we had half our dancers and half Alvin Ailey. It was as exciting as when Chroma was first performed. I love going to see them anyway, you come out of the theatre elated. Our dancers said how inspiring it was for them to see role models on stage. They were gorgeous. That love of what they do is palpable. So yes – how amazing would that be? And I think it’s really valuable to have those influences. It’s also great in the UK to have Ballet Black and it’s been fantastic to have them perform here at the Linbury over so many years”
Then there is the issue of forward planning – something that in normal circumstances would be done many, many months in advance but over the last year has become a series of hurdles and obstacle courses. “I’ve had plans from A to Z and I’m getting to the point of going back to plan A! We just don’t want to miss out! Mr Johnson has said we can go open on 17th May – we’re going to be there. I’m ever optimistic but everything between now and September will be a bonus.
“We’ve had a big push on coaching so the principals have been coaching the younger dancers. We’ve had Alessandra Ferri in – it’s not bad is it? Having Alessandra coaching you on a Tuesday! We’ve even had the younger dancers doing things like pas de deux classes.
“The one positive thing that has come out of this is ‘connection’ – we’re a big company but I feel the connection between us all is stronger than it’s ever been and stronger within the Opera House as well. In a funny way – it’s even stronger with audiences. I think collectively we’ve all realised how much we miss it. We’ve been seeing life through a different lens, we’re more curious and I think when we have been able to perform, what’s come through is the feeling that we want to give everybody the opportunity to be the best, to give of their best. What I will take away is that I know we are going to come back and just have the season of our lives. I’m excited about the fact that we haven’t lost who we are.”
By Deborah Weiss
The Royal Ballet returns from 17 May 2021, further details at www.roh.org.uk