From the corps to the boardroom

The Royal Ballet’s new director, Kevin O’Hare, on Pilates, budgets and Boy George.

When Kevin O’Hare interviewed for the position as director of The Royal Ballet, he already knew the company inside out: the former dancer had served as administrative director for three years and as company manager in the preceding five years.

He says that going through the interview process was difficult, ‘because I was imagining a lot of people who aren’t from the Royal Opera House saying, “I’ll be able to do this, that and the other”.’ And I was thinking,“well I know the reality of it”. Of course I was ambitious but I think you have to stay, to a degree,within reality.’

Appointed in 2011, O’Hare officially took over the reins from Monica Mason in July this year. It’s easy to presume that promoting O’Hare from within was a conservative choice for the London troupe, but in fact O’Hare has big plans for The Royal Ballet, and his leadership style is equally imaginative and pragmatic.

‘I want the dancers to feel that they own their careers here, that they’re in charge of themselves more’

On the day we chat in his expansive office at the Royal Opera House, which looks out over the ambling tourists and animated street performers of Covent Garden, 46-year-old O’Hare has been in the job for just five weeks. He rapidly runs through what a typical day might involve: overseeing educational outreach programmes, observing dance rehearsals in the studio, giving TV interviews, and dining out with sponsors.

O’Hare laughs frequently as we talk, seemingly undaunted by the demands of his role. A quietly ambitious but compassionate director, one of his main priorities during his tenure is to create a consistently healthy work place. ‘We have 94 dancers, it’s very hard to keep everybody happy, but I want everybody to have the best possible career within their statuses,’ O’Hare says. ‘Not everybody’s going to be star but I want them to have the best possible experience of being a dancer with The Royal Ballet. It’s an amazing place to have got to, it’s what everybody dreams of.’

O’Hare aims to achieve this by establishing a database of information on each dancer’s schedule, health and wellbeing. The idea – which has just been green-lit – will allow all dancers, and The RB’s administration team, to consult the database online via their phones. As well as uniting each dancer’s details in one place, O’Hare wants to diversify the available treatment he can offer his dancers.

From psychology to sport science, massage to Pilates and physiotherapy, the ballet corps will have access to a very wide range of care, all geared towards making them fitter, happier, better dancers. ‘I want the dancers to feel that they own their careers here, that they’re in charge of themselves more,’ he explains.

O’Hare’s empathy in this area stems from his own past as a performer. He trained at The Royal Ballet School, and joined the then Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet in 1984. He was promoted to principal in 1990 and remained with the company – by then renamed Birmingham Royal Ballet – until his retirement from dancing in 2000.

‘I’m so aware of what we ask the dancers,’ he says. ‘When I was a dancer we worked long hours, but I think the range of work nowadays is really tough. The cinema broadcasts, for example: that’s a lot of pressure to know that you’re going out to however many people across the country, watching you live. All of those things are hard for your head as well as your body. So we do anything we can to be a buffer.’

‘But they’re adults,’ he adds after a brief pause, ‘they’re their own people and there’s this slight feeling that dancers don’t have a voice, they just get told what to do. I want it to be the other way around: not them telling me what to do, but just that we have a conversation and I know how they would like to be looked after. What would be great is if we could offer them as many different disciplines as possible but have one message with them.’

‘I’m really keen on creating the classics of the future and not being afraid of new work’

As for the dance itself, O’Hare wants to establish that ever-elusive balance between paying proper respect to the company’s Ashtonian heritage, while not shying away from contemporary pieces. ‘I’m really keen on creating the classics of the future,’ he says, ‘not being afraid of new work. We had amazing success with [Christopher Wheeldon’s 2011] Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. We hadn’t done anything new for 17 years so I think, right we’ve done that, now let’s go.’

‘If it means we have to do it through co-productions just to make it work financially then that’s great, why not,’ O’Hare adds. ‘It’s about keeping that force going so we’ll also have a new heritage in the future.’

While he’s keeping one eye on the budget, O’Hare has a passion for ballet that feels very genuine. Though not a choreographer himself, he understands the conditions needed to ensure the company’s creators can realise their visions. Currently those creators are resident choreographer and contemporary dance star Wayne McGregor, artistic associate Christopher Wheeldon, and associate director Jeanette Laurence.

How is O’Hare planning to collaborate with the team throughout the season? ‘We had our first proper meeting last week, it was great,’ he says. ‘It was partly a sounding board and a chance to bring ideas to the table. They know a lot of people and what’s going on, so they bring that to the table as well as what they do creatively. Chris’ expertise is in classical training; so we looked at teaching and where we can improve. Wayne, with all the different people he collaborates with, can bring a range of connections to the Opera House. It’s really a mixture of ideas.  And we will have a stronger agenda each time we meet.’

The 2012-13 season features six full-length productions and six mixed programmes, a total of 135 performances, ‘the magic number’, says O’Hare. ‘What people love about the company is the range of work we have. You can go from Swan Lake to Wayne McGregor and anything in between. And I think we’ve worked hard at getting across to people that it’s exciting to go and see a mixed programme – or even a brand new full-length ballet.’

Indeed, weighing the needs of its core audience against a strong desire to present new work by the world’s top contemporary choreographers is a challenge. ‘It’s a fine balance but I think if the quality of the work is good, then even if it’s not the audience’s favourite, they appreciate it.’

‘In more classical work, you’re within a framework and you want it to be within that framework because you’re presenting a 19th century ballet and it should be done a certain way,’ O’Hare continues. ‘But when there’s no holds barred with these [modern] choreographers it’s fantastic to see what the dancers can do with their bodies, and see either how they can portray a story or just demonstrate their sheer physicality.’

He adds that Wayne McGregor’s fashion-conscious highly-charged piece Carbon Life, featuring music from Mark Ronson and Boy George, attracted a great reaction from The RB’s core audience, and generated a buzz among younger ticket buyers.

O’Hare’s demeanour might be lighthearted and good-natured, but his thinking is shrewd and he appears to know his audience well. ‘Originally, I was the company manager and that was very much part of my brief: looking at the company strategically, what we’re doing and where we’re going. You can never say, “we’ll just programme it, we don’t care if no one likes it.” We want people to like our work,’ he says, ‘and I think it’s really important to listen to what people are saying.’

Does O’Hare feel there were benefits to being promoted from within? ‘I suppose,’ he says slowly, ‘with such a big company like this, I can’t imagine walking in cold – it would be really hard. Having experience in different areas and knowing Monica so well has really helped.’

‘Of course, people are slightly nervous and wonder what I’m going to be like,’ he continues, explaining that spending time in the studio observing rehearsals as an executive is a new experience for him. ‘This week has been the first week we’ve had a full rehearsal of Swan Lake in the studio. Though I’m not really making the call, I’m giving my opinion, and that’s different for the dancers.’

‘It’s an evolution not a revolution,’ he adds, with a smile. ‘Which is good. So far, so good.’