Interview: Kevin O'Hare, the lord of dance

The Royal Ballet has been troubled by defections and angry rumblings from mutinous performers, but, as he announces an intriguing new season, its ambitious director, Kevin O’Hare, tells David Lister that a company at the top of its game needs discipline

What a conundrum the Royal Ballet is. On the one hand, here is a world-class company delighting sold-out houses with electrifying performances, and creating a real buzz.

In addition, its go-getting, new-ish head Kevin O'Hare (in post now for 18 months) has swooped into the global transfer market like the dance world's José Mourinho and signed up probably the greatest and most charismatic ballerina in the world, the former Bolshoi star Natalia Osipova, described as "full of larger-than-life leaps, almost impossibly delicate footwork and a blazing musical energy". These are heady days at Covent Garden.

So far, so brilliant. But can O'Hare's dazzling company be related to the Royal Ballet which had Equity banging on his door complaining that the dancers were overworked, let alone the company from which glittering principals Tamara Rojo and Alina Cojocaru defected to the rival English National Ballet, Rojo admittedly to run the company? Can O'Hare's Royal Ballet indeed be the company of whom another departing star Johan Kobborg posted on Facebook: "After curtain down… my boss stuck his head in through the door, said well done, asked how I felt, and not to be a stranger in the future. Then left, not a single hug or even a handshake... Thank you RB management for some beautiful times over the last decade, may I never (dancers excluded) have to ever meet you again"?

And I thought things could be fraught in newspaper offices. Mind you, before he became a dancer, Hull-born O'Hare was a child actor in the musical gangster film Bugsy Malone, so can probably handle himself in an argument.

Today, 48-year-old O'Hare, a Royal Ballet insider if ever there was one, having attended its school before dancing professionally with the Birmingham Royal Ballet and returning to the Royal as an administrator, will hold a press conference to announce an intriguing new season. Among the highlights will be a new work choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon with music by Joby Talbot, the team that created the huge Covent Garden hit, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Prior to the season launch, O'Hare was prepared to talk exclusively to me about the state of the company, his own approach, and some of the bouquets and brickbats he has received.

One senses that he has perfected a polished response to the defections and union complaints. He says: "Having danced, I know that you have to get the most out of it. With Alina, she wanted to try other things. I always knew she was curious about other companies. So, in some ways, I wasn't surprised."

But she was hardly the sole leaver. "Well, everyone was in retirement mode so it was a time for people to go and when a new director takes over... as long as everyone working here is happy here."

Which is fine, except happy bunnies tend not to rush to union shop stewards complaining of over-work. "I can tell you exactly what happened," he smiles reassuringly. "It was a busy season. It was over Christmas and there were a lot of injuries. The lunch break didn't have a fixed time and some were missing part of the lunch hour. They came to us and we said, 'Great, let's try everybody having their lunch break at the same time'. It didn't work, so Equity came up.

"I was a dancer. Even though I work much longer hours now, I never feel that huge physical exhaustion I felt when I was a dancer. It's one of the hardest-working [professions] in the world." Perhaps this is why the company's doctor is also the England football team doctor. O'Hare explained how the "crisis" had been solved, but the technicalities may not be worth repeating because lunch-hourgate probably won't rank very high in the annals of great industrial disputes. O'Hare, who comes across as the most affable man and the least likely person to be a tyrannical boss, does add: "We have 90 dancers, so it has to be run in a disciplined way."

However, after that genuine insight into his management style, he is quick to add: "I think that what is wonderful is that dancers do have a voice. It used to be the thing that dancers can't speak. That's not the case now." One suspects there is a wealth of meaning in that last sentence.

The O'Hare philosophy is giving the Royal Ballet's talented company great new challenges in the form of great new ballets. "I'm being very ambitious, with all the new work in the past 18 months. The new season is very interesting, showing the range of the Royal Ballet, MacMillan and Ashton and then the full-on contemporary ballet. New work is how I have made my mark. We have an enviable repertoire, but you have to move forward as well."

Here is a man who embraces change, and that might well be a novelty in Royal Ballet directors. But there is one area where he will not embrace change – touring the company around Britain so that more of the people whose taxes fund it can see the dancers live on stage.

"I know you don't agree," he says, "but we're lucky enough to be in this amazing building. Every show in the last eight months has sold out and now we have the cinema programme, 55,000 in the UK for the Nutcracker on screen. If we started going on tour, there's ENB, there's Northern Ballet, it's their remit. And I do hope the cinema relays are encouraging people to go to the live theatre as well."

Meanwhile, O'Hare, like all of us, still gets a thrill from the classics. "With the Sleeping Beauty overture, I still get that feeling in my stomach, there is still that sense of excitement." And he is excited, too, by the current public appetite for dance and acknowledgement of what it takes to be a great ballet dancer. "When I danced, we used to go to receptions and they would say, 'What's your real job? What do you do in the daytime?' "

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Arts and Entertainment
The Vienna State Opera
opera
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'
musicLilly Wood and Robin Schulz bag number one single
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
    The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

    The fall of Rome?

    Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
    Glasgow girl made good

    Glasgow girl made good

    Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
    Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

    Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

    Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
    The landscape of my imagination

    The landscape of my imagination

    Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories