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
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition