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?' "

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