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?' "

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence