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
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

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.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker