Kevin talked about his path to becoming a Director and revealed how those experiences had shaped his priorities and approach to the job.
9 Mar 2020
KEVIN O’HARE CBE, DIRECTOR OF THE ROYAL BALLET “IN CONVERSATION” WITH JANE PRITCHARD MBE, CURATOR OF DANCE AT THE V&A MUSEUM 9th March 2020 at The Royal Ballet School
This conversation was the central feature of the LBC’s AGM Evening. The focus was firstly on how Kevin had thought about, discussed, and acquired the experiences which shaped his desire to lead a company and later, in some detail, on how he perceived and discharged the various and ever-developing elements of his role, both within The Royal Ballet and in collaboration with others.
By way of introduction, Jane affirmed the value of being part of The London Ballet Circle insofar as insights, such as the coaching session immediately beforehand, helped members to understand the work which went into perfecting each performance and, thus, to appreciate what they were seeing all the more.
Turning to Kevin, Jane observed that he was very much a 21st Century Director with an interestingly linear career – not so much a case of “greatness having been thrust upon him” but of him having taken a gradual path to the top. “Did you always know that you wanted to be a company director?”, she enquired. Kevin’s immediate response was, “No!!”. People tended to comment to him that he must be ‘living the dream’ but it wasn’t quite like that. He was ‘lucky enough to get injured’ when he was about 33/34 and this gave him time to reflect on what he might do to contribute within the world that he loved. He had sought to avoid being the kind of dancer whom a Director would need to approach with the advice that, “It was time to …….!” Fortunately, Kevin was able to talk with Derek Purnell, the then Administrative Director at Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) and Christopher Nourse, who, by then, was the Administrative Director of the Rambert Ballet Company and both of them helped him to develop his thinking of what he wanted to do. Taking a class at the Royal Academy of Dance made Kevin realise that teaching wasn’t going to be for him. However, from around the time that BRB moved to Birmingham, he had become involved in arranging galas and workshops and felt that organising things was more his forte.
While he was injured, he had been able to spend two months at Rambert helping across the board - for example, in the education department, in press and marketing and assisting dancers with aspects of touring. Interestingly, Rambert did not have a company manager as such but, rather, someone who encompassed both the touring and the technical roles. However, the experience as a whole gave Kevin a basis for thinking about how he might go forward.
Therefore, added Jane, when Kevin had retired from dancing at aged 35, he had already set his sights on gaining a broader insight into company administration and touring. Kevin didn’t want this to be solely in the context of a ballet company and he was fortunate that a contact was made for him to meet with a senior member of staff at The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). This was before the days of the Clore Fellowships but what they created together was a kind of ‘training course’ which enabled Kevin to work in different locations – Stratford, The Barbican – with different kinds of productions and co-productions, and with very different people: actors, not dancers. It was a period of ‘really doing everything’ – for example, compiling hotel lists and delivering the casts ‘their essential baguettes’ during rehearsals. The pressures were also noticeably different from those in a ballet context. One of the plays being worked on was The Duchess of Malfi and, because an actor felt he wasn’t quite ready, Kevin had to create a script for him to read from every day and was consequently ‘terrified’ that pages might be in the wrong order. But it was these kinds of relatively simple tasks that taught Kevin many valuable lessons about the need ‘to do things properly’ and the negative consequences of any lack of attention to detail. A further aspect was the variety of people he had needed to work with: young actors of different nationalities on the cusp of their careers and older actors who had been on stage all their lives and brought with them very different expectations.
Picking up on Kevin’s mention of RSC co-productions, Jane observed that the RB was now partnering with other companies in respect of many new works. Kevin explained that the starting point for this was usually the choreographer with a concept for a particular ballet. He or she would often have worked with several other companies with whom it was then possible to share the idea. An early example, collaborating on Sylvia with American Ballet Theatre, was actually rather different insofar as the designs of the new production could be built around an existing ballet. When it came to Alice in Wonderland, commissioned by Monica Mason and the first full length work for the RB for a very long time, there was so much more involved – video-projection; puppetry etc [ “Alice is a big girl”, quipped Kevin.] Thoughts had therefore turned to the National Ballet of Canada because of its history and similar repertoire to the RB. Sharing the costs could help so much in terms of what the RB can mount but it could be frustrating for the Company not to be able to go and show such productions abroad as freely as it would like to. However, that was a relatively small price to pay compared with the greater opportunities that collaboration opened up for affording new commissions. New creations were, in Kevin’s view, the ‘life blood’ of a company and he was hopeful that, at some stage in the future, there could be an RB/BRB co-production.
Jane reminded Kevin that, a few years ago, he had been quoted as saying: “Perhaps, by 2020, all the ballets presented in the season would be new ones”. Kevin pointed out that new productions did not imply all new works. Refreshing and reviving classics (such as Don Quixote which hadn’t been seen for a while) was also within his frame of thinking and equally important in terms of the company’s active repertoire. The earlier part of the 2019/20 season bore witness to this, as, indeed, would elements of the 2020/21 season which would be announced shortly.
In the context of the scale of new works which were being put on, Kevin agreed with Jane that structuring a season was becoming ever more challenging. This was especially so for the RB because, in addition to the classics and the newer pieces, it had the heritage repertoire of Ashton and MacMillan to consider. A further factor was that developing new ballets took time and Kevin had learned to be careful to adjust the programme so as to ensure that the dancers were not over-stretched.
Overall, it was a bit of a juggling act for him: there was always an anniversary, which Jeanetta Lawrence (the former Associate Director) was ready to remind him of. Some of these 100th or 50th occasions slotted in really well. In the case of Merce Cunningham, who had no history with the RB but had been a highly significant figure in the development of dance, it seemed appropriate to celebrate his contribution with a mixed programme in the Linbury Theatre. Ashton had been inspired to create Monotones by watching Merce Cunningham’s work at Sadler’s Wells and Pam Tanowitz’s choreography had been much influenced by Cunningham’s approach. Therefore, he had invited her to create something which would resonate for the RB of today. For the audience, seeing Monotones ‘up close’ had been a very different experience compared with the usual vastness of the main stage, but it was coming back in familiar territory within a triple bill in the summer.
More generally, Kevin would like to be able to exploit the possibilities offered by the Linbury’s flexible space, but he needed to be mindful that the dancers had a very demanding schedule to fulfill anyway. One of his aims, therefore, was to find ways of complementing the main RB programme with a work in the Linbury (perhaps by a visiting company). An earlier example of this was Kate Prince’s Mad Hatter’s Tea Party being juxtaposed with the RB’s Alice in Wonderland. More recently, Lost Dog’s Juliet and Romeo, which takes the story on and has them in therapy, had been set to reflect the fact that Romeo and Juliet was on the main stage.
Whereas invitations to other companies opened up new possibilities, as far as the RB was concerned, the concept for the Linbury was more likely to follow the heritage route. The mixed programme in May with BRB and Yorke Dance would feature Valses Nobles et Sentimentales by Sir Frederick Ashton. Kevin had danced this himself with BRB and knew that it would give young RB dancers a valuable, learning opportunity to work on an Ashton piece which was well-suited to the smaller theatre.
There was also a case for creating vehicles for star dancers to be seen in a different light, as had been achieved with Edward Watson in Metamorphosis. In addition, some main stage choreographers were seeking either to create specifically for the Linbury or to bring their own troupes to perform there because, they said, “there was no other space quite like it in London”.
With regard to the repertoire as a whole, Kevin did, indeed, have his own preferences within the classical and heritage works, although his perceptions were prone to change since, when a particular work returned to the stage, it tended to become the current favourite. However, his primary influences included ensuring that works which had not been seen for a long time were brought back, not least in order for a new generation of dancers to be able to tackle the roles, as that was crucially important in terms of their career development. He himself remembered fondly the intense work he put in on Valses Nobles et Sentimentales as an 18-year-old and, although there is a record of the rehearsal period with Ashton, it is already more than 30 years since it was performed. Snippets, such as those by MacMillan which the Viviana Durante Company had brought to the Barbican’s Pit Theatre, were also significant and could be presented, ‘perhaps with a new twist’. But, in both arenas, Kevin would want to schedule works which were important to the Company.
As Kevin had mentioned the need to provide for dancers’ development, Jane asked him to talk about his role in discovering and nurturing talent. Kevin felt very fortunate as a Director in being the beneficiary of the outstanding preparation of young students provided by The Royal Ballet School (RBS) over the last 10 to 15 years. Nearly all of the current Principals and leading Soloists were RBS trained and it was a ‘fantastic privilege’ to see them join the corps and work their way up. A particularly wonderful example of this was Yasmine Naghdi (who was in the audience): she had progressed in Onegin from being the ‘mirror girl’, to various corps roles, to Olga and, recently, to a highly successful Tatiana.
Watching dancers develop into dance-actors was another pleasure, as was seeing the combination of more senior artistes and ‘the next generation’ performing together recently in Dances at a Gathering. Kevin was, however, aware of the equal need to encourage those dancers who were ‘in between’ and to enable them, too, to find satisfaction and points of growth within what they were doing. Remembering this important aspect of being the Director was key, especially since it was the younger and older dancers whom he tended to see more of in the studio.
As far as finding time to spend in the studio was concerned, Kevin was naturally drawn there – to the process of putting everything together and to some coaching. The people he worked with in the office tended to accuse him of ‘escaping’ there, but he disputed that perception. It needed to be remembered that it could take three years from the initial meeting, through the evolutionary process, to the realisation of a new work such as The Cellist. Therefore, when it reached to the last rehearsals, and everyone had invested so much in bringing a work to fruition, he felt the need to be there, both in artistic support and to help provide the tools for everyone to do their jobs. He wanted dancers to have the best possible experience of working with the ‘extraordinary people’ who choreographed and staged works for the RB and for them to enjoy their time in what is inevitably a short career. Facilitating that in the studio was, in his view, an essential element of being the Director.
Returning to the various positions Kevin had prior to leading the RB, Jane asked whether there was anything in particular he had picked up on while dancing or when working alongside Sir Peter Wright or Dame Monica Mason which was now informing the way he discharged his role. Kevin was impressed with Peter’s calmness, a quality which was essential in a job where there were so many things going on at the same time. He had also learned how important is was, when making decisions, to ensure that he understood everyone’s point of view. It was not until he worked with Monica that Kevin appreciated fully how much time needed to be spent with individuals. If people wanted to talk with him for whatever reason it was not something which could or should be rushed since each conversation, or sometimes just being there to listen, was important for the individuals concerned – and, therefore, mattered to him too.
It was sobering for Kevin to remember, when relating to young dancers, that he was the same age as Peter Wright was when he joined Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet and that he could appear to be ‘an old man’, even if he wasn’t. Indeed, sometimes, when he was asked to meet a dancer’s parents, he could find himself facing a Mum who was considerably younger than him. Nodding towards Anita Landa, who was sitting in the front row and who had been one of his teachers, Kevin added that it was difficult to comprehend that it was 43 years since he joined the RBS. While watching the young students earlier, he had thought to himself, “I couldn’t possibly have done anything like that when I was a student”. Yet, pondering further, he realised that Wayne Eagling had made a very difficult piece for him and Viviana Durante to perform.
Seeing them both in the audience, along with Leanne Benjamin, brought to mind the ‘family’ aspect of the Company: people whom Kevin had danced with were now coming in to coach the current dancers and he appreciated that very much and hoped that the younger members of the RB would absorb that same feeling of continuity and giving back.
Being able to welcome returning guest teachers and stagers was equally enjoyable. For example, Kevin has first encountered Patricia Neary when, aged 20, he had been cast in Theme and Variations. Later, when he was Company Manager, she was still doing daily class and rehearsals in pointe shoes and he would collect some up for her to wear – a service which she apparently reported elsewhere with delight. There were very many other people that Kevin had encountered as a student or as a dancer who were still passing on their knowledge so generously, but always with an eye to helping dancers to find their own way in a role
The nature of the job, and the priorities within it, were changing all the time. This was partly because both the make-up of the Company and the repertoire inevitably evolved. But there were also many additional elements, such as cinema relays, digital programmes, and more varied forms of Insight evenings which were simply not there a few years ago and which now needed to be accommodated. Therefore, balancing competing demands became more of a challenge every year.
Changing tack, Jane asked about Kevin’s reaction to Hull being the City of Culture. Although he came from there, his family (who hailed originally from Ireland) had moved away when Michael and he had joined the RBS and he had been back only once on tour. However, more recently, he had returned to receive a Doctorate from the University. He had felt a ‘bit of a fraud’ at the award but that visit had caused him to see a city which was ‘down on its luck’ and in need of a filip, such as that which the proposed focus on culture might bring. Therefore, when the plan was mentioned to him, he felt moved to do all he could to help.
Consequently, the RB’s Learning and Participation Team developed an outreach approach involving schools/local dance schools and the Company’s involvement culminated with a gala. Despite their closing the theatre for renovations for much of the year, Kevin felt on his return to Hull that there had, indeed, been a ‘phenomenal change’ in perceptions towards the arts, with culture more embedded in individual communities. The website crashed when gala tickets (to reopen the theatre that September) went on sale and 3,000 people had watched on a big screen in the park, in the rain. The performers had gone to the park afterwards to take a second round of bows. It had been a special experience, not least because Hull had gained something of a reputation for producing talented male dancers across many schools and over a number of generations, “perhaps because of the decline in the fishing industry!”, Kevin smiled.
A similar project, initiated by Ed Milliband was now in progress in Doncaster which was keen to create a cultural quarter. With Romeo and Juliet as the theme, the Learning and Participation team was involved in some way with every school in order that the pupils would learn something about ballet ‘whether they liked it or not’. As an element of his Clore Fellowship project, RB Principal Federico Bonelli was curating the RB’s performances there, undertaking all aspects of producing the shows. It was hoped that a big screen could be afforded as well.
The RB tended to be criticised because the Company did not tour within the UK, but Kevin and Jane agreed that the Hull and Doncaster type of initiatives were likely to be penetrating the regions in a way which might have a more lasting impact than a one-off performance. Had he not become a Director, Kevin might have wanted to develop exactly these kinds of projects because of the important contribution, and difference, they could make to communities.
He felt that the combination of the cinema relays with an intense regional focus was the way to go rather than mirroring the touring programmes of other companies. The RB was also working with the RBS to expand the Chance to Dance programme which now had hubs in Thurrock and Coventry, as well as in London, with one in Doncaster hopefully to be added this year. Whereas the RBS itself had no barriers - children and young people with real talent and potential would always be helped to attend - there needed to be some levers which helped possible students to get there in the first place. Consequently, the aim of Chance to Dance was now to excite the interest of children in normal schools and lead them towards local ballet schools, perhaps with some financial help to enable them to attend.
Kevin also applauded initiatives such as the Yorkshire Ballet Seminars which enabled young people to come together in a class, perhaps for the first time, with others of their age who were similarly inspired to dance. His own experience in Ilkley, with illustrious teachers, had been nothing short of life-changing.
Kevin regarded himself as fortunate in being given help as a child and at various stages in his life and the aim of promoting/supporting opportunities for others in the world of dance remained an underpinning motivation for him in everything he did.
In conclusion, Jane said that it had been a real privilege to talk to Kevin and thanked him warmly for coming. The audience responded with an enthusiastic round of applause. Written by Linda Gainsbury and approved by Kevin O’Hare.