24 July 2020 14:16

People need this in their lives…

Kevin O’Hare, the Royal Ballet’s artistic director, tells David Jays how the company is facing lockdown, and about his hopes and fears for what lies on the other side.

Lockdown came slowly, and then it came fast. The Royal Ballet’s final performance before the doors closed is locked tight in Kevin O’Hare’s memory.

It had been a busy few weeks for the company’s artistic director. He’d overseen the premiere of The Cellist by Cathy Marston. Next came a long run of Swan Lake (without its original director, Liam Scarlett, dropped by the Royal Ballet following allegations of sexual misconduct). The fifth show, on Thursday, 12 March, was led by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov.

At the same time, anticipation about lockdown was building. ‘I was already thinking about how we could do more socially-distanced things without the orchestra.’ Meanwhile, Thursday’s Swan Lake. ‘From Marcelino Sambé’s first solo in the pas de trois, the audience was electric,’ O’Hare recalls. ‘The dancers were dancing out of their skin. It was one of those shows – it was quite spectacular. Marianela and Vadim were wonderful, the audience were screaming, they were on their feet. It was such a brilliant atmosphere. The audience didn’t want to go home. I think they somehow knew that (lockdown) was in the air.’

O’Hare had scheduled a rare weekend away, but ‘I could see things were getting worse and worse. I told the dancers: don’t come in on Monday, I think there are going to be decisions made. And that night, they cancelled the opera that was going to be on, and that was it.’

Eight years into his tenure at the head of one of the world’s great companies, O’Hare had reason to feel proud. Artistic standards were high, new work was interesting, and the unfailingly affable O’Hare seems warm and widely liked. Out of a clear blue sky, the coronoavirus spread across the globe, and everything changed.

An artistic director’s life groans with spreadsheets. Planning seasons, programmes, casts. But how can you plan in a desert of uncertainty? ‘I have to admit it’s not easy at all,’ O’Hare says. ‘We’re having to think of all eventualities, so many different scenarios.’ We have to deal with the stark reality, think two years ahead and what that will look like in what is probably a new world.’

Uniquely, everyone in the world experiences pretty much the same thing, though on different timescales. ‘We’re all in it together,’ O’Hare agrees. British artistic directors meet on zoom – ‘no information is confidential’ – while international directors share ideas via an email group started by Ted Bransen of Dutch National Ballet. ‘There are 100-plus directors from around the world. We’ve all been supporting each other. To give our dancers the best possible opportunity of getting back safely has been paramount for us all.’

We speak a couple of days before the first performance from the ROH since that electric Swan Lake. It’s for reduced forces on a bare stage and for an online audience, and mostly involves musicians. But the performance also included a short new work created by Wayne McGregor for Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales who are, fortuitously, a couple (note to directors: matchmake your dancers!). ‘It’s a little golden jewel. When I looked through the studio door and there they were, it was quite something.’

The practicalities are also a test for reopening the house. ‘There’s a whole protocol of how you get in the building – you’re not allowed to use the lifts, not allowed to use the changing rooms, but just one specific area. We all have to walk one way – on one floor you can only walk right and on the next floor only left. We’ve got a great team putting it all together.’ He’s also excited by the ‘symbolism’ of the performance: ‘it’s to say we’re back. We’ve all been doing brilliant things, online and individually – but as we move on hopefully we’ll get that shared experience.’

Does O’Hare have any confident sense of when he’ll welcome dancers and audiences back to Covent Garden? He’s relieved to answer to the first part, at least. ‘In mid-July we’re going to start phasing in getting back to the studio.’ Dancers, although furloughed, can train and take class, which will continue through August, to get super fit and ready to perform.’

Live From Covent Garden- Vadim Muntagirov Dance of the Blessed Spirits. Photo Tristram Kenton ROH 2020.

And audiences? ‘Your second question is much harder. The sooner we can find ways of performing in front of people the better. We’re doing all this work to get us in the building, but we need help once we’re in.’ In recent decades, as subsidy has fallen, the pressure on box office has risen. ‘We run at something like 90% across the season, it’s a massive target but we’ve been beating it. Then something that you’d never imagined comes and wipes it all away.’ He’s considering digital work or performances for smaller groups around the building and has postponed major new productions like McGregor’s Dante Project. ‘Whenever we feel we’re able to let people in to watch a full show, we will decide what to put on. We’re desperate to do that, but that’s dependent on whether we can literally open the doors.’

In the end, that’s the government’s call. Even in the days following our conversation, appeals from the UK’s performing arts sector have sounded increasingly desperate. Plans to ease lockdown have made no mention of when or how British theatres might reopen – or how they are to survive financially until they can welcome audiences again. The sector feels ignored – so does O’Hare feel that the government understands the danger faced by the arts? ‘I’m hoping they’re getting it now,’ he says. ‘I think they are seeing, from their own data, how much the creative industries have given: something like £112 billion for the economy. The Opera House employs probably the biggest number of artists in live theatre. It’s really important to get that across.

‘There’s the other side, as well – people need this in their lives. People need something to inspire them, to bring them out of their everyday lives, whether it’s ballet, opera or theatre. It’s at the heart of the nation, but it won’t exist if there isn’t help from the government, it really won’t. It takes a long time to get a ballet company to be a cohesive group, years and years. Look at the training of a classical dancer. They’re a breed on their own. I feel the company is dancing in such an amazing moment, from those huge stars at the top of the company to the corps de ballet working as a team. I know what it’s taken for all the staff to make that moment happen. But it takes less time to erode that than to bring it back together again. That’s my biggest fear.’

Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales rehearsing Wayne McGregors new ballet. (c) ROH, 2020. Photographed by Tom J Johnson.

A former dancer himself, O’Hare knows ballet is a collegiate art. His dancers train and perform together. So how are they facing isolation? ‘They have been amazing,’ he insists. Daily class quickly moved to Zoom – at 10.30am as usual. Some strength and conditioning work is shared with other companies, but class ‘is the one moment when they can be a little bit private. Whether you’re Marianela Nuñez or the newest girl from the school, you’re all being corrected, it’s a great leveller. It’s also a great moment for people to talk – before class everybody’s chatting.’ Each Saturday, a prestigious guest teacher joins them (‘I opened my Apple phone’), and the company’s foreign-born dancers spending lockdown with their families follow along.

Meanwhile, O’Hare maintains morale through daily updates and company meetings. He enjoys the creative side projects that have bubbled up, notably Meaghan Grace Hinkis leading a dance film to Mick Jagger’s music: ‘so I ended up having a conversation with Mick Jagger the other day!’ At the same time, he wonders if a short break might paradoxically benefit driven dancers. ‘You probably went to your local dance school and did your RAD exams, maybe went to the Royal Ballet School, then it snowballs – you keep going, the next role and next ballet. There is something to be said for having this moment to take stock and re-evaluate. Obviously we don’t want it to go on for too long!’ As for the longterm residue, who knows? ‘It’s going to have quite an effect. It will take people a long time to adjust to whatever happens when we come out of this.’

As if this year has not been tumultuous enough, Black Lives Matter protests across the world have concentrated minds, even in the overwhelmingly white world of classical ballet. ‘Tell me about it!’ O’Hare exclaims. ‘I’ve been quite affected by the whole thing. We are the most diverse we’ve been, across all ethnicities, but we need to do better.’ There may be more dancers of colour in the Royal Ballet than ever before, but it still feels unrepresentative. ‘We have to keep on pushing at it,’ O’Hare declares. ‘What’s really hard is getting to young kids who would not have the opportunity to go to an RAD ballet class, whether for financial reasons, or not knowing about it.’ The Chance to Dance programme has moved beyond London, introducing children to ballet and then linking them up with local dance schools, with financial aid if necessary. ‘To get into communities that don’t know about it but could easily have talent is important to us.’

But diversity is also fraught within professional companies. ROH technical director Mark Dakin publicly criticised its failure to show solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement, describing it as an ‘an unrelentingly white organisation.’ O’Hare admits that the company has ‘never sat down and talked together about how people felt. It is important that we use this as a catalyst to give us a kick up the arse and not waste this opportunity. We have fantastic young dancers, they’ve all been through so many different life experiences and know what can be done better, so why not listen to them?’

Kevin O’Hare on World Ballet Day 2019, The Sleeping Beauty rehearsal ©2019 ROH. Photograph by Gavin Smart.

Will things really change when normality returns? ‘Look how quickly we’ve all changed in these three months,’ O’Hare urges. ‘This has proved we can be fleeter. We don’t have to be comfortable the whole time – it’s important to have respectful conversations, but uncomfortable enough to make you want to make change.’

Finally, we need to talk about Kevin. The buck-stops-here nature of directorship can seem lonely at the best of times – how is O’Hare coping? ‘That’s very nice of you,’ he says, sweetly. ‘I’m okay actually. It has been full-on, but I’m missing that buzz of watching them in class or rehearsal, building up to a first night. That’s the tough bit.’ He remains ‘ever the optimist. But until it’s all of us there together in our home it’s not going to feel right.’

David Jays writes for the Guardian and Sunday Times, and is editor of the RAD’s Dance Gazette. @mrdavidjays