The formula for ballet to survive the 21st century

This is his tenth season at the helm of the most powerful ballet in the West, the Royal Ballet of London. Kevin O’Hare took over a decade ago, aware of the incredible legacy that fell into his hands. And it can be said that it has managed to realize the maxim of its founder, Ninette de Valois: “Respect the past, announce the future, but focus on the present.”

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The British company has been weathering the closure of the pandemic with online rehearsals until last July, and with streaming shows that momentarily gave way to shows with in-person audiences at 40% of capacity, before theaters in England were once again confined … Finally, since last May the Royal Opera House has reopened to the public. The Royal Ballet will be able to continue to demonstrate that it is the company that marks the path of the new wave of integration of classical and contemporary ballet, with the same troupe of performers, among which are probably the most special in the world.

O’Hare has traveled to Barcelona to attend the IBStage Star Galas and accompany his star dancer, Natalia Osipova, and the young Marcelino Sambé

About to renew his position, O’Hare has traveled to Barcelona – “It is the first time I have left since the pandemic broke out”, he confesses – to attend the IBStage Star Galas that take place on September 1 and 2, at the Liceu. He accompanies his first figure, Natalia Osipova, and his new and revealing bet, the Portuguese Marcelino Sambé, a true free spirit who will be seen dancing at the Liceu The corsair.

Is the secret of the Royal Ballet’s might found in its style family tree?

Let’s say that when Ninette de Valois founded the company, just 90 years ago, she had already been to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and had seen him bring together designers, artists and musicians to create something new. I wanted a British company with that premise to build something particular from here. So we come from the Russian ballet, although then we immediately had a choreographer like Frederick Ashton who took that style and made a more English, softer version.

Does that mean that a figure like Osipova is softened in the Royal Ballet?

She brings a lot of the Russian flair, but one of the reasons she wanted to join us was the way we tell the stories, naturally, in the most real way possible. And it’s interesting how those two things go hand in hand.

It is wonderful to see how Osipova takes the details of the ballets of MacMillan or Ashton and makes them his own. It’s what they would have wanted “

Osipova arrived a decade ago as a guest at the Royal Ballet when you were taking over the company …

Yes, and then he joined us. She is already one of the main dancers, she has taken on challenges: she has done Anastasia, Manon … all those roles in which it is wonderful to see how she takes all the details and makes them her own. That is exactly what Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton wanted. Not a copy, but something more organic.

That a classical company appointed Wayne McGregor as resident choreographer was a revolution. What is the balance after more than a decade?

He was appointed while Monica Mason, my predecessor, was still at the helm, and it was really a full stop, yes. Wayne is a different choreographic voice but he shares a sensitivity with us. He puts into practice what we were saying about Diaghilev. In his next piece, The Dante Project , summons the greatest living British composer, Thomas Adès, and Tacita Dean, one of the most important visual artists, who has also never designed a wardrobe or set design. It’s about attracting people who are strangers to this scene and getting them to collaborate.

Kevin O'Hare, director of the Royal Ballet of London.

The head of the Royal Ballet of London.

Montse Giralt

And what steps are next to stay so modern?

We are focusing on diversity, being inclusive and attracting everyone to our world. In fact, dancers come from everywhere. I myself come from a working class Irish family in Yorkshire. But I think there is still a lot to do to bring more people. And the way to do that is to tell stories of today, to try to put things on stage that kids can recognize and that can be exciting for them. Either because of the physical appearance of the person who dances, who may resemble them, or because of their theatrical gestures, or because we tell stories like the immigration that we live today.

Now we are concentrating on diversity, on being inclusive and attracting everyone to our world ”

The question is how other forms of dance from other parts of the world fit into a Royal Ballet show.

It is difficult without falling into the symbolic. We have a program that right now has given an opportunity to a young man who comes from hip hop. And he is trying to understand our world, and in fact he has already created a piece for Natalia. The boy is starting at the top. And there they have been, discovering each other. Of course, we are still a classical ballet company, and that is the important thing.

And what is the stylistic limit of the Royal Ballet? The use of pointe shoes? At the moment they have not yet created a three-act ballet without tips.

It’s true. Yes we have presented an entire act without tips, although there is no reason why they should not be absent in an entire ballet. In the end, it’s about telling a story, no matter how, as long as we don’t lose anything. Things are getting complicated, the repertoire is getting bigger and bigger, from the most classical to the most contemporary, but the dancers themselves love to have that range, that’s why they join us, and the public also loves it. At the Royal Ballet we no longer think classical or contemporary. It’s just dance.

Dance is the art of creating emotions through your body. It is something that never ends, it always evolves “

Define dance.

Create emotions through your body. It’s something that never ends, it always evolves, that’s why we don’t get tired of seeing the same thing with different dancers, because you can’t catch it.

How do the opera company and the ballet company coexist in Covent Garden now that the times when they collaborated on the same title have passed into history?

The truth is that we are two very different families sharing the same house. We get along well but they are two very different forms of art and also the way of working of each one is.

Two decades ago, an epidemic would have been the temptation to shut down the company for a couple of years. Now you see the importance of maintaining it “

And how do they look at each other? At the Liceu the ballet company closed a while ago and the priority when programming is always the opera …

In our case we are egalitarian. There is a logistics that forces us to plan well in advance, but everything is very equal. We are a few in the world in that situation, Paris, etc. The interesting thing is that when Oliver Mears, the director of the opera company, joined us, he spoke of making the Royal Opera a place with a way of telling stories, with a theatricality that when you saw their works you would quickly see what it was all about. from a Royal Opera performance. And that is something that unites us, in a theatrical sense. It is interesting to see how that evolves. And during the pandemic it has become evident that, just as two decades ago in a similar situation there would have been the temptation to close the ballet company for a couple of years, at this time even the director of the Royal Opera House saw the importance to keep it. We cannot lose the dancers, that costs a lot to rebuild.

Kevin O'Hare, director of the Royal Ballet of London.

Kevin O’Hare at one point in the interview

Montse Giralt

You are about to renew your position after ten years, are you not?

With everything that’s going on, I think I’m moving on, yeah although there are always conversations about it. I can’t believe it’s been ten years now. Companies always go up and down, but someone told me that eight years is already a great brand. And before the pandemic I considered that we had achieved a good balance, with stars, a good group of young main dancers, and with some new work and a Sleeping Beauty just before closing, with Yasmine Naghdy and Matthew Ball, and with Francesca Hayward and Marcelino himself … We were really strong as a whole, we were in good shape. But the troupe is determined to come back stronger than ever. This season we have two great new pieces: The Dante Project to start, and to finish, Like water for Chocolate, by Christopher Wheeldon, based on the well-known Mexican story. It will be a challenge to tell a story that is not ours … but it is great to have these different voices working with us. And we are also working closely with the school, which is the way not to lose our roots on how to link people to dance. Because I don’t know what it was like in Spain, but I was growing up, every girl went to ballet and there were practically no children who were trained. Now they have more options and it is easier for them to encourage them to come, whatever their background.

Do you think the hit movie has a lot to do with it? Billy Elliot, two decades ago, with the fact that a young artist as free as Marcelino Sambé has stood out so much?

The interesting thing is that after that the parents encouraged them, which before would have been unlikely. The truth is that in the last ten years, in companies everywhere the strength of male dancers has been incredible. And the influence of Carlos Acosta being with us has been very strong. And Marcelino saw him dancing in Portugal and thought, wow, that could be me. And Carlos has been advising him.

How much freedom can the Royal Ballet give someone as special as Marcelino?

Well I took it from school [la Royal Ballet School] straight to the company, and I love not putting it in any stylistic box. He can do whatever he wants, not just being himself and doing his own thing, but classic roles. This season it will be Albrecht in Giselle. And the truth is that at 26 or 27 years old, an age at which he could decide to have a good time, Marcelino is very aware of where he comes from and appreciates all the help he has received throughout his training, and chooses what can be beneficial to people in the future.

It is fantastic that at times like these the dancers can participate in a gala like this, it is their opportunity to get feedback “

And what do you think of this gala of stars that IBStage puts on?

Well, it is fantastic that at this time you can be part of such a gala. The dance world is a small community and dancers love feeding each other, and the galas are great for meeting, communicating, inspiring and dancing. For the public it is fantastic, but for them too. And there is also a powerful program, with classical and contemporary, and great dancers performing it together.

It seems a miracle that there are dancers capable of dancing everything with such ease.

That has a lot to do with the hunger they always feel for new challenges. I’ve always thought that by doing those ballets so far removed from the classics, you can contribute things to the interpretation of those classics. When they return to a Swan lake it shows, and it is much better. Now for me the challenge is how to put it all together. We do between 10 and 11 productions a year and even if it is a considerable number, it is difficult to balance between classics and contemporaries, because we have the heritage of Ashton and MacMillan and then all the heritage of the new choreographers who have been working with for ten years. U.S.

Prince Charles, who has been our president since Princess Margaret passed away, is always very encouraging “

And does the royal family come to see the company?

Yes, in fact Prince Charles is now our president. Originally she was Princess Margaret but when she passed away, he succeeded her. And it is always very encouraging. He came to the last shows that we gave recently. And the daughter of Princess Margarita is the vice president and she is magnificent, very involved in everything we do, she helps us in attracting resources, because now the subsidy model has changed: it represents only a third, the rest are sponsors and there are to work hard. The truth is that there are many people who individually support us.

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The formula for ballet to survive the 21st century