“You know you’re never going to please everyone,” says Kevin O’Hare wryly. “I listen to what everyone says but you have to have your own thoughts. I am my own man!” A week before the new season opens, the Director of The Royal Ballet is looking remarkably relaxed in his office as he discusses his approach to planning. Getting the balance right is always going to be tricky, but he’s clearly looking forward to a great mix of repertoire, including exciting new commissions.

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Kevin O'Hare
© Joe Plimmer

The jigsaw that is season planning is played out far in advance. O’Hare reveals that next season is pretty much finished and he is working on 22/23, with 23/24 already outlined. But flexibility is key. Just last week, it was announced that Liam Scarlett’s new creation – to have shared a bill with Cathy Marston’s new work in February – has been postponed. “One of the problems of having to plan so far in advance is you’re never quite sure how it’s all going to fit together so we felt that the best decision was to give ourselves more time with Liam’s creation.

“Because The Royal Ballet can be more flexible – as we’ve got the entire company here – we can change things through the season, whereas The Royal Opera [reliant on international guests] can’t do that. In the past that put us slightly on the back foot, but now we try and schedule on the same level as the opera – it gives us an equal footing and we work well together. There are not that many opera houses that have two companies that work like that.”

Two of the big new creations this season – Cathy Marston’s The Cellist and Wayne McGregor’s Inferno – are danced to specially commissioned scores. How did these choreographer-composer collaborations come about? The Cellist is about Jacqueline du Pré and is set to music by Philip Feeney. “Cathy has worked with Philip a lot,” says O’Hare, explaining that he is incorporating music from Elgar’s Cello Concerto – of which du Pré made what is still regarded as the definitive recording – into his score. “I saw a bit of the pas de trois and it’s very beautiful. The idea, in a simplified way, is that there were two loves in her life: Daniel Barenboim and the cello, so there will be two guys, with one representing the cello. Ages ago she did Dangerous Liaisons for the Royal Danish which I went to see, a really interesting piece. There was a tiny little section in it when the young girl goes to play the cello and she uses one of the male dancers as the instrument and I think that’s what gave her the idea.”

Marston and O’Hare both went out to meet Barenboim in Berlin, not so much to get his blessing but to share their vision. “He was touched that we made the effort to go across and meet him. As we left, the last thing he said was ‘Make me handsome!’ Well, it’s Matthew Ball playing Barenboim, so he can’t complain!”

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Wayne McGregor's Inferno
© Cheryl Mann

“In the case of Inferno, Wayne had used Thomas Adès’ music for Outlier which he created on New York City Ballet (2010) and which has been brought into the rep of his own company. They’ve really wanted to work together again for ages. It was just a question of finding the right project and this seemed a perfect match. Inferno [the first part of their Dante Project] started with Wayne and Thomas and then we brought in the Los Angeles Philharmonic so it became a co-commission. The orchestral premiere took place a month before the world premiere. It’s a fascinating score. You can hear the Liszt references in there and Wayne has matched it to create something unlike he’s ever done before. I think his use of classical technique is quite major and there’s humour in it which goes with the music. Together they’ve pushed to create an extraordinary world. It’s very accessible and you can really find your way into it. It was quite a challenge doing a big premiere away from our home base… the last time we did it was the new Anthony Dowell production of Sleeping Beauty in Washington in 1994!

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Kevin O'Hare in the studio
© ROH | Bill Cooper

How does O’Hare strike a balance between new work and classic repertoire? How does he keep everyone happy? “The big thing in a company like ours is to get the balance as right as possible. This year is a little bit unusual in the way the season is formed because in 2020 I wanted more of the focus to be on new work or things we’ve done in more recent years. The 20/21 season will start with more of the contemporary rep, with more revival rep in the second half of that season. So it’s unusual that it’s a bit more separated than before, but yes, we have to do those classic ballets.

“Interestingly, although the dancers love doing new work, they want to do Swan Lake, they want to do Romeo and Juliet because that’s what they're trained to do. We’ve had such success with some of the newer ballets that it widens the net. But I always want MacMillan in there, Ashton, and then the classics, so it’s juggling all the time.

“I do believe the contemporary work can really inform dancers’ performances when they come back to the classics. When we first did Woolf Works, Akane Takada was dancing in the first act (I Now/I Then) and I saw something in her performance that made me think, ‘You know, she’d be a great Giselle’. And she did and she was. It was one of those ballets that pushed her to the forefront of the company. Working with these choreographers can bring out something in performance that will inform their other work.”

O’Hare is also conscious of dancers’ workload, trying not to overstretch his company by careful programming. “For example, the triple bill we’re doing in October comes back after Christmas for some more shows and that’s nice because it gives more people the chance of dancing those roles, or bringing in another cast, but we’re not killing everybody by doing a whole new Christmas triple bill which [he smiles sheepishly] I have done in the past!”

This Christmas, there is – gasp – no Nutcracker. Was it a calculated move to replace it with Coppélia? “We’ve had a few disgruntled letters,” he chuckles. “It’s become tradition doing Nutcracker here, but it was never set in stone for every season. Coppélia is a great family ballet. Lots of the younger dancers will never have done it, and it’s Madam’s (Ninette de Valois). If it does well then maybe it can come back another time not at Christmas.

Although there’s no Nutcracker, there will be a revival of the new Swan Lake and another Tchaikovsky classic, The Sleeping Beauty, a ballet that’s part of the company’s DNA. “It’s everything that we stood for and everything that Madam wanted for the company. We reopened the House with it here and then we made our New York debut with it (1949, Margot Fonteyn) which put us on the map internationally, so it really has that significance for us. It’s the purity of it and I think it suits our style of classical technique: the line; the port de bras; the slightly understated style that doesn’t push beyond the realms of pure classicism. So I think it’s important we do it pretty often.” It’s a ballet that has stayed with O’Hare all his life, from seeing it while he was at White Lodge to dancing it at the upper school to joining Sadler’s Wells just as Peter Wright was creating a new staging. Does Beauty still give him a thrill? “There is something about that overture that makes me feel like a kid again when I hear it. The music is extraordinary – we used it in the Fonteyn gala – the anticipation it builds in you! The hard thing about Beauty is it really is a ballet for the connoisseur, for the ballet fan. It’s a ballet you bring people to after they’ve seen some of the other things. Last time we did it, I really felt we’d nailed it again. It really felt fresh.”

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Matthew Ball and Yasmine Naghdi in The Sleeping Beauty
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Among those coming in to coach is Darcey Bussell. She and O’Hare are longtime friends and colleagues. “Darcey’s really great in the studio. She’s super honest and says it absolutely as it is! She gives freedom to the dancers as well. She came back for Winter Dreams and now Beauty. It’s great to have those voices coming in. We’re the last generation of people who were in the room with Madam or Kenneth, so those connections are important.”

If Beauty is part of the company’s heritage, are there choreographers whose work presents more of a challenge? “Balanchine is the obvious one. I think people sometimes come in with perceptions of how it should be. When I was in New York this summer, someone from City Ballet told me that we had looked fantastic in Symphony in C last season. He talked about Jerome Robbins and said he could see us doing something like Dances at a Gathering, so when the Scarlett slot came up I thought, let’s go for it.

“For Balanchine, you have to get into the mindset of it. We’re lucky, I nearly always bring in Pat Neary to come and teach it. She’s got such energy and the right dynamic for the company. Finding the right style for those works is important.”

Offering promotions, O’Hare confides, “is the best bit of my job”. Last summer’s big promotion saw Marcelino Sambé move to principal. “From Day 1 with Marcelino you could just see the joy and an abundance of technique and facility but he’s so much more than that. He’s a very bright man. He was injured about a year and a half ago and he came in at the end of the summer, determined to treat the injury with the enthusiasm and energy that he puts into his performing. And he did.

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Marcelino Sambé in Don Quixote
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

“Marcelino is the type of dancer who could easily be put in a box. A few years ago we did a workshop for female conductors and Frankie [Hayward] had just done her first Juliet, so I wondered about pairing her with Marcelino for it. Everybody thought Marcelino as a natural Mercutio, but I coached him and thought he could really do this and go beyond the stereotypical Romeo. I knew he had it in him. They did it in a gala in Chicago and the place went crazy for them.”

O’Hare tries to see as many companies’ work as possible – “there’s nothing worse than sitting in your office and not seeing what’s out there” – and although he will bring in dancers from other companies (such as César Corrales from ENB), he naturally derives special pleasure seeing dancers come through from The Royal Ballet School ranks. “We’re a hugely diverse group of people but I think about 80% of the dancers come through the Royal Ballet School at some point and I think people can tell. If you go and see the Bolshoi, you know it’s the Bolshoi. Or the Mariinsky or Paris Opéra or NYCB. If you come and see us, you know it’s The Royal.”

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David Hallberg and Natalia Osipova in Romeo and Juliet
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

An exciting announcement just this week is that David Hallberg joins the company as Principal Guest Artist to partner Russian superstar Natalia Osipova for the season.“It’s been a long time coming really. A lot of people had always felt David is a dancer in The Royal Ballet vein and, of course, his performance relationship with Natalia was something I’d heard of many times and never seen, so it was something we were always trying to make happen. Then, famously, he came to do Giselle and was injured, so it just feels right that he is here to celebrate that performance relationship.”

When asked what makes that partnership so special, O’Hare concedes, “It’s very hard to put your finger on it, but they’re so opposite – it’s extraordinary how opposite they are. She’s so fiery – not that he isn’t ‘of the moment’ but with Natalia, it always feels that she’s doing everything for the first time. It’s so spontaneous. And then you have this calm, beautiful presence of this pure, classical dancer. It really is fire and ice.”