Kevin O’Hare on the first Royal Ballet tour to Australia in 15 years and his own mantra: “Creating the classics of the 21st century”

At the end of this month the Royal Ballet will take up residence at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane.

The season is short, with five performances of Woolf Works and seven of The Winter’s Tale, although some Royal Ballet dancers will stay in Australia to perform pas de deux and solos from Swan Lake, Le Corsaire, Don Quixote and Romeo & Juliet at the outdoor venue, Munro Martin Parklands in Cairns, more than two hours flight time from Brisbane.

I think this is the first time that dancers from one of QPAC’s international ballet companies will perform anywhere in Australia but Brisbane.

Also travelling to Brisbane are Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon who will each give master classes for dancers and take part in conversations about their ballets for Brisbane audiences.

Koen Kessels, the music director of the Royal Ballet, will conduct for Woolf Works and Alondra de la Parra, music director of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra will conduct for The Winter’s Tale.

The tour, involving 150 people including 95 dancers, will be led by Kevin O’Hare, the Royal Ballet’s director.

After five years in the role, his working days still stretch from 9am to 1am, so the Australian tour, despite the jet lag, might seem like a respite from the challenges of his role.

His goal, in his words, is to help “create classics of the 21st century” yet at the same time he’s overseeing all aspects of the administration from repertoire to unexpected issues such as the impact Brexit might have on the dancers in the company.*

We recently spoke by phone about the tour and the Royal’s repertoire for the rest of the 2017/18 season.

Why did he chose Woolf Works and The Winter’s Tale for Australia and not even a snippet of the works of Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan, whose ballets still represent the heritage of the company?

“Because “I thought these ballets really represent the company today”.

While Ashton and MacMillan will always be associated with the company, “the driving force is the new works and they have been so successful in England”.

During a second run of Woolf Works [earlier this year] “audiences adored it each night”.

These ballets, for now, are exclusive to the Royal although, as The Winter’s Tale is a co-production with the National Ballet of Canada, that company has exclusive North American performing rights.

As for The Winter’s Tale elsewhere, “we have exclusivity for a while but there are companies that have interest”.

Woolf Works and The Winter’s Tale are the more successful of the three-act ballets commissioned by O’Hare who, he said, made a commitment in 2013 to add a new three-act ballet to the Royal’s repertoire every year although “this year we had a little pause”.

The company’s return to new, narrative, full evening works began just before O’Hare took over the directorship when, in 2011, his predecessor, Monica Mason, gave Wheeldon the go-ahead to choreograph Alice in Wonderland, the Royal Ballet’s first full length commission since Twyla Tharp’s Mr Worldly Wise in 1995.

Six years later Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has become an international audience pleaser and is expected to be the Australian Ballet’s blockbuster of 2017.

“It’s gone crazy, gone everywhere”, said O’Hare, “Stockholm and Japan are going to do it. **

“It’s the latest of the really great quality family ballets. Companies see it as a bonus to have one of those in the rep but it’s challenging for the dancers too”.

When the Royal Ballet returns to London, Alice will be back at Covent Garden again, with a run of four weeks.

The big event of October will be Kenneth MacMillan: a National Celebration, a Royal Ballet initiative to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of the choreographer.

O’Hare invited the Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Northern Ballet and Scottish Ballet to take part in the celebration. All the companies will perform on the ROH stage together.

November will mark the return to the Royal of Twyla Tharp.

She was the first choreographer O’Hare commissioned when he was appointed director but it took time for her to work on her new ballet, The Illustrated Farewell.

“She created the first half of the ballet, danced to Haydn’s Farewell symphony, a long time ago but now there’s a brand new link into the second half”.

The new section is an expansion of Tharp’s As Time Goes By, choreographed in 1973.

The main event of the 2017/18 season, and the most scrutinised, will be Liam’s Scarlett’s new production of Swan Lake with designs by John Macfarlane.

Premiering in May next year, it will be the first new Swan Lake for the Royal Ballet in 30 years, superseding Anthony Dowell’s 1987 production with designs by Yolanda Sonnabend inspired by the work of the jeweller, Peter Carl Fabergé.

In that production the swans’ droopy costumes fell below the knee but the traditional tutus will return in the new production.

“We’re not complicating the story”, O’Hare said. “We’re really going for the story as it’s told, instead of adding anything”.

In other words there would be no dramaturg and just three men, O’Hare, Scarlett and Macfarlane will have to keep it on the track.

Along with Scarlett, O’Hare has been looking at the history of other Swan Lakes from English choreographers, among them Peter Wright’s 1981 production and the way Ashton changed and added elements to the ballet.

Scarlet’s Swan Lake will be one of six ballets shown as part of ROH Live Cinema screenings during the 2017/18 season. The others are Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Nutcracker, The Winter’s Tale, Manon and the triple bill of ballets danced to music by Leonard Bernstein and choreographed by McGregor, Scarlett and Wheeldon.

O’Hare said the company was now pushing the cinema program which, he said, seems like a season within a season, and a way to show audiences more unusual ballets in the Royal’s repertoire, such as Frankenstein.

The cinema screenings are part of O’Hare’s plan to bring the company out of its perceived isolation bubble in London. He mentions the company’s upcoming visit to Hull, his home city, to take part in a September gala celebrating Hull as this year’s the UK City of Culture.

That performance at the revamped Hull New Theatre will mark the first time the Royal Ballet has performed in the city in 30 years.

To the inevitable question, where are the female choreographers working with the major ballet companies of the world, O’Hare mentions the return of Tharp to the Royal, the importance of the young choreographer, Charlotte Edmonds whose mentor is McGregor and the recent premiere of Crystal Pite, ballet Flight Pattern, that received rave reviews.

(It’s hard to believe that Pite was the first woman in the 21st century to choreograph for the main stage of the Royal Opera House.)

There may be another woman who plays a substantial role in the future as well.

Although the principal dancer, Zenaida Yanowsky, is officially retiring next month, O’Hare said “she will stay performing. We have ideas about the future. There will be projects she will be doing to keep her on the stage”.

Having recently watched the filmed production of Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I can understand what a loss it would be if Yanowsky left the stage forever.

Her performance as the vicious Red Queen is brilliant.

The last chance to see her dance as a principal of the Royal Ballet will be in Brisbane when she will dance the role of Paulina in The Winter’s Tale.

* O’Hare acknowledges “it is a very big upheaval and we hope it will work out in a sensible and calm way. Quite a lot of the dancers have British passports and if anyone wants to do that we help them, especially dancers who have been with the company for quite a while”.

** In an earlier version of this article I mentioned that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was going to be staged in Italy. That’s incorrect.

However Alice is still spreading her wings to Sweden, Denmark, Australia and Japan.

There will be two new co-productions of the ballet – the Royal Swedish Ballet with the Royal Danish Ballet and the Australian Ballet with the National Ballet of Japan.