Feature: New Director for the Royal Ballet

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Graham Watts After a world wide search, the next Director of the Royal Ballet has been found in an office along the corridor from the current Director, Dame Monica Mason writes Graham Watts .

Kevin O'Hare Kevin O’Hare has been Administrative Director of the Royal Ballet since 2009 – and before that the Company Manager since 2004. It is, in many ways, an unsurprising appointment for a company that rarely ventures outside the doors of the Royal Opera House for its succession planning: since Dame Ninette de Valois founded the company 80 years ago, five of her successors (Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan, Anthony Dowell, Mason and now O’Hare) have come from within and only two (Norman Morrice and Ross Stretton) have been appointed from outside. Mason herself has now spent over half a century within the company, the last ten of which have been as Director. Apart from a brief period of work at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2000/1, O’Hare has been within the extended family of the Royal Ballet companies (including Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet) for almost 30 years and he’s certainly young enough to surpass Mason’s longevity at Covent Garden.

The announcement that O’Hare is “thrilled” to have choreographers Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon as part of his artistic team – alongside long-standing Associate Director, Jeanetta Laurence – does suggest that this is going to be very much a safe, risk averse “steady as she goes” future for The Royal Ballet. McGregor and Wheeldon have been Mason’s choreographers of choice (supplemented by the work of company members such as Alastair Marriott, Will Tuckett, Liam Scarlett and Jonathan Watkins) and since both McGregor and Wheeldon were certainly names popularly associated with the Director’s job, there seems at the very least to have been the potential for a team-based approach to O’Hare’s application strategy.

As in all such situations, the new Director must be given time to take ownership of artistic decisions. The repertoire for the 2011/12 season is already set and the dancers for next season are known (although we also know that one Principal has gone and there are others who appear to have few opportunities in the casting already announced for next year). Frankly, I will not be surprised if next season arrives and there have been some further changes. As a leading member of the current team, I’m sure that O’Hare will have had a significant influence on decisions made for next year, but it will not be until 2012/13 that we can begin to judge the new Director on the basis of the decisions he will own.

What do I hope for? Firstly, that the arrangements going forward are not as cosy as we might easily suppose. The best legacy of Ross Stretton’s ill-fated, brief and ultimately tragic reign as Director at the turn of the century were the acquisition of John Cranko’s Onegin and Mats Ek’s Carmen; and the best new choreography of the last decade has been McGregor’s Chroma, Wheeldon’s DGV and Scarlett’s Asphodel Meadows. It looks likely that the new artistic team will certainly bring us more of the latter but I also hope for some new repertoire that is not from McGregor, Wheeldon, a company dancer – or even Balanchine. There are brilliant globally-acclaimed classical and neoclassical choreographers out there who are currently unrepresented in The Royal Ballet’s repertory and that should change.

Also, as a taxpayer, I think costs are important and can – and should – be reined in more tightly. One asks why the Royal Ballet brought in a guest dancer earlier this year to perform the role of the Prince in Ashton’s Cinderella (hardly the most taxing of roles) when there were Princely Principals on the payroll sitting around uninjured and idle; a point that is particularly relevant when the same ‘Cinderella’ danced with one of these Principals in two performances just a few weeks later. Why engage a well-known actor to play a cameo comedy role in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when there are perfectly good character artists willing and able to play such roles? If there were just one piece of advice that I could give to the new Director, it would be to make a rule – for at least a year – that choreographers should stop using the Royal Opera House stage as if it were a giant iPad and give up the computer graphics and multi-media trickery that has been so prevalent in recent seasons. Heaven knows how much it costs and – more often than not – it simply distracts audiences from the dance. A Director has to be more than just a commissioning agent and programmer and, sometimes artistic license needs to be challenged. And finally the transition of dancers through to their retirement could be managed better than it has been. The sudden loss of repertoire which has hastened the end of some careers has not been the most sensitive way of bringing about change. The absence of many dancers in next season’s repertoire from roles that the paying public is used to seeing them in is particularly noticeable and is likely to hasten yet more departures.

So, I wish Kevin O’Hare a Directorship that will last for at least the average of his predecessors (a decade). Many of those tenures have been happy ones – and that will certainly be the overall verdict of Monica Mason’s leadership – but others, not so. I suspect that in this context O’Hare will prove to be the safest pair of hands but I hope that they will also turn out to be creative, imaginative and that – from time to time – he will be as adventurous as Alice.

Royal Ballet appoints new Director in news

14 June 2011

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