A gentle presence in the studio, Kevin O'Hare was widely seen as a safe pair of hands when he took over as The Royal Ballet's director upon Monica Mason's retirement in 2012. A former principal with Birmingham Royal Ballet, a sister company of The Royal, he had danced much of the British repertoire; as The Royal's administrative director, he knew the London-based institution inside out.
Yet when he was appointed, O'Hare quietly set himself a radical challenge: In 2020, for a full year, he intended to present only works created in the decade prior. "I think we can do it. We're on track," he says now with a laugh. "If we're not pushing ourselves, giving the dancers opportunities to create new roles, then there's no point in being here."
That commitment to renewed creativity, balanced with a sensible respect for the British ballet heritage, has been the hallmark of O'Hare's directorship. Since he took the helm, The Royal has produced at least one new full-length ballet nearly every season, with hits including Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale and Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works, but not at the expense of his- torical works. A new generation of British- trained dancers has also emerged, nurtured by O'Hare to take over the repertoire.
Last weekend, the Mariinsky Ballet announced on its website that one of its most revered prima ballerinas, Uliana Lopatkina, has retired from the stage. A principal dancer since 1995, Lopatkina's interpretation of Odette/Odile and "The Dying Swan", among other roles, was legendary. To honor her dance career, we're re-visiting this interview from the February/March 2013 issue.
What's the toughest part of being a dancer?
More than most professions, ballet erodes the private sphere. You don't fulfill yourself in this career: You serve it; you're a slave to it.
What ballet makes you most nervous?
Swan Lake. Even if it's not the most difficult ballet to perform, it's difficult in another way, a mystical way.
In Wayne McGregor's high-octane Chroma, The Royal Ballet's Sarah Lamb finds meditative stillness.
As told to Laura Cappelle
Chroma was the first ballet I worked on with Wayne McGregor, and it was like embarking on a relationship for the first time. There's a heightened energy, an expectation and also the desire to be a vehicle for the choreographer's ideas. The creation process was very easy. Wayne didn't give me any information about my role before we started—he doesn't try to analyze anything before it happens. The whole piece is a painting with people: We're in a monochrome environment, wearing light colors, in a white spot.
The first time I appear onstage is for my pas de deux. It often stands out because it comes after a period of loud, staccato, energetic music, and then there is this calm. It's quiet piano music, very meditative—the composer Joby Talbot's title for this section is “…a yellow disc rising from the sea…" One image that I have in my head is of a pebble being dropped into water, and the circles emanating out from it. There's a stillness, but there is also a continuity of movement, an echo and a reverberation.
Crystal Pite considers herself to be on the contemporary end of the dance spectrum, but she’s playing in the major league of ballet companies this season. In September, the Canadian choreographer debuted The Seasons’ Canon, a large-scale work for 54 dancers at the Paris Opéra Ballet; in March, she will follow up with her first work for The Royal Ballet.
For POB, The Seasons’ Canon turned out to be a powerful collective experience at a time of transition. The French institution was left in turmoil by former director Benjamin Millepied’s resignation announcement last February, but Pite channeled their strengths into a rare creation using a third of the company’s impressive roster. In just four weeks—“a sprint” according to the choreographer—she took the dancers on a creative ride. “They’re open, willing, generous, patient and delightfully hungry,” she says.
Pite, an alum of William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt, reconnected with her ballet roots for the occasion. “As a dancer, it was always a real battle for me to fit into ballet,” she says. “But I love working with classical dancers, because I get access to all that articulation, their sense of line and shape. The kind of architecture they have in their bodies is so ecstatic and beautiful.”
And you could have heard a pin drop at times in the POB’s studios, with the dancers also eager to stretch themselves in Pite’s grounded style, built in part using improvisation. Paired with works by Forsythe and Justin Peck, The Seasons’ Canon brought a bold new female voice to the fore in European ballet. Pite will go big again in London, with another group work set to Górecki’s harrowing Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.
All photos by Julien Benhamou
Staatsballett Berlin's Iana Salenko on guestings, salsa music and her knack for design.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I'm a tiny dancer, so to dance roles for tall ballerinas I would never have dreamed about, like Swan Lake—I'm very proud that I managed to get them.
What's the hardest thing about guesting with other companies, like The Royal Ballet?
What a difference four years have made for Hannah O’Neill. In 2012, as a foreign dancer on a temporary corps contract with the Paris Opéra Ballet, a botched arabesque in La Bayadère’s “Kingdom of the Shades” scene led her to believe her French career was over. Last December, however, she was back on the Opéra Bastille stage in the same ballet, as Gamzatti. Newly promoted to first soloist, she led the company opposite étoile Dorothée Gilbert, showcasing the pencil lines and robust technique that have made her a local favorite.
At just 23, the young New Zealander has quickly established herself as one of the faces of the “Millepied generation.” Her technical strength and fresh stage presence, backed up by a solid dose of sangfroid, made her a perfect fit for outgoing director Benjamin Millepied’s focus on new blood and repertoire in Paris. In the two short seasons he spent there, she climbed the ranks and impressed with her precocious fearlessness in classical full-lengths, from Swan Lake to Paquita.
The easygoing O’Neill still can’t believe her luck. “If it wasn’t for Millepied, I don’t think I would have moved up as quickly or had so many opportunities,” she says. “Everything I’ve done in my career so far was thanks to him, really.” While Millepied’s brief tenure was key, however, her success has also come as a result of resilience and stubborn hard work to fit into the notoriously idiosyncratic French national company.
O’Neill’s life was a peripatetic one from a young age. She was born in Japan, where her New Zealander father played professional rugby. Her Japanese mother encouraged her to try ballet, and by the time the family moved back to New Zealand, when she was 8, she had caught the dance bug.
Competitions became her way to be seen outside the island and her school there, Mt Eden Ballet Academy. “I was so far away from the ballet world that if I didn’t step outside a little bit, there was no way anybody would see me,” she says. “It was never about winning.” She did win, though: a scholarship to The Australian Ballet School at age 14, the Prix de Lausanne in 2009, and the gold medal at her second Youth America Grand Prix in 2010.
O’Neill spent four years at The Australian Ballet School, where she toured with the youth company. While The Australian Ballet was keen to hire her upon graduation, she had long entertained dreams of France. As a child, she had seen the Paris Opéra Ballet School perform in Japan, and had submitted an audition video when she was 13, to no avail. “To me, ballet was always the Paris Opéra,” she says. The French company is infamously closed to foreign dancers, however, as around 95 percent of dancers come from the POB School. Still, there was no harm in trying the yearly external audition, O’Neill thought; she placed fourth, and earned a seasonal contract as a surnuméraire, a role that consists of understudying corps spots.
The move to Paris was a shock. She was at the barre next to étoiles, but didn’t speak French and was at the very bottom of the ladder. “It was horrible,” she recalls. “I wasn’t dancing, and I got quite lonely. I remember telling my mom: ‘I’m definitely not staying.’ ”
Her initial brush with La Bayadère’s 32 Shades was a low point, and the source of tension with head ballet master Laurent Hilaire until his departure in 2014. Still, O’Neill doubled down, working harder in class and seeking the advice of one of her teachers, Laurent Novis, who started coaching her for the next POB audition. “We saw her beauty and potential straight away,” he remembers. “She had beautiful legs, an assertive technique and was already self-assured.”
They started working together on the minute details that are the hallmarks of the French style, from the crisp footwork to the épaulement. “It is always a shock for people who didn’t go through the school, and she showed a great willingness to adapt,” Novis says. “We really insisted on the presentation of the foot, the arms, the positioning of the neck.” The immersion paid off: At the end of her second year, O’Neill was offered a full-time contract.
Her subsequent ascent was as fast as any seen at POB, where hierarchy is sacrosanct. Dancers often have to take the infamous concours de promotion, an annual internal competition, for years before being promoted. When Millepied arrived in 2014, however, he was keen to shake things up, and looked to O’Neill and other dancers of her generation to bring youthful energy to his repertoire.
Where others might have faltered under the pressure, O’Neill thrived. An alternate for Odette/Odile, she ended up dancing the role with little preparation while still in the corps. “Nureyev’s versions are very difficult in a way that is twisted,” she says. “It was important for me to do everything the hardest way, with no shortcuts.” The result was still green, but Novis praises her ability to incorporate criticism into an individual interpretation: “She has the personality to take it, the mental toughness, but you don’t feel like she is a shy student. It’s rare to see young dancers who say: ‘I want to do it this way.’ ”
Her breakthrough came shortly afterwards in Pierre Lacotte’s full-length Paquita, where she conquered both the finicky small steps of Act I and the academic style of the Grand Pas. Then, last autumn, she was promoted to the coveted position of première danseuse (first soloist) on her first try as a sujet.
Despite her accomplishment, however, last season turned out to be a roller coaster. It took O’Neill time to adjust mentally to being out of the corps and dancing less. Millepied’s resignation announcement last February also took her by surprise: “I was very sad. I thought he would have fought a little bit more for it, but if it’s not for him, it’s not for him.”
Former étoile Aurélie Dupont takes over as director this season, and for the young dancers who were on a roll under Millepied, there is some uncertainty ahead. “It’s exciting because she was such an amazing dancer,” O’Neill says. “But she’s talking a lot about the hierarchy. Even as a première danseuse, I hope I will still get the chance to dance.”
Still, Millepied has set O’Neill up for a bright future in Paris. Her artistic personality has yet to blossom, but O’Neill is grateful to have a 20-year career as a soloist ahead of her, since the dancers are guaranteed employment until they retire at 42. She is eager to test herself in a wide range of repertoire. “I think I’ve created a relationship with the French audience that is very warming, very positive. I just want to not cheat and do everything the hardest way possible, so that one day it will become easy.”
O’Neill’s international profile is rising, too. She won the 2016 Benois de la Danse for Paquita, and guested at the last Mariinsky Ballet Festival as Gamzatti. Director Yuri Fateyev subsequently invited her to make her debut in Giselle, her dream role, this summer on the Mariinsky’s new stage in Vladivostok.
Offstage, a passion for fashion has led O’Neill to do some modeling for Dior in Japanese magazines. In her spare time, true to her roots, she keeps up with rugby and New Zealand’s famous All Blacks. O’Neill is laying down new roots in Paris, however: She bought her first apartment in the city last year, close enough to walk to work every day. There, O’Neill remains in her old corps dressing room for now, and prefers it this way: “I love seeing everybody. When you’re onstage, the drive that you bounce off from others is so energizing.” In ballet, she plays for the French team.
Laura Cappelle is a dance writer based in France.
The Royal Ballet’s Laura Morera finds strength in self-acceptance.
What has maturity taught you as a dancer?
I have really enjoyed getting older, which is probably a weird thing to say for a dancer. A lot of things happened in my life in the past two years, including the death of my father. It's made me lose the fear that I had. After that, you give it your all, and you forgive yourself a lot more.
What do you enjoy more: performing or being in the studio?
Performing. No matter what's happened in your day or in your life, you can be alone onstage with the music. I think that's why I push retiring more and more—performing is my addiction.
To whom or to what would you attribute your success?
My parents. I teach a lot, and sometimes you come across talent, but the parents don't understand. They don't want to send their children abroad. Mine let me try for The Royal Ballet School, and in my case, it was the only way. There was nothing in Spain.
What makes a good partner?
Someone who has a really similar work ethic—otherwise it won’t work. And a similar emphasis on what you're looking for in a performance: If someone is looking to do 50 pirouettes, and I’m more interested in creating more of an atmosphere, we'll probably clash a little bit.
If you weren't a dancer, what would you be?
I like finding people their journeys to travel on holiday, so I'd be some kind of glorified travel agent, or I'd be in public relations. I'd probably be practicing and teaching yoga in Thailand, too!
What’s your fashion style?
I love dresses, and I’m a boot person. I buy myself something before every premiere.
Do you have a secret talent?
I can talk for hours, but everyone knows about that!
You’ve been a muse to Liam Scarlett. What’s your relationship like?
I owe him a rebirth. He completely gets me as a dancer. In a place where I’ve sometimes felt I was too different, he made me fit. His work took me back to all the training at The Royal Ballet School’s White Lodge: quick footwork, the use of the pointe shoe, the bending.
What’s the toughest part of being a dancer?
When you find something about yourself that you can’t change. Until you accept it and start using it for the best and not against yourself, you can be miserable.
Is there anything about your body you would change?
There are things that others wanted to change about my body, and for years there were things that I hated about it. I learned to understand that I shouldn’t hate it, because there really is nothing wrong. If I had a different this or that, I’d be a different person.
Even as a principal, you dance a number of soloist roles. How do you handle that?
I love those roles. I don’t have an issue with it. With the lead Harlot in Romeo and Juliet, for instance, it’s my way of interacting with the company. Because you’re with the corps, you get to know people, you see what the young dancers have to offer. If those roles stop you from doing work of your own rank, however, it can be a problem.
What’s your biggest indulgence?
Going to healing retreats in Thailand, on Ko Samui island. I’ve gone on four or five. There’s an energy about the place, a bit like “Lost”—without the scary bit! They helped take off the layers that I’d built around me.
What’s your most prized possession?
My dad’s wedding ring, which I now wear around my neck, with a little heart that we designed after his death.
What advice would you have for young dancers on handling their relationship with their director?
Really believe in what you have, go and ask, but don’t play games. At the end of the day, what you want is to be onstage. Try to be nice to the director, but also be heard.