Bolshoi Runaway Osipova Hired by Royal Ballet’s Director

The Royal Ballet’s artistic director Kevin O’Hare has started with a splash: He’s recruited a prima ballerina who was previously the pride of Moscow’s Bolshoi.

Osipova, 26, quit the Bolshoi in 2011 to dance with the Mikhailovsky Ballet and the American Ballet Theater. O’Hare -- who took over in July -- cast her as a guest in “Swan Lake.” She asked to come on board, and starts next season as a Royal Ballet principal.

“She’s hungry for new inspiration,” says O’Hare. “Every dancer wants to have as broad a range of roles as possible.”

In big companies such as the Bolshoi -- with two-and-a-half times as many dancers as the Royal Ballet -- “you get pigeonholed into ’You’re this type of dancer,’” he explains.

The Bolshoi links don’t stop there: Later this year, the Moscow company gets its own Royal Opera House season (July 29 - Aug. 17). The tour follows a January acid attack on Bolshoi Artistic Director Sergei Filin that may leave him blind. O’Hare says he hopes Filin will accompany the Bolshoi to London.

“It will be a real turning point for them, coming back here and starting afresh,” says O’Hare. “It’s a big institution, it’s got big strong roots, and it will always survive.”

The Royal Ballet seems the antithesis of the Bolshoi: Any tensions are hidden from view. O’Hare, 47, is diplomatic and inclusive; as I leave his office, I see his predecessor Monica Mason doing paperwork next door.

New Choreography

Yet less than a year into the job, he’s already making a mark. His recruit Osipova will inject a refreshing dose of Russian virtuosity into the company. Meanwhile, O’Hare is commissioning new choreography, including from dancers who are near retirement and need new creative outlets.

O’Hare is himself a former principal dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet. He hung up his dancing shoes in 2000 to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Four years later, he became the Royal Ballet’s company manager, and never left.

These days, he dresses like an urban professional, in a dark suit jacket and open-necked shirt. His corner office has vertical windows and bare walls he hasn’t had time to decorate. Lunch is a mid-afternoon sandwich swallowed in between meetings.

The new director has great ambitions for the Royal Ballet, especially with the three choreographers he has working in-house: Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett. (The fact that they’re all British is a coincidence, he says.)

Creative Building

“We’re in an amazing position where we have a lot of creative people around us,” says O’Hare, in between sandwich bites. “What we need to do is build on that and not be shy.”

“We want to move on, move forward and create new work.”

Wheeldon’s 2011 “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” was the company’s first commissioned full-length ballet in 17 years, he says. O’Hare would like to see more such “classics for the 21st century,” and has asked Wheeldon to choreograph a second full-length ballet based on Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.”

O’Hare is also striving to retain in-house stars who are entering their forties. For the next season, he has asked Cuban prodigy Carlos Acosta to rework (and star in) “Don Quixote.” Danish-born principal Johan Kobborg has been commissioned to choreograph a ballet for Verdi’s “Les Vepres Siciliennes.”

O’Hare reacts with amusement to the ballet-themed movie “Black Swan,” which shows vicious rivalry between ballerinas and self-harm. “What surprised me was that people were treating it as if it was a documentary or something!” he laughs.

He is equally dismissive of doomsday forecasts about classical ballet. “I can easily say I really don’t believe it. Come here any night and see any program,” he says. “I really feel it’s having a renaissance, if anything.”

Next year, the Royal Ballet will be touring at the Bolshoi. Any apprehensions? “I’m not worried,” he says with a smile. “We’re hardy Brits, we can cope with it!”

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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