It was in 2000 that Kevin O’Hare, now Director of The Royal Ballet, made his last appearance as a dancer – on the stage of Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre. ‘It was in that very theatre’, he says, laughing. ‘I need a little plaque putting up to mark the spot. It was quite a moment for me.’
O’Hare’s retirement – after a performance with The Royal Ballet’s sister company, Birmingham Royal Ballet – is just one of many footnotes in the rich history of The Royal Ballet’s special relationship with America. It is a relationship that will be cemented by its visit to Washington, Chicago, and New York this summer. ‘America is a really important place for us’, O’Hare goes on. ‘Historically, it was really where we made our name.’
He is referring to the famous visit in 1949 when the impresario Sol Hurok brought Dame Ninette de Valois’s Sadler’s Wells Ballet – as it then was – to New York. They opened with The Sleeping Beauty with Margot Fonteyn as Aurora, Robert Helpmann as Prince Florimund, Beryl Grey as the Lilac Fairy and Moira Shearer (famous from The Red Shoes) in the Bluebird pas de deux. And they caused a sensation. ‘You’re in, lady’, said the Mayor of New York, leaning across from his box. Once she had checked what it meant, De Valois was thrilled. The affection between ballet lovers in both countries has been strong from that day on.
The enduring depth of that relationship was built not only by performances in the major cities, but by long, gruelling tours, criss-crossing the continent in their own train – the Ballet Special. Chicago was often part of that story; on their second visit in 1951–2 the Company spent Christmas in the city – unthinkable today when they would always be at home, probably performing The Nutcracker.
Sadly, the difficulties of funding international touring have in the past decades made The Royal Ballet’s visits to the States less frequent than before, and it is only thanks to the support of the Auditorium Theatre and of the Joyce Theater in New York that this visit is possible. But just as before, it is a chance to showcase what Alex Beard, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House, calls ‘a remarkable bunch of talented, dedicated and exceptional dancers’.
The Company O’Hare brings to the States is different in many respects from The Royal Ballet of old. For one thing, its ranks have been strengthened by the arrival of dancers from all over the world – Carlos Acosta from Cuba, Natalia Osipova from Russia, Marianela Nuñez from Argentina to mention just three examples. There are also many American dancers in its midst including Principals Nehemiah Kish born in Michigan and Sarah Lamb from Boston, Soloists Eric Underwood and Tristan Dyer and First Artist Meaghan Grace Hinkis.
‘It will be really nice to introduce this new generation of dancers’, says O’Hare. ‘They are here because they want to do the sort of work we are doing and the breadth of repertory – and I hope that American audiences will enjoy the huge range our dancers have.’
He points out that The Royal Ballet of 2015 still shares the values that De Valois established. This will be clear in its performance of Acosta’s new Don Quixote, which opens the tour in Washington and continues in Chicago. Although it will feature star dancers at its heart – Acosta and Nuñez for example – the production is very much designed to reveal the strength of the ensemble. ‘It isn’t just about the two people in the middle of the stage. We wanted to show we could do these big classic works, and the Company makes it very much their own, using the strengths of our acting heritage and our sense of drama.’
It is in fact 37 years since The Royal Ballet visited Chicago, with a programme in 1978 that included MacMillan’s Mayerling and Ashton’s Monotones as well as three performances of Swan Lake. But the Company has not been entirely absent. One of the great successes it has enjoyed in recent years is the worldwide audience it has built for cinema showings of its performances. Its most recent figures show it has been seen in more than 60 countries on 2,000 screens – 400 in the USA alone – and audiences last season doubled to 750,000 and are still climbing. This has had a radical impact on dance across the globe. Suddenly it is possible to watch The Royal Ballet on a regular basis.
As Alex Beard explains, seeing the Company in the cinema, and on other digital platforms, enhances the experience of attending a live performance: ‘People thought that the virtual world would overtake the real world, but actually that isn’t at all what has happened. The more your content is available and talked about and put around through digital means, the more people want to have a very direct personal experience of it in a specific space. To attend a live event becomes really super-special. It is a very exciting moment.’
This means that The Royal Ballet more than ever is both a national company and an international one. And it means that this tour becomes a celebration both of the links forged so tightly in the past – and the new ones being created in the world of today.
By Sarah Crompton.