Kevin O’Hare brings The Royal Ballet to the 2024 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

The Royal Ballet's Matthew Ball and Mayara Magri in Kenneth MacMillan's 'Carousel'. Photo by Tristram Kenton for ROH.
The Royal Ballet's Matthew Ball and Mayara Magri in Kenneth MacMillan's 'Carousel'. Photo by Tristram Kenton for ROH.

“It’s the granddaddy of dance festivals,” says Kevin O’Hare, speaking of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. The Royal Ballet Artistic Director waxes nostalgic about the festival a bit, sharing how he read about it in his youth. Many dancers and dance enthusiasts have a similarly deep connection with the festival. It is indeed significant in concert dance as an art form — past, present and likely future. 

The Royal Ballet is also a legendary dance institution, of course. The two will come together this summer with The Royal Ballet’s “takeover” at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, a week of performances from the company (3 – 7 July) – on both indoor and outdoor stages. Dance Informa speaks with O’Hare about the “takeover”, other touring that the company is doing, where all of that might fit in with how the company is moving forward, and more. 

The Royal Ballet's Ryoichi Hirano and Sarah Lamb in 'Diamonds'. Photo by Tristram Kenton ROH.
The Royal Ballet’s Ryoichi Hirano and Sarah Lamb in ‘Diamonds’. Photo by Tristram Kenton ROH.

On the program…

The Royal Ballet will perform “a nice arc of what the company does” during its Jacob’s Pillow engagement, including both contemporary and classical works, explains O’Hare. The company’s initial idea was to perform mostly contemporary work. Yet, Jacob’s Pillow leaders were actually envisioning more classical work, given the company’s rich classical tradition. We can do that, responded leaders at The Royal Ballet. That part of the programming is a nice “nod to our roots,” says O’Hare.

The company will perform smaller-scale works – such as solos and duets – on the outdoor stage, and larger ensemble pieces on the indoor stage. That just fits the work to the setting best, notes O’Hare. It’s not feasible to bring the whole company of 100 dancers, so 30 will be performing: the principals, select soloists and a segment of the corps de ballet. That grouping is a “snapshot” of the current company, O’Hare says. 

On the more classical side will be a Marius Petipa pas de deux from Le Corsaire (1856), a Kenneth McMillan pas de deux from Manon (1974), and another McMillan pas de deux from Carousel (1945). Sir Frederick Ashton’s Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan (1975) will acknowledge the deep modern dance history that’s interwoven with Jacob’s Pillow. The company will also present a solo from Le Rendezvous (1933), another Ashton work. 

Into the more contemporary work, a Christopher Wheeldon all-male quartet will demonstrate the well-known strength of the company’s male roster. His After The Rain pas de deux (2005) will be “beautiful on the outdoor stage” at Jacob’s Pillow, O’Hare affirms. The company will also perform the world premiere of a “funky” new Wayne McGregor work.

The Royal Ballet's Giacomo Rovero and Hannah Grennell in 'Secret Things' by Pam Tanowitz. Photo by Alice Pennefather ROH.
The Royal Ballet’s Giacomo Rovero and Hannah Grennell in ‘Secret Things’ by Pam Tanowitz. Photo by Alice Pennefather ROH.

An excerpt of Secret Things, a Pam Tanowitz work, is also in store. “We’ve got a great relationship with [Pam],” says O’Hare. “She’s got her very distinctive style, but she doesn’t just put that on our dancers. She works with them to bring out their strengths.” To boot, there will be a streaming performance accessible worldwide. “We’re all about offering as much access as possible,” O’Hare explains.

[For the full roster of works that The Royal Ballet will perform at Jacob’s Pillow, read up on outdoor performances and on indoor performances.] 

Making it happen: International touring logistics and challenges 

“The idea for the takeover was, and is, exciting. I knew right away that it’d be a lot of work, but it’s worth it. We’ll enjoy knuckling down and getting it done!” says O’Hare. Funding international touring has unfortunately gotten more challenging, O’Hare notes. The Royal Ballet has been able to tour Japan more often, thankfully – if in the U.S. less often. “Performing in NYC put us on the international map, and we’ll take any chance to connect with our American audiences – including through [dance film] and other international access points,” O’Hare adds.  

Funding aside, a large-scale international engagement comes with an immense amount of logistical complexity — from choreography rights to visas to costume transportation. You name it, it’s a consideration. Yet, O’Hare knows that it’s all doable. “Jacob’s Pillow and The Royal Ballet are well-oiled machines…it’s our bread and butter,” he quips. Above and beyond dancers and other collaborators traveling to the U.S., about 15 London-based supporters of the company will be joining as well. “It’ll be a nice holiday for them,” O’Hare says with a smile. 

The Royal Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's 'For Four'. Photo by Andrej Uspenski.
The Royal Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘For Four’. Photo by Andrej Uspenski.

The “why”

Why go through all of that hard work and complexity? For many reasons, O’Hare believes. “There’s a mixture of many things to be excited about.” For one, it’s exciting to have The Royal Ballet working with a richly storied institution like Jacob’s Pillow. “I was there last summer for a weekend, and I was just blown away by all of the history. And the team there is great,” O’Hare shares. 

There are even some special connections to appreciate, O’Hare notes. Alicia Markova, The Royal Ballet’s first prima ballerina, was instrumental in starting the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. The Jacob’s Pillow “takeover” will also be a homecoming, of sorts, for company dancers hailing from the U.S. “I purposefully chose many of our American dancers [for this tour],” O’Hare explains — including Sarah Lamb, David Donnelly, and Annette Buvoli. That homecoming will be “lovely for audiences and the dancers’ families, as well,” O’Hare says. 

Last but not least is the impact that The Royal Ballet can have through this engagement. “I think the world has changed a lot in the past 50 years…what a ballet company is has changed. I want to show that,” O’Hare says, and thus educate, lead by example and simply inspire. “Presenting this range of work, performed by dancers at this caliber” – O’Hare hopes that it will astound and delight audience members, and believes that it certainly has the potential to do so. 

Natalia Osipova in 'Tchaikovskey Pas de Deux'. Photo by Helen Maybanks.
Natalia Osipova in ‘Tchaikovskey Pas de Deux’. Photo by Helen Maybanks.

Moving forward 

Asked if this Jacob’s Pillow engagement could in some way speak to how the company will move forward, O’Hare says that they’re taking “inspiration” from it. Next summer, for example, the company will present work at an Italian dance festival and tour in South Korea. 2026 most likely has touring in store as well. “I do see this as potentially more of a way of working going forward,” O’Hare shares. “Amongst all of these engagements, I’m hoping that all of our dancers can get a taste of touring!”

That’s not to say that the company is any less devoted to its London home base. In fact, The Royal Opera House has recently announced a forthcoming rebranding to The Royal Ballet and Opera – reflecting the institution’s stalwart commitment to the company. “We’re heartened and thrilled to see how audiences have come back” following COVID, O’Hare says.

At the same time, the company is exploring ways to expand access beyond London and its touring destinations – such as the livestream from Jacob’s Pillow. O’Hare believes that, following COVID adaptations, audiences “are used to” dance film and other filmed performances. With collaboration, open minds and good old elbow grease, nothing is off the table. Time will tell what magic could transpire, on and off stages. Next stop on that path, for The Royal Ballet: the Berkshires! 

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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