The Royal Ballet's 'Heavenly' Ryoichi Hirano

Ryoichi Hirano and Marianela Nuñez in rehearsal for Onegin, photo Gavin Smart

Ryoichi Hirano talks to Ballet Position about his life as a Royal Ballet Principal and how he became ‘Heavenly Hirano’

Royal Ballet Principal Ryochi Hirano’s first year with the company was not exactly encouraging. He joined as an apprentice in 2002, fresh from winning the Gold Medal at the Prix de Lausanne; but the transition from ballet school in his native Osaka, Japan, to London and the UK’s most prestigious ballet company, was far from smooth.

“Mentally it was very difficult, because I didn’t have friends, I spoke no English, it was hard to communicate, so I was a little bit isolated, in a way.

“I was the first apprentice dancer in the Royal Ballet, perhaps they didn’t know how to deal with me, how to use me, so I was only doing class, maybe one rehearsal standing at the back…”

Many others would have been discouraged; but not Ryoichi Hirano.

“I said to myself, ‘this could be just one year; I need to take everything that I can by watching, listening, learning.’ So, I tried to do everything, I tried to be able to speak English, I studied a lot, and I watched so many shows, rehearsals… I didn’t just sit there going, ‘why am I not doing this and that?’”

His commitment and application paid off, and eventually he did set foot on the Royal Opera House stage in the ensemble of John Cranko’s dramatic ballet, Onegin.

“I was general cover for all those 12 men in the [Act III] ballroom scene, and one day in rehearsal one guy got sick. Christopher Carr, former rehearsal director, picked me to go on.

“Of course, I had tried to do everything, I learned everything, and he was actually amazed I did it perfectly, and since then he calls me ‘Heavenly Hirano’’’.

He laughs, his obvious amusement at the moniker tinged with not a little pride.

Hirano and Onegin

Justified pride, in fact: spool forward to the present, and not only is Hirano one of the Royal Ballet’s most interesting Principals, he has just made an impressive debut in the title role of Onegin (21/01/2020).

Onegin, the arrogant anti-hero of Pushkin’s verse-novel, who breaks a young girl’s heart and leaves it too late to see sense and repent, is a difficult character to inhabit. It’s tempting to make him rather bi-dimensional – a bad guy who gets his just desserts – but that is not Heavenly Hirano’s way.

‘I always say ballet is… of course, it’s dancing! you have to be technically good; but at the same time I think the most important thing is the story-telling. Acting is the key.’

Hirano puts a lot of thought and observation into building his characters.

“I watch so many people doing so many different roles, I see what works, and then I can use that as ‘a weapon.’  So, I really love acting, it’s not easy without words, but it’s amazing how much you can tell with just body language, how much you can express.”

Hirano’s Onegin is a complex, well-defined and extremely nuanced character; an arrogant city man, prey to deep ennui, who, though dismissive of country-life, is, nevertheless, a courteous and unfailingly polite guest in Tatiana’s household.

His spurning of young Tatiana’s love comes not out of pointless cruelty, but rather impatience, a sort of ‘oh, just leave me alone, little girl!’

His performance is full of realistic touches: when his friend Lensky challenges him to a duel by slapping his face with his gloves, he staggers back, not from the strength of the blow, but from sheer surprise: he never thought his open flirting with Tatiana’s sister, his friend Lensky’s fiancée, could break up the all-important male bond.

Onegin’s restlessness in the Act III ballroom scene, when he recognises in the elegant aristocratic married woman the girl he spurned, feels real: he frenziedly paces the stage, alternately wanting to show himself to her and hiding, shock, anguish and desire flowing backwards and forwards across his face.

And his central pas de deux with Marianela Nuñez’s sublime Tatiana, the perfect lover of her dream in Act I turning at the end of the ballet into the supplicant suitor she must refuse, truly touch the heart.

In his progress towards the plum lead role of Onegin, Hirano danced Prince Gremin, Tatiana’s dignified and doting much older husband.

Marianela Nuñez as Tatiana, Ryoichi Hirano as Prince Gremin (c) ROH 2013 Bill Cooper

“It’s always nice that I can play Prince Gremin and then Onegin, because I know what the Prince feels (…) I always find it easier to know other characters.”

Hirano’s Versatile Career

Ryiochi Hirano is a versatile dancer, and despite his preference for narrative ballets finds himself equally at ease in abstract works, his solid technique and powerful presence suiting Balanchine, as much as Wayne McGregor.

He’s danced many of the main classical roles, always bringing something very much his own to all his characters, be it a depth of understanding to his portrayal of the brain-addled, drug addicted, suicidal Prince Rudolf in Kenneth MacMillan’s masterpiece Mayerling

Royishi Hirano as Prince Rudolf in Mayerling, (c) ROH 2018 Helen Maybanks

… deep corruption and venality (despite his naturally noble demeanour) when dancing the character of Manon’s brother and pimp, Lescaux; or a thrilling sensuality to the bullfighter Espada in Don Quixote.

However, the lead role of Onegin eluded Hirano for many years; not something he regrets.

“Onegin is such a demanding part! You need a maturity, a mature aura on stage; you can’t just be a good partner, tall… I think the person that is acting Onegin needs to have experience as a person, as well, in life.

“If you don’t know what happiness is, you can’t express happiness on stage. The more you’ve been through in your life, the more understanding you have of what those feelings are like, [the better] you understand Onegin’s feelings. It takes a long time to get to do those roles.”

From Osaka to London and Back Again

Despite having spent more than half his life in London, Ryoichi Hirano is a major star in his native Japan, with a loyal and enthusiastic following among Japanese balletomanes. He regularly performs in Japan, either when the Royal Ballet tour there, or in special galas.

So, where is ‘home’ for him?

“I would like to say here, because when I was in Japan I was a minor, a student, I didn’t know anything about adult life: I went to high school, did ballet after school, and that was my life.

“When I came here, this is my adult life. When I go to Japan I feel a bit weird, because I only know what I knew when I was at school. People ask me, where is a good place to have a party…  He looks helpless, shrugs his shoulders and laughs: “I don’t know! I know more about life in London.

“So, every time I go back home…” he stops himself, and then repeats “home,” making the inverted commas sign with his fingers, “when I get back [to Britain], I feel I am really home.”

Ryoichi Hirano gives the impression of a very centred person, an artist happy with his life and his career so far. He’s done it all, or most of it, anyway; although asked whether there is still one role missing from his extensive repertoire he says, diffidently, “Des Grieux.”

Who knows? Perhaps the poet lover of MacMillan’s Manon will come his way before too long.


by Teresa Guerreiro

Onegin is in repertoire at the ROH until 29th February.

Ryoichi Hirano dances Onegin on 8th and 27th February.

Kevin O'Hare's Royal Ballet: New Horizons

Kevin O'Hare, photo Joe Plimmer

In the dazzlingly redeveloped Royal Opera House, Royal Ballet Director Kevin O’Hare talks about exciting new prospects for his company

The run up to a new season is always a time of excited anticipation for performers and audiences alike. But as he gears up to the 2018/19 season, Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet, is particularly excited at the new prospects offered his company by the recently completed redevelopment of the Royal Opera House.

In particular, Kevin O’Hare told Ballet Position, the redesign of the 406-seater Linbury Theatre, coupled with the refurbishment of the smaller Clore Studio, opens a wealth of new possibilities to The Royal Ballet.

“I’m thrilled (…) to have this beautiful intimate space to perform and create new work and also with our choreographic programme to help young choreographers within the company and also [from] outside, to have a space to try things out.

The ROH’s redesigned Linbury Theatre (c) Hufton & Crow

“And now we’ve got three spaces, with the Clore Studio much improved and with better lighting, we’ve got the Linbury and also we’ve got the main stage, so I think there’s going to be a progression, there’s a way we can really nurture people especially choreographically.”

The first dance on the new Linbury stage, presented at the theatre’s unveiling, was indeed the work of a young choreographer nurtured by The Royal Ballet’s choreographic development programme, Charlotte Edmonds. It was performed by one of the company’s most charismatic young dancers, Joseph Sissens.

Nor is that all. The Royal Opera House’s new ‘open and accessible’ policy means that there will regularly be free performances in front of house spaces. That, O’Hare feels, will give his dancers more opportunities for creative development.

“We’re talking to all sorts of different people and say, ‘we’re going to put a dancer down there, would you like to do a duet, would you like to do something in the Hamlyn Hall, would you like to do a concert with singers’; so, it is much more a stage for them, they need to come up with ideas as well.”

The Royal Ballet – Something Old, Something New….

There is, however, a need to be realistic about how much more work can be required of an already very busy company. So, for the forthcoming winter period at the Linbury the Royal Ballet as such will perform in only one out of four programmes, New Work New Music in early February.

“To be honest, I think the Royal Ballet as such will only be able to perform one programme a year in the Linbury, because we have such a busy schedule; but then associates of the Royal Ballet will be doing things as well.”

As will other smaller national and foreign companies, such as the National Dance Company of Wales and the Dutch ensemble Introdans, both of which feature in the inaugural period.

Having the Linbury to try new work also gives the Royal Ballet the ability to pack its main programme with established works, without – O’Hare hopes! – being accused of not programming enough new work.

The 2018/19 season opens on 8th October with Mayerling, undoubtedly one of Kenneth MacMillan’s masterpieces and a key part of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire.

The Royal Ballet, Edward Watson in Mayerling (c) ROH 2017 photo Alice Pennefather

Among other hardy perennials are Natalia Makarova’s production of La Bayadère, and that unavoidable staple of the Christmas season everywhere, The Nutcracker, in Sir Peter Wright’s unsurpassable production.

In fact, for the whole of 2018/19, the Royal Ballet will present only two new works on the main stage: Alastair Marriott’s The Unknown Soldier, marking the centenary of the end of World War I, and an as yet unnamed piece by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

“For the past five years we’ve done so much and we’ve really pushed the boat out, we’ve had five new full-length productions, which is a lot in five years, plus all the other new works, so it felt like it really is a moment to take a little bit stock, and also knowing that we wanted to make the most of this new opening at the Linbury. I think it’ll be more balanced in the years to come.”

The Royal Ballet: The Heritage

Kevin O’Hare is also keen to use the versatility of the Linbury to show work from an earlier phase in the life of The Royal Ballet, the better to illustrate the company’s history and development.

“We’ll use the Linbury to look at heritage work as well, some of the things that really were done for a small theatre. I’d love to look at something of De Valois that hasn’t been seen, and probably that is the space to do it in, because it was danced at either the Old Vic or Sadler’s Wells or on tour, not a massive opera house stage, so I’m going to look at that.”

It’s fair to say that The Royal Opera House’s redevelopment has been an all-consuming project for all involved since 2010, when the first steps were made, through the past three years when the actual building work went on full steam ahead to meet the unveiling date of September 2018. Kevin O’Hare found the project took him away from his dancers for longer than he would have liked.

“When I first took the job [in 2012], this was when we were talking to all the developers and architects, so for the first six months I had to be at those meetings, because I wouldn’t have wanted not to be a part of it, and for the company to make sure that we didn’t miss out and all those things, but I was going, ‘oh my goodness, I’m having to deal with this and I want to be there with the company.’

“I think it’s very important that I’m there all the time (…) I want the dancers to know I’m there, I’m interested in what they’re doing, I’m coming back afterwards, the next day, I’ll find them in the corridor and say ‘that was great, have you tried this?’

“The same with how it looks on stage, because things change all the time. (…) And if I’m going to make decisions on their careers, what they’re going to be dancing next, I think I need to be seen there all the time.”

The 2018/19 season promises to steer The Royal Ballet in new directions, with the energetic Kevin O’Hare at the helm.  Looking ahead to the year 2020, he says the emphasis will be on new work, gathering together ballets the company premièred in the preceding ten years alongside two new big productions.

All in all, quite a lot to look forward to!


by Teresa Guerreiro




Elitist? Who, Me?

Royal Opera House photo Rob Moore c/o ROH

Is London’s Royal Opera House the elitist preserve of  a metropolitan middle class? Categorically not, says its boss Alex Beard.

‘Elitist’ – a damning label, often uttered with a dismissive sneer. But what do people mean when they call something or somewhere ‘elitist?’  Is it about what it costs?

Let’s do a spot of compare-and-contrast for June 2017 .

Say you wanted to go to a top sporting event.

On Saturday, 3rd June, you would have travelled to the National Stadium of Wales in Cardiff for the final of the UEFA Champions League between true football royalty: Spain’s Real Madrid v Italy’s Juventus, the world’s best outfield player against one of the game’s legendary goalkeepers.

Gianluigi Buffon of Juventus and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid
Gianluigi Buffon of Juventus and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid

Category 1 tickets: £390 (centrally positioned, ie, best view). Category 4, cheapest: £60 (behind the goals, upper and lower, ie, most definitely not the best view…).

Maybe the glitz of West End musical theatre is more appealing. What about an evening at the hugely successful musical The Book of Mormon?

Best stalls seats (premium option excluded): £175.00

A major gig?  Try Adele’s summer shows at Wembley Stadium – best tickets: £222.00 (if you can get them).

Or you could make your way to Covent Garden, where a tenor of the calibre of Roberto Alagna sings the lead role in Donizetti’s opera L’Elisir d’Amore.

Top stalls price: £175.00. Lowest in the Upper Slips, where you won’t see much but will certainly hear the music loud and clear: £9.00

All those events are top of their range – elite, even – but only the Royal Opera House regularly gets blasted for being ‘elitist’.

The reason is not hard to fathom. The first three are purely commercial. The Royal Opera House receives public subsidy. Taxpayers money.

In The Sun’s inimitable headline apropos a national lottery grant to the House a few years back, it’s

‘The Greedy Beggars’ Opera’

The ‘elitism’ charge cuts no ice with the top man at Covent Garden, the Royal Opera House Chief Executive Officer, Alex Beard.

Alex Beard, CEO, ROH, photo Francesco Guidini, c/o ROH
Alex Beard, CEO, ROH, photo Francesco Guidini, courtesy of ROH

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being amazing, even elite. We have elite sports… [ours] are elite artists, at the very top of their game, they’ve been training all of their lives to be able through their own body to transport you, me and fellow audience members into a different dimension, a different understanding of themselves – that’s not elitist.”

Furthermore, Alex Beard goes on, the charge of ‘elitism’ comes from specific quarters:

“The perception of ‘elitism’ is in the main held by people who haven’t been here; and those people who cross the threshold, who experience it for themselves actually say, ‘this is a – ma – zing! It is extraordinary! It certainly isn’t elitist.’”

The ROH’s experience with The Sun would seem to bear him out. Needled by The Sun’s constant sneering, a few years back some bright spark at Covent Garden had the idea of holding a subsidised first night performance of the opera Carmen exclusively for readers of The Sun.

Now, you’d have thought that having been subjected to a consistent negative campaign against the ROH and its audience of ‘toffs’ by their newspaper of choice, Sun readers would just not be interested. You’d have been wrong – very wrong. Tickets sold out almost instantly, and an editor at The Sun admitted:

‘Our readers told us they loved the experience and couldn’t wait to do it again.’

And so they did. The following year, readers of The Sun were invited to apply for heavily subsidised tickets for Carmen (£7.50 – £30) and the ballet Mayerling (£7.50 – £20).

The same wag commented:

‘… whether it’s tenors or tutus that float your boat, there’s a great night’s entertainment to be had for as little as £7.50.’

Who’d have thought it…. with a clever bit of PR (and the support of a private donor, the Helen Hamlyn Trust) the ROH gained some respite from The Sun’s constant sniping.

Which is not say that the idea of public subsidy has become uncontroversial. On the contrary.

In the current climate of austerity in Britain, Arts Council subsidy makes up 22% of the ROH revenue; however, when the allocation for the 2013-18 period was made, the theatre was told there would be a reduction of 3.7% in real terms for every one of the years of that period.

The remainder of the ROH’s income comes from the box office, about 40%; philanthropy, some 27%; and then a combination of things like catering and retail.

So the question arises, does Alex Beard envy his European counterparts in France and Germany, for example, where public subsidy for the arts is seen as “a very good thing”?

“Er…. YES!….” followed by an explosion of laughter. “Typically the European model is between 60 and 85% subsidy and that’s a very long way away from us.”

So let’s look at France, where access to the arts and education is guaranteed in Article 13 of the French Constitution and the country’s arts organisations are in receipt of about €15 billion public funds per year.

Or Germany, where Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper is heavily subsidised by both the Free State of Bavaria and the city of Munich.

Bayerische Staatsoper
Bayerische Staatsoper

A spokesman for the Bayerische Staatsoper told Ballet Position public subsidy makes up about 64% of its income. That means each visitor to the House is subsidised to the tune of €117.

And the spokesman noted some houses in Germany enjoy subsidies as high as €250 per visitor.

So, for its current production of Verdi’s Nabucco in Munich ticket prices range from €163 (stalls) to €11 (standing).

For a comparable production in the current season, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, all four hours of it with about 160 people on stage, the price range at Covent Garden was £270 to £13.

Die Meistersingers von Nürnberg, photo Clive Barda c/o ROH
Die Meistersingers von Nürnberg, photo Clive Barda courtesy of ROH

“The subsidy is loaded a little bit more toward the cheaper seats than the most expensive seats,” Alex Beard explains.

“However,” he goes on, “it’s very difficult [to quantify] because the subsidy goes towards supporting our overall business model and we have the year-round costs of an orchestra, the year-round costs of the ballet, the year-round costs of the chorus. (…) You need to have an underpinning level of support.”

Public subsidy, says Alex Beard, creates an obligation to bring the ROH as close to the whole country as possible; thus going some way towards forestalling the accusation that it serves only a metropolitan middle class.

Hence the 12 annual live performance relays to 450 cinemas across the whole of the UK; and the ROH’s active engagement with the audiences of the future with a student scheme that reserves tickets for four performances per year exclusively for a student audience.

“One of my favourite sounds,” says Alex Beard, “is the sound of a school group going into the auditorium for the very very first time, maybe 12/13-year-olds and you hear this collective aaaaahhhhh (he mimics a sharp intake of breath) as they see this wonderful space … and then of course the conductor, the curtain comes up and you’re transported to a different universe (…) That is the ultimate experience.”

Isabella Allen went to Covent Garden for the first time as a six-year-old, taken by her mother to see The Nucracker as a birthday treat.

“I remember thinking the building itself was very impressive, beautiful and ornate — I could tell it was a very special place.”

Now a young graduate just starting her first job, Isabella is looking forward to a different kind of “special”: she’s treating her younger sister to tickets to see Adele live at Wembley Stadium.

Wembley Stadium in gig mode
Wembley Stadium in gig mode

Not for them the top tickets: they’re going for the cheapest, which once you add service and delivery charges still come to about £50 each.

“We will be in row 22, so quite far back and high up, and to the side. But going at all was more important to me than the seats — I spent hours and hours on multiple days queuing for tickets. I’m expecting a really vibrant atmosphere and some very good music!”

So, maybe in these days of immersive, let-it-all-hang-out experiences the label ‘elitist’ attaches more to the expectation of a sedate, straight-laced behaviour in the august surroundings of the Royal Opera House?

Well, says Alex Beard, we can do immersive too!

“We had a student performance of [Shostakovich’s opera] The Nose, where we were working with an immersive theatre group and before the performance there were actors walking around [dressed like] Revolutionary Russian Guards introducing themselves, [saying] ‘Tovarich’ and engaging people in conversation.

The Nose, photo Brian Slater c/o ROH
The Nose, photo Brian Slater courtesy of ROH

“After the performance there was a nightclub atmosphere and it was just amazing. I think it’s super important this. We are creating experiences at a level that people will never forget.”

And experiences that little by little may chip away at the ‘elitist’ image? The ROH can but try…