Photo by Meagan Jordan.
Interview by Scott Dowd. Entire contents copyright ©Fearless Designs, Inc. All rights reserved.
Once again, artistic vision cultivated in warm Decembers of the southern hemisphere is flowing into Louisville. After a global search for a new artistic director, the Louisville Ballet Board of Trustees has selected Robert Curran, choreographer and former principal dancer of The Australian Ballet, who also has a bachelor’s degree in business studies. Like his predecessor, Curran brings a variety of influences to his work and a broad and flexible approach to potential repertoire. I met with Curran last month at the company’s Main Street headquarters to learn more about his vision for the future.
SD: Australia is a big country. Where did you dance there?
RC: The Australian Ballet is based in Melbourne but performs only about 50 of its 200 shows there. Most of the performances are given throughout Australia and around the world.
SD: You spent your entire career as a dancer with that company?
RC: Yes, I joined The Australian Ballet in 1996 and danced with them for sixteen years, retiring in 2011.
SD: Traveling around the world?
RC: That is something anybody in Australia is required to do, since we live so far away from everyone else in the world.
SD: Are you from Melbourne?
RC: I was born in Canberra, grew up in New South Wales, finished high school in Sydney and did two years at the Australian Ballet School before joining the company.
SD: A lot of men come to ballet late. Girls often begin as soon as they are walking.
RC: I came to it very early. I was four. A lot of people do come to it late, especially in Australia and especially coming from the country as I was. Young male ballet dancers were a rarity in Australia in the ’80s. That has since changed. Worldwide, acceptance of male dancers is completely different now.
SD: So you see a change throughout the industry?
RC: Yes. Perceptions of gender, what masculinity and femininity are, have changed dramatically in the past thirty years.
SD: Considering the climate of the times, how did you become interested at such a young age?
RC: My grandmother insisted that I learn to dance because my grandfather was a very good ballroom dancer. The story goes that had he not been such a good dancer my grandmother probably wouldn’t have married him.
SD: Did you get to see him dance?
RC: No, he died many years before I was born. But I was born on his birthday and, being my grandmother’s first grandchild and a boy, I had to learn to dance. She was the force that propelled me in the beginning, but very quickly it became a force much greater than either of us.
SD: Was she able to see you dance professionally?
RC: She did. Although once I was enrolled in ballet, she was incredibly disappointed. That is not what she had in mind. When I started making noises about making it my career, she was even more disappointed. She didn’t see that there was any kind of a sustainable future in ballet as a career. But once I joined The Australian Ballet and certainly once I rose through the ranks as quickly as I did, she started to realize what was going on. She turned around very quickly and became my biggest advocate.
SD: You spent a large percentage of your dance career as a principal. What were some of your favorite roles?
RC: The Australian Ballet has a very broad repertoire that includes a considerable amount of classical works. The list of my favorites is not necessarily linked to the roles themselves, as much as the experiences I had in rehearsing and performing those roles. There are some roles like Albrecht from Giselle that served as huge learning curves for me. When I joined The Australian Ballet, I felt more confident and competent as a partner than a lot of the young men who were joining the company at the time. I was able to maximize those skills. That led me to more roles and more fruitful and educational partnerships with senior ballerinas. I got to dance Giselle with some of the most celebrated ballerinas of The Australian Ballet: Miranda Coney, Lisa Bolte, Nicole Rhodes and especially Lucinda Dunn. Lucinda and I forged an amazing professional relationship. One of the other works that became important to my career was Balanchine’s Theme and Variations.
SD: What was going on at that time?
RC: With Theme and Variations, I had to step up very quickly and very frequently. Like all ballet companies at some time or another, The Australian Ballet was dealing with injuries and there was a week when there was just me. The Australian Ballet does seven performances a week, and I had to do all of them along with whatever else was in the program. I grew a lot during that time, so when I hear the Theme and Variations music, I remember very fondly the challenges that came out of it.
SD: Louisville Ballet has a strong relationship with the Balanchine Trust.
RC: Balanchine is an incredibly important part of the fabric of this country’s ballet industry. His works certainly have a very significant place in my mind and will continue to play a significant role in the future of the Louisville Ballet.
SD: You have said, “There is no good time to stop dancing, but there is a right time.” When did it occur to you that it was time to consider the next stage of your career?
RC: I had been thinking about the next stage for a really long time. Acting on it was circumstantial in that once you’ve been dancing with The Australian Ballet for a certain number of years as a principal, you have some extra time on your hands. In the early years, I was dancing two hundred shows a year. Once I became a principal, that fell to about one hundred. Once that initial workload passed, I was performing about fifty shows a year. With the lighter workload, I had to reallocate my time. Ballet dancers are, as a group, very goal-oriented, and I wasn’t going to sit at home watching TV. I was fortunate in that The Australian Ballet has a very well-funded dancer reeducation program, and I chose to take advantage of that. I thought business would be a good idea, so I started studying. At the same time, I found myself becoming a mentor for a lot of the younger dancers. The Australian Ballet School started offering a teacher-training program, and I thought that would be a good idea if I were going to continue being a mentor.
SD: How did you begin choreographing your own works?
RC: A friend came back from Europe and wanted to find a platform for his creative voice in Australia. I thought it would be great to work with him both in the studio and in a business sense. That is how JACK Productions was born. None of it was planned as a step-by-step series of goals. The opportunities materialized out of a series of circumstances. It wasn’t until much later in my career that somebody pointed out to me that I should be considering a path toward artistic leadership. That’s when I started to consciously develop the skills that would benefit me in this role.
SD: What other sorts of things did you do to prepare yourself?
RC: I began participating in retreats around the world and shadowing important figures in the industry.
SD: When did you finally make the decision to retire from dancing?
RC: Honestly, it was when the thought of it didn’t bring me to a state of emotional upheaval. That’s when I realized it was going to be okay for me to look objectively at my future. Three weeks later, I decided to retire. It was as much a surprise to me as it was to everyone else that I was retiring at thirty-five. But everything landed exactly where it needed to for me to make that decision.
SD: Bruce Simpson worked to bring new movements to the Louisville Ballet. Some of that came out of his experiences in South Africa. Tell me about your experience with indigenous dance in Australia and give me your thoughts on how that fits in with the future of ballet.
RC: That’s a really interesting question. Companies like Bangarra Dance Theatre with links to the indigenous cultures make a unique contribution to the world. Observing how much respect they have for traditions going back more than forty thousand years and how they synergize that with current urban indigenous issues and current performance technologies was a fascinating experience for me. Every arts genre has that same valuable, unique, cultural contribution, and coming to understand that changed my whole focus on dance—and ballet in particular. It gave me new insights into its value and importance. I began to look differently at what ballet offers and what it can give to a dancer as well as to an audience. When I think about Louisville Ballet and what it has to offer, there is much more than coming to see a performance in a theatre in that traditional sense. There is a facility one observes in a classical ballet dancer whether they are wearing their uniform or not. The question becomes, “How can we integrate the tradition that has created that in their bodies and demeanor into a random, one-off act of art?” What does that tradition bring to a pop-up storefront performance or gallery dance event? How can that tradition inform an educational outreach event in new ways? We need to push the traditions behind classical ballet further out into the community without being limited by pointe shoes and tutus.
SD: That is the opposing side of tradition: once it becomes codified, it risks confining the artistic impulses that created it. How do you address current expectations through this process?
RC: Yes, that is a challenge I relish. Ballet doesn’t necessarily need a floor with Marley, pointe shoes, lights and a proscenium. We don’t need to take that with us every time we go out into the community; we have a unique product in those dancers, whether they’re wearing jeans and runners or tights and tutus. No other dance form produces that physique, that approach to movement, that strength in range. We need to take our product out into the community in different ways. I think there is room for choreographers and collaborators to think outside the proscenium. They can find new expressions for the postural, flexible, articulate, detailed approach they have to their work.
SD: Louisville Ballet is in the midst of one of its most time-honored traditions: The Brown-Forman Nutcracker, choreographed by Val Caniparoli. It’s also being performed at The Australian Ballet and all around the world.
RC: That’s a coincidence. I’ve done The Nutcracker in the traditional sense only twice in my career with The Australian Ballet. Australia’s Christmas is in the summer, so The Nutcracker is not a holiday tradition. I’m actually really excited about doing it here. The music is, arguably perhaps, the best ballet score ever written. I get chills when I think about performing the Grand pas de deux (Act II) and the Snow pas de deux (Act I). The music for both finales is sublime. I feel incredibly fortunate that the company has a production of this standard. The Brown-Forman Nutcracker has a high level of integrity both in terms of production values and story.
SD: Val Caniparolli’s interpretation of another classic story follows The Brown-Forman Nutcracker after the New Year on February 13 and 14. Have you worked with Val before?
RC: Yes, I worked with him briefly in Singapore when I was guest ballet master there. His A Cinderella Story is perfectly timed around Valentine’s Day. I’m excited to see another new take on Cinderella. I’ve seen quite a few in the past twelve months as I’ve been traveling, including Alexei Ratmansky’s for The Australian Ballet. Val has a very unique perspective in terms of its era. This is not the Disney version. I’m also excited by his musical choices. He’s using a jazz score composed by Ron Paley from the Richard Rodgers songbook that I think is going to make it very accessible.
SD: Will a vocal component be added? You have said in the past that one of the traditions you would be comfortable breaking with is the exclusive use of mime and pantomime in ballet.
RC: I don’t believe so in this work.
SD: But you don’t chafe at the idea of something in the future? y to explore the deeper elements of the story and take ballet a little further away from the fluffy, light, insubstantial reputation it has.
SD: You are part of a new generation of artistic leadership in Louisville. Have you spent time with Louisville Orchestra’s new artistic director, Teddy Abrams?
RC: Oh, yes. Orchestras all over the country are facing enormous challenges in their operating models, and I think having someone like Teddy is a huge advantage for this community. He is so progressive and open-minded and proactive. When we get together, the discussions become very lofty, frightening and inspiring all at the same time. It’s pretty cool when we get going.
SD: Could you give me your thoughts on where you see the potential for Louisville and Louisville Ballet right now?
SD: When I began researching this company with an eye toward coming here, every touch point made the possibility more exciting. I think Louisville is a rare gem in this country. The breadth of the arts offerings in this city and the support from the community are amazing. I feel so lucky to be working here. I’m very excited to be a part of what is here, and I feel confident that this community can support the growth I envision.
The Brown-Forman Nutcracker will be performed December 6 to 21 in Whitney Hall of The Kentucky Center for the Arts. For more information about the production and the rest of the 2014-2015 Season, go to louisvilleballet.org. For tickets, call 502.584.7777 or go to kentuckycenter.org.