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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A conversation with Birmingham Royal Ballet's Robert Parker

On my recent Tours en l'air trip to England, I had the great honour and privilege of interviewing Birmingham Royal Ballet Principal Dancer Robert Parker for an event for BRB's Friends. (For information on becoming a Friend of BRB, click here.) I have been a huge fan of Robert's since I first saw him in The Two Pigeons when BRB participated in the Lincoln Center Festival's Ashton Festival in 2004, and also since seeing his outstanding performance as the eponymous hero in Bintley's Cyrano (a real shame that no DVD was made of this). I am not alone in this, as he is definitely an audience favourite, being a fabulous dancer, wonderful actor, and warm and charming person. Here is an account of our conversation:
KB: We would all like you to continue dancing forever, but it has recently been announced that you are to take over from Desmond Kelly as Director of the Elmhurst School of Dance in September 2012. Tell us about how you decided to apply for that position?
RP: I first started thinking about what I would do after my dance career when I was recovering from my second knee operation. I had always loved flying so I decided to pursue my dream of becoming a pilot. To be a commercial pilot you have to take full-time training so I retired from BRB for the first time and moved to Florida to take a commercial pilot's course.  The timing was not great; I finished my course just as the market crashed and demand for pilots dropped off drastically. I remember one particularly momentous day. We had heard that hundreds of pilots were about to be laid off from the major airlines. My flight instructor, whom I admired greatly, I thought of him almost as a god, told me that even he had work for only two more weeks and that after that he'd be out of a job. He told me, "Look, if there's ANYTHING ELSE that you know how to do, you should do that.". Dismayed by these dismal prospects, I thought, "Oh dear, I am going to have to go home to Rachel [former BRB dancer Rachel Peppin, his wife] and break the news to her that after all this, I'm not going to be able to get work as a pilot after all." So I thought I'd better stop by the liquor store on the way home to pick up a bottle of wine to soften the blow. The liquor store clerk recognized my uniform from the flying school, and when I asked him how he was familiar with it, he said "I'm a graduate". And he was working as a liquor store clerk! When I got home, before I could say anything, Rachel said, "There's a letter from BRB for you". "Dear Mr. Parker," it said, "Your one-year sabbatical is coming to an end; please let us know if you plan to return to BRB or not". All in one day! It was a sign.... So I came back and danced again, but time marches on, and I have a family to support now, so when the position came up at Elmhurst I thought it was something I would find very fulfilling and the timing is right. I've just finished a degree course with Birmingham University, and I've been teaching one day a week at the school and find it really enjoyable.
Question from the audience: How will it be for you to give up performing? I saw you last night as Captain Belaye in Pineapple Poll and you had us in the audience in the palm of your hand [you can see why in this video clip], and you must know that. Won't it be difficult to give that up?
RP: What we do is a drug, there's no doubt about it. And if someone could give me bionic legs, of course I would never give it up. But there's also an immense, if different satisfaction, in giving a student a correction, seeing them assimilate it and then, wow, their turn is better or their jump is higher or whatever because of something I was able to give them.
KB: What sorts of things do you have in mind for the school?
RP: I want to make it one of the top schools for ballet in the world! Ideally I would love it to be located right across the street from the theatre, connected by a little bridge.... [as the Royal Ballet School is to the Royal Opera House]. Funding is going to be difficult at the moment, so that will definitely be a big challenge. One of the things I have started investigating is the idea of a performance by the Elmhurst students supported by the orchestras of the King Edward's schools. They're very keen. Desmond Kelly has said he is happy to keep advising me any way he can.
Question from the audience: Will we still be seeing you dance this season?
RP: Mr Bintley has made it quite clear that I am still under contract as a BRB dancer till next September!
KB: Let's talk a little about what you consider some of the highlights of your 18-year career.
RP: That Two Pigeons performance in New York was definitely one. Throughout the first part of the ballet we weren't sure how the audience was reacting, they seemed kind of quiet. But then when the curtain came down at the end, we all heard the roar from them [the audience leaped to its feet as one after the final pas de deux];  the girls in the company were crying during the curtain calls, they were so moved. Also Cyrano was the best experience I have ever had with a ballet. Your character makes such a journey from a swashbuckling swordsman to a sensitive lover; you get to feel everything: love, jealousy, regret, death. It was fabulous. [Note from KB: if you ever get a chance to see Cyrano, grab it!!!]  There was one time at a performance in London when my nose fell off.... One of the reviewers went on at great length about how this happened at a crucial juncture in the ballet to show symbolically how I rose above my disfigurement!
KB: Speaking of unforeseen incidents, you must have some good pigeon stories to tell us... Two Pigeons  is on the program again in February. Tell us about the particular challenges of dancing with a pigeon on your shoulder...
RP: You should never perform with children or animals!!  You know, I used to wear my hair quite long at the back (people call it my mullet days), and you have to spray your hair with hairspray, which made it kind of like straw. So the pigeon sitting on my shoulder would think "Hey, great material for making a nest with!" and start pecking away at it... There are actually four different birds, they're each trained to do a different part of the ballet. There's a point in the ballet where I have to hold out my hands to the front for the pigeon to fly on to and perch, and you have to hold your hands right in the spotlight because that's what the bird aims for. This didn't happen to me but to Wolfgang Stollwitzer; he held out his hands, the bird flew onto them but then decided that the auditorium looked more interesting and took off heading towards the audience. For some reason the bird has a long thin wire attached to its legs, so Wolfgang grabbed a hold of the end of the wire just in time and hauled the bird back in, flapping and squawking. The pigeons we had in New York City, I don't know where they came from, they looked like someone had just picked them up in Times Square, not like the nice white doves we have here. One of them had a bloodshot eye. And they weren't very well trained. In the final pas de deux, the second one is supposed to fly in and land on the chairback with its mate. It just flew to the centre of the stage and started pecking around! But amazingly, just as the final chord of the music swelled, it remembered where it was supposed to go and flew to perch on the chair above my and Nao's intertwined arms, it was almost as if it was planned that way!

[For a lovely photo gallery of Robert in Two Pigeons, click here, and for a (pigeonless) rehearsal video of the final pas de deux, with Nao Sakuma, click here; for a BBC audio item on how the pigeons are trained, click here]
KB: Tell us about your daughter Olivia. Is she dancing?
RP: She's definitely dancing, I just don't know what genre you would call it! She's three and a half, and she's recently started to get really interested in ballet. I took her on the tour to York, and of course all the ballerinas made a fuss over her, trying their tiaras on her and so on, and she loved it. For sure I think she should take ballet classes when she's old enough; I think all little girls should take ballet: it's so good for posture, grace, musicality, discipline. And if she really really wants to be a dancer, of course I would support that. I think it's harder for girls wanting to make a career in ballet than for boys, because there's more competition and because of that the schools can be pickier about what they consider the perfect ballet body characteristics. God forbid she has my feet or thighs... But really, if you're determined, you can overcome even that. My entire school career I was told that I didn't have what it took to be a ballet dancer, and it just made me more determined to show them!
Question from the audience: You said "every little girl...". What about boys, do you think they should take ballet as well?
RP: Well of course it offers the same benefits for boys as for girls, but for boys there's still that stigma. It's maybe not as bad as it was but it's still there.
Question from the audience: What's wrong with your feet?
RP: What ISN'T???
KB: I want to talk a little about Japan. I have Japanese friends who are ballet fans, like so many people there, where they're crazy about ballet, and I know it meant a lot to them that BRB didn't cancel its tour to Japan after the tsunami. Many ballet companies and guest dancers did, and the Japanese felt as if they were being abandoned in their hour of need, so the fact that BRB went was enormously appreciated.
RP: Of course we were all concerned, because there was so much conflicting information, especially about the radiation, we didn't know which reports to believe. We weren't so worried about the aftershocks. When we got there, there were these controlled power outages, but really it just meant that maybe one escalator would be stopped while the other was still working. We got the feeling that the audiences felt that perhaps they shouldn't be enjoying themselves when tens of thousands of people had died, so the mood was a little sombre. At one of the performances we dancers actually went out in the intermissions with buckets to collect donations, and it was astounding how generous people were.
KB: I know all of us here tonight have a store of wonderful "Robert Parker moments" in our memories which we will cherish as highlights of our careers as ballet-goers, and we'd like to thank you for all of them.

I also had a chance to chat with Robert before the interview and was able to ask him a few more questions: KB: What particular challenges does BRB's current program hold, in particular Symphonic Variations, which is notorious for testing dancers' stamina.
RP: The opening of the ballet, where the men stand still while the women dance, is one of the most challenging parts, because the muscles cramp up, and it's just hard to hold the same position for almost two minutes, staring at the same spot on the floor.
KB: This is the second time you're retiring. Is it any different, and are you constantly thinking, "Oh, this is the last time I'll perform this role; I'll never have the chance to dance it again"?
RP: I don't do that anymore. Never say never! I remember the first time I retired, I was performing Romeo, and I was constantly thinking that -- "I'll never have the chance to do this again" -- and since then I've danced Romeo six or seven times!

For other interviews with Robert Parker, click here and here.

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