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by Simonetta Dixon
Ballet.co Magazine
May 2010

 

 

The matinee performance of Sleeping Beauty is just finishing when I arrive at the Birmingham Hippodrome. As the audience leaves, I can hear comments such as ‘marvelous’ , ‘wonderful’, ‘what a lovely way to spend a rainy Friday afternoon.’

I can’t think of many better ways to spend a rainy Friday afternoon than in conversation with Robert Parker, Principal Dancer at Birmingham Royal Ballet and the reason for my venturing north of Watford for the first time in many a moon. At the end of a very busy week (BRB had been celebrating its 20th anniversary with galas and parties and interviews) he is chatty, affable, bright and humorous, making me laugh from the start as he tells me how he started dancing as a child: “I had two older sisters who began dancing at the local ballet school in my hometown of Hull. We couldn’t afford a babysitter at the time so my mum used to drag me along. I was bored so I used to make faces at my sisters and the other girls, so eventually the teacher, fed up of my shenanigans, called my bluff and told me to do the next class. So I turned up in my school shorts and trainers, and when I did a grand plie the teacher told my mum that she may have a ballet dancer here!”

Robert soon learned how tough dancing is, and quickly learned to respect it. “I had seen how seriously my sisters took it, and I wanted to be the same. I had to learn about musicality, co-ordination, technique….it was difficult but I remember going home on cloud nine when I got the polka step right; it was as if I’d done something really amazing.”

Being the only boy in the class was very beneficial to him as he “got loads of attention from the teacher and the girls!” He was 10 years old when he went to the Royal Ballet Summer School. His sister had gone to White Lodge but had been assessed out after her first year. However, this did not put young Robert off pursuing his dance studies. “I loved the camaraderie at the Summer School, and being with boys who had the same interest as me, and the bullying stopped.” Was he bullied at school? “Not really too much. I used to get comments like ‘hey, ballet boy’, but I was a happy-go-lucky kid so usually managed to avoid anything too bad. In any case, my dad was a boxer and used to take me along with him to punch the hell out of punching bags, so I could take care of myself pretty much.”

There is quite a lot of contrast between a boxer and a ballet dancer, so I wonder whether there were any problems between father and son regarding Robert’s chosen path? “Not that I know of; he’s never told me that he’s disappointed. I remember the first time I was in the Hull Daily Mail it was for winning the gold medal in a competition, and he was so proud that he cut it out and took it to the pub to show his mates.”

When Robert was accepted into White Lodge, the first person to congratulate him was one of his main tormentors at school, who said “I can’t believe you are going to London; my granddad went there once. All the best of luck!”

His memories of his years at White Lodge are fond ones. “I loved it. You must understand, it is an institution. There were no mobiles or computers back then, so you had a phone card and had to queue for the phone every Sunday to make your call home. If no-one was there, you had to queue again! But I didn’t suffer from homesickness like some of the other kids. And….I got up to all kinds of mischief and still came out smiling at the other end.”

Early in his graduate year in the Upper School, Robert was offered a job at BRB by its then director Peter Wright. This was almost scuppered by a bad injury sustained during a performance of A Month in the Country, but in 1994 Robert joined BRB as a member of the Corps. “I rose up through the ranks, but luck was part of it. David Bintley took over from Peter Wright in 1995, and made Carmina Burana. The role of the Second Seminarian was getting thin due to injuries, and David had spotted me busting a gut in the Corps, so asked me to learn the role and dance it. That was my lucky break.” The energy and attack with which Robert danced this role brought him widespread admiration and attention, and led to offers of more roles, and promotions, attaining Principal in 1999.

During his years as a Principal, Robert has danced with many partners, and is very gentlemanly in refusing to say which ones he has got on with best, or had a special affinity with. “Well I started out as a sort of swing boy, and had all kinds of partners thrown at me; tall, short, whatever. But over the years I’ve had six, maybe seven, regular partners. The pattern has been to have one for a couple of years, then for various reasons move on to the next one. I’ve really enjoyed having so many different ballerinas as partners. It has helped my understanding and partnering skills immensely. I’ve been so lucky to have worked with some really great people.”

His favourite partner, naturally, was his wife, ex-dancer Rachel Peppin. “I partnered her in Romeo and Juliet, and that’s when my eye started, er, roaming!” Robert and Rachel were soon partners offstage as well as on, and now have a two year-old daughter, Olivia. Robert’s final words on partnerships are worth repeating. “Well, I am a yes man, which is why I’ve never had any problems with any of my partners. In my eyes the ballerina is always right, so by making her life easier, I make my life and my job easier! A bit of psychology involved here!”

We move on to talk about all the roles Robert has danced over the years. His absolute favourite is Cyrano, created on him by David Bintley. However, he also adds, “I love narrative ballets. I like to get inside a character and go through all the emotions. But, the prince roles are also very important. They taught me about classical technique, about stamina, about musicality…they really are our bread and butter. You can’t call yourself a fully-rounded dancer until you’ve danced all these classical roles.”

Although, to an outsider, it would appear that he is a natural for these danseur noble roles, with his good looks and statuesque physique, Robert does not think this is the case. “They just don’t lend themselves to my strengths as much as more contemporary or neo-classical works do, or an Ashton or MacMillan role where you have to go much deeper than how high you can jump or how many turns you can do. To me, what is much more important than pure technique is the overall performance. If I can make an audience laugh or cry, then I’ve succeeded in what I set out to do. There are a very few dancers who have it all, but they are rare indeed…superstars!”

Romeo and the Second Seminarian are both roles that are amongst Robert’s favourites. He is known for his energetic performances, and says that the Seminarian “is like being shot out of a cannon, totally ballistic and requiring 150% energy. That is one of my strengths…at least it used to be!” He also surprises himself that “in my old age, I can still manage to dance these roles!”. He is 34….but his approach when he was younger was “you didn’t stop until your lungs were bleeding, your ears popped, not enough oxygen to your brain…I used to really enjoy that kind of challenge.”

The crowning glory of Robert’s career thus far, according to him, is his interpretation of Cyrano, the role created on him by David Bintley. “I was very daunted when preparing for this. I read the Rostand play, I watched the Depardieu film and was just crestfallen. I wasn’t hunky and French, I was boyish and blonde. I just didn’t picture myself as Cyrano. ” However, the more he became familiar with the character, the more confident he became. Also, “growing my hair, putting on the costume and the make-up; all of a sudden I thought ‘hello, I can do this.'” He points out that “we don’t get acting lessons, so the only way we can transmit the character to the audience is by really, really feeling it. Whenever I’m onstage, I have a running commentary going on in my head all the time. I believe if I can feel it and believe it, then so will the audience. Dancers are lucky in that we do everything in chronological order, so we can really get into the flow of things. It’s not like shooting a film where you can film the ending at the beginning, etc. We also have the benefit of the orchestra to set the moods.” One of the reasons he loves Cyrano so much is that he has so much characterisation to work with: “I mean, he comes on as a swashbuckling pig, then is transformed into a sensitive, romantic poet in love…he gets a rose, he looks in the mirror and we see his self-loathing and his anger. And finally, I get to grow old and die onstage. Wonderful!” Robert managed to get so far under Cyrano’s skin that he used to go home in tears after a performance. “Everything had just come to the surface, and had to come out.”

I had heard a story about the famous nose coming off during a performance, and I am delighted to hear that it is not apocryphal…”Yes, it’s true….and naturally it had to be on opening night in London. Talk about sod’s law. I caught it on a bench in Act 2 and some of the glue came off. I could start to feel it waggling, and it was therefore more in my field of vision than normal. I was just about to do my big solo with Roxanne and didn’t know whether to get rid of it or leave it and risk it. I left it, and during my first tour en l’air it went flying off. All of a sudden I had the wonderful feeling of freedom because I didn’t have this big nose in my way, so I really went for it and danced probably the best solo of my life!”

Robert professes to have wound down from dancing any of the classics at this point in his career, but don’t despair: “I have a bet with one of my fellow dancers who says I will be back in these roles by the end of this year!” The reason he is not as negative about this possibility as he might have been is the fact that he has recently spent a year in the warm Florida sunshine. “Just being in that climate, and having a break, has really sorted out my body and all the little niggles, so I’m feeling much better than I had been. I also feel enthused and refreshed and realise how much I love this profession, and how much I missed it when I was gone.”

He had taken a year’s sabbatical to go to the States to train as a pilot, quite a long way from the ballet world. He is all too aware that a ballet career is short, so wanted to try something different. What made him choose this method of soaring through the air, as opposed to that which he had been using all his life? “I’ve always loved and been interested in aviation, so I decided to give it a go and see if I could do it. And, I didn’t want to have any regrets later that I didn’t try anything else.” Robert might very well have done it, but the recession hit when he was quite a way into his training, and pilots started being laid off instead of hired.

The writing was on the wall when he discovered a trained pilot working in the local wine shop, and after he had come back to England to do Desmond Kelly’s gala. “I was so looking forward to that because I missed the stage, my family, friends, the lifestyle. There were times when I sat in my classroom in Florida learning about aerodynamics or watching the latest ‘Air Crash Investigation’ and wondered what I was doing there. For a week we had to watch one air crash programme after the other and it became really depressing. It was then that I heard the R&J balcony music in my head and looked down at myself and said, ‘hey, what am I doing, I’m a ballet dancer, that is what I do.’ There was a bit of identity crisis going on, but I just realised that what I want to do is dance, so I came back to BRB feeling great.”

In addition to taking up his dancing again, Robert is also doing an M.Phil in Philosophy of Education. His experience of being in the RBS and the BRB for so many years is heavily lending itself to his dissertation, which is on the effects of being ‘institutionalised’ and how one copes when one is free of that institution. Doing this degree is another way Robert is preparing for his future. “I am not scared anymore about life after my dancing career. I have proved that I can do something totally different, that I can take risks, and succeed at other things. I am proud of myself as a human being so I am not worried.”

Robert teaches at Elmhurst Ballet School and really enjoys that. I wonder whether he will also add choreography to his list of achievements? “Well I don’t know if I’d be any good at it, but I’ve never done any so I’m not sure. But between the teaching, the degree, my work here at BRB and being a family man, I am incredibly busy and fulfilled and juggling a lot of balls in the air, so I have no definitive answer as to what I will do…you will have to watch this space!”

We conclude the interview when Robert goes to get ready for his performance as the ‘main’ prince in Sleeping Beauty that evening. Not the energetic type of role for which he is known, but very important all the same. “Yes, this is the role where we can get blamed if the Rose Adagio doesn’t go to plan!”.

When I leave the Hippodrome the rain is coming down much heavier, but somehow, for me, the sun was shining.

 

© 2010  Simonetta Dixon

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