Spring Passions: An Interview with Robert Parker

Birmingham Royal Ballet are back at London’s Coliseum for their annual Spring season. Tonight’s performance is particularly special as it sees leading man Robert Parker officially retiring from London stages in Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Two Pigeons.

Distinguished by his pure English style and fabulous acting skills, Parker had many roles created on him, notably in David Bintley (Cyrano, Arthur, Beast – Beauty and the Beast – Orpheus - The Orpheus Suite, and Hamlet - The Shakespeare Suite). He is a big favourite here at The Ballet Bag, so ahead of this last performance in London, we could not pass up the opportunity to ask him a few questions:

The Ballet Bag: This is your last visit to London before you retire from Birmingham Royal Ballet. How are you feeling?

Robert Parker: Performing in London always feels special, particularly because I have so many friends and family who come to watch me perform. Of course this also means that I have to spread myself extremely thin in order to see everyone. As this is my final performance in London, and for one night only, the pressure to do a good show will certainly be increased!

I hope I don’t disappoint!

Birmingham Royal Ballet's Robert Parker

BRB's Robert Parker Photo: Richard Battye ©

TBB: Can you tell us a bit about your experiences with The Two Pigeons: is it a very tricky piece to perform? David Bintley told us a very funny anecdote about it a while ago. What are your own stories about this ballet?

RP: I have always enjoyed performing the Ashton repertoire and in particular The Two Pigeons. It perfectly combines emotional content with Ashton’s typical ‘tongue in cheek’ humor. Along with the choreography I feel that it lends itself very well to my dancing style and acting ability.

Performing the ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City will always be one of the greatest highlights of my career. The dancers and orchestra were ‘on fire’ that night and we received one of the most rapturous responses from the audience that I’ve ever experienced, along with a standing ovation. When the curtain finally lowered I remember glancing back at the rest of the cast in disbelief. They were all wearing similar looks of bewilderment and over half of them had tears running down their faces! Absolutely brilliant!

Nao Sakuma and Robert Parker in The Two Pigeons

Nao Sakuma as the Young Girl and Robert Parker as the Young Man Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

Of course, along with the obvious highlights of performing such a classic, comes the unpredictability of working along side the two avian divas who claim the title role! How can I put this? Well, let me see…

Have they ever sabotaged my performance by altering the choreography at the last minute? Definitely! Have I ever been defecated on? Of course! During one performance in which I was sporting long hair and a lot of hair spray, one pigeon even decided to make a nest from my straw like hair and actually succeeded in yanking a clump from my head! Agony! In fact, that particular culprit was definitely of American descent. I remember being quite intimidated by his intense beady eyes while he glowered at me, wings folded and chewing gum!

TBB: David Bintley has created many ballets on you. Can you tell us your favorites or the ones where he challenged you the most? Will you be involved in coaching them for the company?

RP: Where do I start? I have always enjoyed a close working relationship with David particularly during the creative process. I think we’ve always had a shared understanding of movement, style, expression and musicality. Whether this is a result of similar schooling or just that we are both from ‘Up North’.

I’m not really sure, but it certainly makes for efficiency in the studio and an almost telepathic communication. Although extremely challenging, David’s style of choreography has always suited my physical and artistic attributes, allowing me to grow in confidence and progress as an artist, effectively giving me the rewarding career that I’ve had. Considering that I was told at school that I would never become a classical dancer, I owe a lot to David.

Elisha Willis and Robert Parker in Cyrano

Elisha Willis as Roxane and Robert Parker as Cyrano Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

As for my favourite role? That’s easy: Cyrano. No question. The entire creative process was a blast from start to finish and because it was the final ballet that would precede my first retirement, I savoured every minute. As with all of David’s narrative ballets, the characters are richly textured and layered allowing freedom of individual interpretation. Cyrano was no exception. In addition to being a physically demanding role, it requires an entire catalogue of emotions from an artist’s toolbox and leaves you both physically and emotionally drained. From swashbuckling swordsman, comedic genius and war hero to feelings of insecurity, self-loathing, envy and hopeless romantic, each emotion is clearly defined yet seamless from one to the next, requiring an almost ‘method acting’ approach in order to convince the audience of the passage of time and to also give a convincing performance. Of course the cherry on the cake is the opportunity to die on stage, a great challenge for any stage actor. I used to pride myself on my ability to die with both eyes open offering a vacant and glassy stare to the audience. This was until a bead of sweat ran into my eye one performance causing me to blink uncontrollably, shattering the illusion in the process!

If time would allow in my new job, yes I would love to offer my services in a coaching capacity, particularly in the narrative works.

TBB: This is the second time you retire but you are still dancing at a very high level. How did you know this was definitely the time to hang up your shoes?

I don’t know if you ever really know when the time is right to hang up the ballet shoes. I suppose it depends on your individual circumstances and mindset. Personally, I still experience the raw passion and love for performance that I did when I was a youngster and there is still no place on earth that I would rather be. Having said that, you have to be realistic and the sooner you make preparations for life after the performing career, the smoother the transition will be.

Gaylene Cummerfield and Robert Parker in Powder

Gaylene Cummerfield and Robert Parker in Stanton Welch's Powder Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

I have always had the desire to retire at the top of my game before I become so long in the tooth that I become an embarrassment, however this is easier said than done. For many, being forced to turn one’s back on the institution they have known since very young and which has shaped their very identity can be a harsh reality to face. This situation can pose a huge dilemma for ageing dancers who are facing the realities of career mortality for the first time. Not only are they leaving behind the exhilaration of performance, sense of privilege and exclusivity in pursuing such an unusual career, often perceived as glamorous and elitist, but also the camaraderie and sense of belonging which characterises a company’s social culture. I am no different, yet the one advantage I have is that I have already experienced retirement from dance and know what to expect.

Of course, this time round I will be just ten minutes down the road and still fully immersed in the profession that I know and love. Becoming the new Artistic Director of Elmhurst School for Dance is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to pass on my knowledge and experience of the profession to the next generation of aspiring youngsters. From a personal perspective I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to further my professional development and look forward to the exciting challenges ahead.

TBB: How are you preparing for this new role? Looking back at your career, what lessons did you learn and what do you hope to pass on to those aspiring youngsters?

RP: More than three years previous to the advertisement of the Elmhurst position, I had already been making assertive efforts to prepare for my inevitable retirement from the stage. After returning from the United States in 2008 I embarked on a Masters degree with the University of Birmingham in partnership with the Birmingham Royal Ballet which was an initiative to enable professional dancers to obtain a degree around their commitments to the company while providing a valuable contribution to the academic world which is relatively deficient of material in dance. I was extremely grateful for the opportunity and pleased to have been awarded my Masters of Philosophy.

Elmhurst School for Dance

Elmhurst School for Dance Photo: BRB ©

I also applied and was accepted for the 2012 Rural Retreat for aspiring Artistic leaders and Directors, conceived and hosted by DanceEast to support existing and future dance leaders in the development of the art form. It brought together twenty six aspiring leaders from across the globe to share their experiences, build networks and promote collaboration. It was one of the most intense and deeply rewarding five days spent with stimulating company and inspirational guest speakers such as Alistair Spalding, David McAllister, Dan Topolski and Sir John Hegarty. Since accepting the position I have been striving to learn as much about the inner workings of the organisation as possible and have visited similar schools around Europe in order to gain a broader perspective. When not required at BRB, I have been able to attend meetings and events pertinent to the position and have been fortunate to attend and adjudicate the auditions and appraisals for the 2012 academic year. I also teach the graduate ballet class on a voluntary basis every Monday morning. This has been a great way to familiarise myself with the building and its inhabitants and also to increase my level of teaching experience.

It is extremely important for me to maintain a strong presence in the studio once I begin in September and for this reason, I have applied and been accepted onto the Royal Academy of Dance Professional Dancers Teaching Diploma course which I will attend from June until August. I have also been actively seeking possible collaborations with external organisations which could be an exciting prospect for raising the profile of the school and providing valuable performing opportunities.

Watch Robert Parker in rehearsal with Nao Sakuma for The Two Pigeons:

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Spring Passions, featuring The Two Pigeons and Daphnis and Chloë, runs at the London Coliseum 13 & 14 (mat & eve) March 2012.

The company also performs Sir Peter Wright’s production of Coppélia between 15 and 18 March 2012.

For tickets and further information visit English National Opera’s website.

We started The Ballet Bag in April 2009 with the mission to prove that ballet is not stuffy, old fashioned and inaccessible; that it is quite the opposite: relevant, fresh and topical. With the aim to Give Ballet a New Spin we try to show it under a different light. When writing our capsule biographies, ballet fact cards, review roundups and commentary on social media, we cross it over with other art forms and cultural references (pop culture, cinema, rock music – ie. other things we love!).