Artistic Director, Elmhurst School for Dance
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 12 May 2015
DAVID BAIN INTRODUCED ROBERT PARKER who had last spoken to the Association in 2007 just before he had gone to train as a pilot in Florida.
Since then Bob had applied for, and been appointed to, the role of Artistic Director of the Elmhurst School for Dance. He had long been associated with the school and the timing was good; he was doing a degree and knew that retirement from Birmingham Royal Ballet was coming. He had been teaching at the school, for example ballet pas de deux, and repertoire. “I felt I had a moral obligation to pass on what you have learnt”. Since returning from Florida he had been an ambassador for the Company at the school.
“I never thought of myself as a teacher, I had taught at Summer schools and knew I had a good rapport with the students which is extremely important but never saw myself as doing it full time.” However, that all changed after a particular event when a boy in a Pas de deux class executed a drape lift for the first time, Bob remembers his face of joy and felt he had made a difference to his young life. He realised that passing on his knowledge was what he wanted to do. He completed RAD teacher training after retiring as a dancer with distinction. The interview for Elmhurst was a great experience, his first one ever. He prepared by developing his ideas for the school. In the interview he spoke at length about what he had learnt in Florida during his year away which would help in his new role; crew resource management, communication skills, uncompromising deadlines, critical thinking, that sort of thing. He actually experienced a couple of near death moments during training as a result of weather and technical malfunction; you must keep calm and think logically.
His first task in the new role was to produce an artistic vision document. He is a collaborative leader, so he conducted a “self supported review” (lesson observations, review sessions). He gave the staff a voice, their ideas were incredible. This fed into the vision. There were big “pie in the sky” ideas to “nitty gritty” timetable ideas. Everyone was brought in. For example, extending ballet lessons from one and a half hours to two hours to allow the tutor to go into greater depth or to incorporate additional pointe work or pilates. He also included bespoke activities on a Friday afternoon which support dance training such as, yoga, swimming, plyometrics, Dalcroze Eurhythmics. The latter being instrumental in teaching musicality and something that Robert attributes to his own musicality.
Children can also get into the sunlight and fresh air. He made a link with King Edward’s school to access a swimming pool, running tracks, etc. and in return Elmhurst students develop their leadership skills helping the KEHS students with their end of year performances. He has invited guest choreographers such as Mikaela Polley and Russell Maliphant. There have been many positive changes over the last few years with tremendous support from staff, students and parents.
One of the student’s desires was to perform in a large scale theatre. Robert met the conductor of the King Edward school orchestra at a recital and floated the idea of a collaboration which led to a performance in the KES new performing arts centre, the Ruddock Hall. Peter Wright granted permission to perform his production of Swan Lake and even came to take rehearsals. It was a joy to see the orchestra and ballet students appreciating each other’s disciplines and experiencing a theatrical environment for the first time. One boy expressed a fear of falling into the orchestra pit! David Bintley rehearsed hands on with the students for Penguin Café, “he really put them through their paces!” – a proper experience of company expectations. This year they are performing at the Rep Theatre, the first time they can sell tickets to the public. They are using professional costumes, lighting and so on and all of the students will be involved in every performance. The shows start on 2nd July, with two shows on Friday and a Saturday matinée. The theatre seats 844 and ticket sales are going well.
Recruitment and retention are strong priorities at Elmhurst. There are 194 students next year, twenty up on last year. Retaining the best students can also be a challenge but things are improving with the support of David Bintley and the growing association with the company. Bob has also been raising the international profile of the school. He volunteered to teach at Youth American Grand Prix (YAGP) and many competitors have visited the school as a result. The school has state of the art facilities which make it an attractive proposition. They have a holistic approach to training and education – live, dance, learn. A rounded academic education and a dancer’s health are very important. Dancers are being trained to have a self health awareness – nutrition, strength and conditioning, performance psychology etc. They have fantastic links to both Wolverhampton and Birmingham Universities as well as Dance UK and IADMS who have held conferences at Elmhurst.
There is much one can learn from the sports sector in harnessing the potential of a dancer, extending their careers and hopefully minimising the risk of injury. They have come a long way already but Bob still gets frustrated that changes can’t happen immediately and is constantly told that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nicol Edmonds and Melissa Hamilton kindly performed in a gala last season and this helped to celebrate the successes of former Elmhurst students. Bob is trying to instil creativity and autonomy in the students which is vital for today’s industry. The graduate students put on their own annual performance and are responsible for content, casting, choreography and production, including lighting design, costume hire, finances, box office, catering and producing the programmes. Bob invites Artistic Directors from companies around the UK and Europe to come and watch this performance in addition to their ballet appraisal so they can view their versatility.
The last time Bob spoke to the Association was just before he left for America to become a professional pilot. He will never forget or regret this period. It was a great time of reflection and taught him lots of life lessons outside the comfort zone of the ballet world. “In the company everything was done for us, flights and hotels were booked, schedules were put up every week and we didn’t really have to think independently. The only forward planning I had to worry about was where to go for my summer holiday!” Making the transition and moving to the US was a major step and Robert knew that if it was to work financially he would have to give it 100%. His wife, Rachel Peppin, was pregnant at the time and they had bought a house when they arrived in Florida. At first things were very positive in the academy, in the right place at the right time. The demand for pilots was high and even American Airlines came to the academy to talk to the students and identify talent for their programme.
The discipline of the ballet training held him in good stead and he studied hard, his lowest mark was 97%. Then at the end of the year he started to hear rumours that the industry was going “belly up” – this was the end of 2007. The economy took a turn for the worse and the airlines were in trouble. In one week American Airlines laid off an unprecedented 400 pilots and six regional airlines went into administration. After discussing his future with the career advisor his fears were confirmed. With his newly acquired Commercial pilot’s license in hand, he turned to his former instructor for advice. This instructor, who Robert had a deep respect for and described as one of the most intelligent people on the planet had left to join a regional airline. His instructor confirmed the outlook and explained that he was also to be made redundant. The situation was likely to continue for the next five years or so. Robert’s heart sank and decided he had to break the bad news to Rachel. He stopped for a drink on the way home. The barman noted that he had just qualified as a commercial pilot by identifying the stripes on the epaulettes on Robert’s uniform. How did he know? Well he was a qualified pilot too, working in a bar to earn money between jobs, another sign. When he arrived at home Rachel handed him a letter from BRB which arrived that same day. “Is it your intention to return to BRB after your year’s sabbatical?” Robert remembers thinking, someone is try to tell me something! Returning to his first love of dance was a no brainer. David said they wanted him back. “And by the way, Cyrano is coming back” – that was his last big creation.
He had learnt so much and returned with renewed vigour. It was odd going back to class and it took about a month to regain his core strength. However, the heat of Florida had been a positive thing and Robert found that scar tissue accumulated over his career had dissipated and his knees (two operations) were greatly improved.
Bob has two sisters and a brother. There was no baby sitter so he was dragged along to his sisters’ ballet classes. He would sit there trying to put his sisters off, pulling faces until the rather severe teacher had had enough and dragged him up to the barre. He was the only boy. She made him do a grand plié whereupon she turned to his mother and said “you have a ballet dancer here”. He remembers when he first learnt to do a Polka step, he was so excited. He was very scared of the girls so would stand at the barre frozen to the spot before lessons, and they would tease him and say “I’m going to kiss you”! The teacher was very good at encouraging him with stories of former (mythical) pupils who could jump so high they would hit their heads on the ceiling. When he received a gold medal at a local competition and his name appeared in the Hull Daily Mail Robert realised that he may have the talent.
Today, when young boys are are having a hard time with being teased for doing ballet he comforts them with a story about a bully at his school in Hull. The bully was really mean to him, he was much older and towered over him, called him a “sissy”, “nancy” and so on. Then in assembly it was announced that Robert was leaving for London, to White Lodge. Later in the playground the same boy made a beeline for Bob, who braced himself. But the boy put his arm around Bob and said how proud he was of him, “You go for it!”. He was about ten years old.
Training at White Lodge was pretty harsh back then with teaching practices from some individuals that wouldn’t be allowed today. However, his upbringing had taught me “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”. He learnt discipline which is paramount to the success of a dancer. However, Bob believes you can achieve the same results without having to crack the whip and instil fear. In the Upper School he took full advantage from sharing the premises with the Royal Ballet Company and observed them in rehearsals as often as possible. He loved the acting side of dance and was inspired by dancers such as Irek Mukhamedov. His teacher at school was great at grabbing someone off the corridor to demonstrate to the boys. Once Tetsuya Kamakawa was called in to demonstrate Mercutio’s variation. It was incredible. This learning from observing continued throughout Robert’s career and he learned his artistry and stage presence from greats such as Desmond Kelly, Marion Tait, Michael O’Hare, Wolfgang Stollwitzer and Joe Cippola.
Contact with the professionals is crucial and involves the BRB dancers in Elmhurst as often as possible. In the 6th form students get to perform with the company on a regular basis. As part of the focus on retention the Year 11 students are given a taster of this taster of this, and put them on a 6th form timetable, work with dancers from the company in rehearsal, recently Céline Gittens and Robert taught them the pas de deux from Slaughter on 10th Avenue, a great trip down memory lane! Robert also gives them a tour of the theatre in preparation for working with the company and explain the life of a professional dancer.
When Bob joined BRB he danced in Carmina Burana and David spotted him in the corps. His first big break came when a replacement was needed for the 2nd Seminarian through injury. David gave Bob an opportunity to show him the solo in rehearsal. He went for broke and danced as though his life depended on it. The next thing he remembered was doing the opening night at the Opera House. David approached him afterwards “That was **** fantastic. You stopped the performance”. Afterwards Wayne Sleep said “Darling that was amazing, that applause, almost took me back to when I was performing”. It was a very memorable moment.
Bob and David had a great working relationship which became so instinctive that Bob could tell what David wanted just by the expression on his face. It made the creative process very smooth and efficient. Bob had planned to leave for Florida in 2006 but delayed it by a year in order to create the role of Cyrano in his re-working of the original. David said “There is no Cyrano” without you”. Of course he stayed. He’d seen Irek Mukhamedov and Stephen Jeffries perform the role when he was at school and loved the role. Only David could choreograph so much into the role, and he had known that Bob was right for it. “It was without doubt my favourite role and would challenge me both emotionally and physically. There was so much content to challenge you as an actor from swash buckling hero through anger, love, jealousy, comedy to growing old, and even the challenge of dying on stage. The sword play was choreographed by a professional fight coordinator and extremely complex with no two strokes the same so concentration was required to avoid taking someone’s eye out. The costume was heavy, the choreography requiring extreme stamina and of course you had to contend with the nose! It was wonderful! Of course, working with Iain Mackay and Elisha Willis was great, between them they had the instinct to put things right during the show when something went wrong.”
There were so many partners, Ambra Vallo was his first Juliet, which he then danced with his future wife Rachel Peppin in Bristol, all partners were a joy to work with. When he was very young he had the opportunity to work with leading ballerinas such as Monica Zamora, Cathy Bachelor, Leticia Muller and Sabrina Lenzi. Bob didn’t consider himself a natural partner but he learnt so much from these dancers and became a conscientious partner and a safe pair of hands. “Sometimes through injuries I was required to partner three different ballerinas in a week for a full-length ballet with no rehearsal which was very stressful. However, it made me a better partner, forced me to be adaptable and I received a great deal of stage time as a result. So my confidence and artistry also grew.” Maybe he had had seven or eight long term partners over his career, there were no favourites, he had a great connection with all of them. He was easy to get on with, didn’t argue and of course it was always the man’s fault if something went wrong!
Desmond Kelly was a great mentor, especially with the partnering. He imparted so much knowledge and as artistic advisor of the school, he still has a strong presence and is someone he can call on for support.
Robert finished by saying how much they love the Ballet Association visits. It is great for the students to have a knowledgeable audience, and the Association creates a great atmosphere.
Report written by Chris Scott, corrected by Robert Parker and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2015.