Dynamic dancer Robert Parkers career
by Simon Hale
Robert Parker, one of Britain’s most dynamic dancers, retires from the stage this month (June) after an illustrious 18-year career with Birmingham Royal Ballet.
Simon Hale meets him as he prepares for a new life as the head of one of the country’s leading ballet schools.
What made you take up the offer of becoming artistic director at Elmhurst School for Dance in Edgbaston?
I am always looking for the next challenge and opportunities like this to pass on my knowledge and experience don’t arrive every day. People remark that 36 is a relatively young age at which to retire, but I’ve put my body through a lot. I have been preparing for retirement by completing a two-year MPhil degree course in dance, set up by BRB and the University of Birmingham. It means I’ll be going into the job with more credibility and context, plenty of ideas, and enduring artistic associations with the overall plan of making Elmhurst the main ‘feeder’ to Birmingham Royal Ballet and other companies. I will also be maintaining a strong presence in the studio, which is why I am also taking a Royal Academy of Dance Professional Dancers Teaching Diploma this summer.
What have been the highlights of your career?
That day in 1994 when Sir Peter Wright offered me a contract and since then the opportunities his successor David Bintley has given me to develop my career with the roles he has created on me in his narrative ballets. My first principal role was in Kenneth MacMillan’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, but my favourite is David’s ‘Cyrano’. I’ve always been geared to using characterisation and acting skills - even though we don’t have acting lessons at BRB. Cyrano incorporates just about every emotion you can have in ballet from swashbuckling swordsman, comedic genius and war hero to hopeless romantic, jealousy and rage - and you even get to die on stage, a great challenge for any stage actor. The production makes audiences laugh and moves them to tears, which to an artist is completely empowering. Another highlight will always be performing Sir Frederick Ashton’s ‘The Two Pigeons’ at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. 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, including a standing ovation. When the curtain finally lowered I looked round in disbelief. The cast were all looking similarly bewildered and half were in tears. That feeling of instant gratification is something I will greatly miss.
You retired from the stage once before to explore a career in aviation. So what happened?
I’m glad I went off to America to train as a commercial airline pilot. My brain was invigorated with the challenge of learning about all the technical aspects of flying but it didn’t work out and I regard that as a lucky escape. Not only was the industry being hit by recession, making a job afterwards no longer a possibility, but I was finding I was missing the dance world too much. It wasn’t difficult to get back into ballet and in fact my year in Florida made all my old niggles melt away. I returned with a renewed enthusiasm for the profession and although it took a while for me to regain my core stability people were saying to me: ‘Hey, Robert, where the hell did that arabesque come from?’
When you started out, you were the quintessential ‘Billy Elliot’. Now married to former BRB dancer Rachel Peppin, with whom you have a four-year old daughter, can you see ballet becoming a family tradition?
When the film ‘Billy Elliot’ came out in 2000, I thought someone had gone round secretly filming my life story. I was also from Yorkshire and had a teacher just like the Julie Walters character. She got me to join in her ballet class with my sisters after I would stand at the back with my brother after boxing lessons and pull faces. We’ve taken our own daughter Olivia to a couple of ballet lessons and you can tell she’s very keen and likes the structure and discipline. I’d be happy for her to become a ballerina if she wanted to do it, but if it became apparent that she didn’t have a natural affinity for ballet I would probably encourage her to do something else as well. It’s such a tough and competitive profession.