Pas de deux

A “Season of Romance” blooms for Robert Curran and Louisville Ballet

By Laura Ross

Art Direction: Cherie Pérez

Photography: Sam English

Make Up: Jessica Kelley

Styling: Miranda McDonald

He thrilled audiences worldwide for more than a decade as the principal artist for the Australian Ballet. He then took a professional leap beyond his dancing career, which landed him in Louisville in 2014 as the artistic and executive director of Louisville Ballet. His passion for dance, thirst for education and spirit of collaboration spurs him forward every day. His name is Robert Curran.

A native of Australia, Curran, 42, began dancing as a child. He later trained at the Australian Ballet School and enjoyed a career as a star and principal artist of the Australian Ballet. During his time with that company, he also gained three academic degrees in business, theater and teaching. He retired from professional dance in 2011.

Louisville Ballet’s charming and affable yet enigmatic leader is happy to promote his company of dancers and staff. “We made a choice early on that it was about the artform and company, not me,” he said. “I had my great time in the spotlight in Australia for 16 years. Our focus is on this generation of dancers.”

With his wildly successful career that spanned worldwide stages, Curran’s entry into a city the size of Louisville was a challenge. “I was working in New York City, and prior, had my career in Australia,” he said. “Coming from the population centers of Melbourne and Sydney, with around nine million people and a budget that’s more than ten times what it is in Louisville, was bold.”

He added, “I came with that background of what is possible with what can be achieved. I knew I had to do it differently here, but the boldness comes from that worldwide experience I have. I’ve danced in the U.S., Europe, Australia, Southeast Asia and China, and seeing what the rest of the world is doing with ballet has really informed what I feel is possible here. Louisville is one of the few cities its size in the U.S. that has that potential to be great.”

With that in mind, Curran is excited to launch the ballet’s new “Season of Romance.” It premieres Sept. 7 and 8 at the Kentucky Center for the Arts’ Whitney Hall with an ambitious world premiere of “Romeo + Juliet,” reimagined in a modern setting. It will be the first show held in the Kentucky Center since its devastating fire in June 2018. “Romeo + Juliet” is followed by an evening of ballet inspired by the powerful music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the return of the raw and emotional “Human Abstract.” The season also includes the holiday tradition of “The Brown-Forman Nutcracker,” as well as the timeless classic “Cinderella.” In 2019, the Choreographers’ Showcase brings audiences an intimate look at the ballet’s extraordinary dancers in a new setting in collaboration with the Kentucky College of Art + Design.

The romantic theme for this season is a natural choice. “Relationships don’t come perfectly wrapped,” said Curran.  “They can be tough. This ‘Season of Romance’ is a love letter from our company to our community.”

Curran argues that romance in all forms binds people together. “Whether you’re the prince in ‘Cinderella,’ you’re Romeo or Juliet or you’re in a same-sex relationship like ‘Human Abstract,’ romance is key,” said Curran. “It’s tragic, hopeful, progressive, brave – it’s all a part of what makes us human. I look at myself in the mirror. I’m a single guy, far away from home, and my humanity is the same as anyone else’s. I don’t want to be alone forever. We can all relate to those feelings.”

“Romeo + Juliet” is choreographed by Adam Hougland, with a classic musical score by Sergei Prokofiev and performed live by the Louisville Orchestra.

“In a world that is becoming increasingly polarized, I cannot think of a more relevant piece than ‘Romeo + Juliet,’” said Hougland. “Two feuding families whose children end up paying the ultimate price could be a headline from today’s paper.”

Curran works closely with choreographers like Hougland, and he is also stepping into the role, as well, for Mozart. “I want to create innovative dance programs,” said Curran. “I call on my international network to bring their perspective and creative process here to educate me and others and take this community into the global conversation in a way they might not think they should.”

Curran acknowledges that breaking the mold and boldly moving Louisville Ballet toward a more collaborative and experimental model can be uncomfortable for people. “I don’t compromise my standards, I commit to new work and I don’t apologize for how fast I want to go,” he said. “I think some people might be a little put off by that, but it’s not intentional. There’s stuff I need to get done now, and tomorrow I can move on to whatever comes next.”

Part of that effort is by fostering collaborations with other arts organizations and building new audiences. “The traditional ballet companies of the past were so stuck in their lane, they never really realized what was possible in terms of cross-genre collaborations, which is strange, because you go back a century ago and that was what it was all about,” Curran said. “It was mixing visual arts and dance and design and fashion. But, then, we fell into this rut of siloed mediocrity.”

Curran believes strongly in joining forces with others. “We built into our strategic plan that we will collaborate with a major performing arts group every year for one of our main stage productions,” he said. “Our city has so much to offer with its rich arts scene across multiple genres. It’s at the core of how we operate. It’s what Louisville Ballet is all about.

“You can’t do that in every city, especially in the big cities, where getting the institutions to work together is too difficult,” he continued. “I don’t think Louisvillians realize how much they’ve got right here, and how exciting it is to have that vibrancy in the arts. We’ve got to move faster, think globally and we can’t sit back and rest on our manners and how it was always done previously.

“It’s not OK for us to roll out the same productions every year,” he said. “A commitment to new work inspires our company and speaks to a new generation. We can re-contextualize the classics, but we also must tell today’s stories. Once you’ve seen three ‘Sleeping Beauties,’ you’ve seen them all. We need to create the ‘Sleeping Beauties’ of tomorrow.”

On reflection, he said, “I’m lucky, in some senses, that I have had an international career; lucky I got to be a principal dancer with one of the world’s most important companies; and lucky I had support through the educational degrees I have. But it comes with a dark side as well. I’m still coming to terms with retiring from dancing. I started when I was four and retired when I was 35, and it’s almost like a breakup, with a mourning and grieving period for that time in your life.”

But, there is no more time to grieve. Curran is ready to take Louisville Ballet to the next level. “I’m so proud of what this company has achieved over the last four years,” he said. “I have a level of impatience and a hunger for wanting to shake the city and say, ‘Come on, catch up. We can be extraordinary.’ We can do it better than others. I’ve seen the arts scenes in other cities explode and carry them forward. If anyone can do it, we can. Let’s go!” V

Subscription packages to the Louisville Ballet’s 2018-2019 Season of Romance, start at just $63.50 for only two shows, and are available at Louisville Ballet’s website (louisvilleballet.org), box office or by phone at 502.58.DANCE.

Louisville Ballet’s “Season of Romance”

Romeo + Juliet – Sept. 7-8

Mozart – Oct. 12-13

The Brown-Forman Nutcracker – Dec. 8-23

Choreographer’s Showcase – Jan. 31-Feb. 3

Human Abstract – Feb. 28-March 3

Cinderella – April 5-6