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Robert Fairchild

The dashing NYCB principal talks ballet.

Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images
A GOD IS BORN Fairchild performs Apollo at the Kennedy Center with, from left, Sterling Hyltin, Ana Sophia Scheller and Tiler Peck.

Sometimes it's good to trust your sister. When Robert Fairchild was an aspiring jazz dancer, Megan Fairchild—the New York City Ballet principal—told him to consider attending the School of American Ballet, just for a summer, to clean up his technique. He came to New York, watched Peter Boal perform Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream and changed his dance path. Now, Robert Fairchild, 23, is one of the most vibrant principals at NYCB. After making his debut in Apollo at the Kennedy Center, he was supposed to dance the iconic part during the company's first week of performances, but an injury will keep him off the stage. (Apollo will return at the end of the season; as of press time, Chase Finlay takes over in his own debut.) Days before his injury, Fairchild spoke about what it's like to get your dream part.

Early this month you performed your first Apollo in Washington, D.C. How did it go?
I put so much pressure on myself, just knowing who had done it before me, and obviously, that's so wrong. You need to be yourself in it. With that said, I watched a lot of tapes of Peter Martins and Nikolaj [Hbbe] and Peter Boal and Ib [Andersen] and tried to find my way into it, and it wasn't until the very end of the rehearsal process that I felt like I was just starting to scratch the surface. Peter Martins said, "You need to do less of you." I was trying to do something with it. How silly of me to think that I had to bring something to this! If you're just you in it and you're just doing the steps, that's what makes it so powerful. It's such a hard concept for me to wrap my head around: to just do the choreography. I know that sounds so simple. You're a dancer; just do the steps. But I just went to it with so much awe. I don't know if massive insecurities are coming up or what, but I felt like I needed to be this Apollo.

What did you get out of the different interpretations you watched on video or live?
The versions catered to each dancer. The thing I loved about Nikolaj is that you could tell he was just himself in it. [Pauses] I don't know how much I got from watching tapes. I think it confused me. Every time I watched, I was like, Oh, that's so Peter [Martins], and I would try and imitate a pose—before he strums his instrument, for example—and it just didn't feel natural. They were themselves, and looking back on it now, that's what I need to take from it, instead of seeing how they did a certain step.

And probably when you're trying to relive the memory of "I want to do that pose like he did," you stop yourself in the middle of the performance.
Exactly. You're thinking about it, and that's why I felt really stifled. And it was me; I was doing that to myself. I'm not the kind of dancer who studies different tapes before performing; this is the first time I really did that, and I think it really freaked me out.

Who did you work with?
Richard Tanner and, at the very end, Peter Martins.

Would you take me through that process?
I had done the part before on a gig. I wasn't as nervous then; it was in Spain at an outdoor theater, and I remember seeing the moon in between one of the rafters. To see this massive bright thing staring back at you was amazing. So Richard knew that I had done it once before; when I walked in, he handed me the instrument and said, "Okay, let's start." I was like, Oh, my God. Am I doing this right? Am I doing that right? We analyzed how to take the instrument and put it behind my head—it's like you're listening, but you can't look at it. I think that was the rehearsal where I got really freaked out. When I overanalyze, it goes badly, and that's when I went and got all those tapes. I felt like, Man, I'm doing this really wrong. It was so cool to hear "Let's take it from the second variation," and you walk to the center of the room. I was like, How did I get here? And what can I do so I don't screw this up? I treated every movement with such delicacy, like I was touching something so precious, and that wasn't the right idea. I wanted to treasure this moment and that move. When you lift the girls' hands and they do that bourre in parallel, I was like [He extends his arms and throws his head back reverently]. You know? It's so embarrassing. Really, you're experimenting with the muses. You're trying to figure out what do I do next? How do I get inspired by them? The rehearsal process went by so fast. I wish I had had more time for it. We had roughly around a week and a half. And I'm like...

It's Apollo, guys!
[Eyes widen] Yeah! And then I go home, and I'm watching all these tapes, and I'm freaking myself out.... Once we got to the theater, you just have to pull it together. You have go, We're going to put the version we have out there, and we can always go back and work on it. We only had 50 minutes of rehearsal. Other ballets that were shorter and that people had done before got more time. [Apollo] was an all-new cast. We kind of felt scrambled, but that's the tradition here. You get thrown into parts, and it's always a last-minute thing, and I wonder if they don't do that partly so you don't overthink things. [Laughs] I managed to do that in two weeks.

It's a weird learning tool or something.
You have all these uneasy moments when you're doing a part for the first time. You can't feel so confident because you have no idea what it's going to feel like. Seeing the people in the wings really freaked me out. It's such a bright ballet. There are so many moments when you're doing your step and your back is toward the audience. To see so many people in the wings? I like to feel like it's just me and performing is a kind of escape.

So you only had 50 minutes of onstage rehearsal?
Yes. It was the first time with all the girls having the props. They were holding VHS cassettes, which are very similar—you're holding something, but.... In rehearsal and before the show, I practiced so hard to pick up the props and not scramble around. There's a mask, a tablet and a little lyre on top, and they have sticky tape so [the stack] doesn't fall over. In rehearsal and before the show, it went well; [in the performance], I'm like, Okay, Robbie, don't screw this up. I pick it up. [He mimics how he immediately lost his grip.] Every step I took, I felt it fall, fall, fall. I was like, Keep it together; keep it together. Ta-da, da-dom. [He moan-hums the music.] It felt like a dress rehearsal.

Peter Martins was revered as Apollo. How did he coach you?
At first he said that I had the wrong approach, that I was making too much of it. We did the whole opening with the girls, and I was like a kid in a candy shop: You're just born, and you have these three muses. I was like, What if I try this? What if I try that? And I guess I started doing a lot of acting, which felt better for me because I like a story. I was really encouraged, and then he came back to me and said, "You shouldn't do any of the acting with your face. You have to do everything with your body." But then after that, he said, "You just have to do the choreography." He was like, "I can see you thinking, What if I do this? But it shouldn't be so thought-out." And he also said something like, "You're trying to put the Robbie in it, and I get that, but the Robbie will always be there. Just do the steps." It's going to take a while to figure that out—to become a completely blank slate. And it's weird; for everything else, for Duo [Concertant] or Violin Concerto, which were created on Peter, you would have thought that I would have been studying the tapes for those and really trying to soak it all up; I took it, not lightheartedly, but with less pressure, and I think if I can get that in my brain for this, it will be a little better. I've seen those ballets, and I love them so much, but Apollo has always been a different ballet for me. I think everyone has that dream ballet, and when they approach it with obsession, there is some tweaking that's going to have to happen.

Apollo was your dream?
Yeah. When someone asked, "What's your dream role?" It was always Apollo. I don't know the reason. You get incredibly tired in it, but it's not like there's fluid dancing, which I love. It's more about feeling completely comfortable with yourself to do the most bare, simplistic moves—not that they're simplistic. They're very detailed. To do those moves bare and feel comfortable with yourself—to do that onstage, to not feel like you have to do anything else to make it work... There are so many layers to it that I'm figuring out just talking about it.

I think that gets to the essence of why it's so hard: Doing the movement is one thing, partnering is another, but it's really having that stillness without being dull.
Exactly! I've heard so many of my teachers say, "The hardest thing to do is stand onstage," and I was always like, But that's got to be so much fun—to take the audience on this journey with you? I thought I would feel so comfortable, and then when I got there, I was like, I've got to do something with it; I've got to do something with it. And I didn't think that would be my reaction—to be too eager or too fussy with it.

How was Apollo described to you? Or was he ever?
That's the thing: At the beginning, they didn't say anything, and that's why I went overboard with my own studying. Had I not put this ballet on such a pedestal, that process would have been fine. They would have taught me the steps, and I probably would have done it without thinking so much, but I'm obviously on a different road, and I just have to see where it ends up. I can see why they did it. I just went the wrong way. [Laughs]

Sometimes I think they allow you to make the biggest mistake that you could possibly make just to get it out of the way. Do you know what I mean? You're going to go your own way, even if they guide you. This way is extreme: You learn quickly and then move on.
Yeah. Kind of scrape it all out so they just get the essence of it.

Were you ready for it?
I wanted it so badly that I didn't really think whether or not I was. It's one of those moments where you see your name on the casting, and you're like, Yes! [He pulls down a fist.] I've been so grateful for the things I've done, but I've never had that moment of yes—like when someone scores a touchdown. I wasn't even close to the end zone.

How close are you now?
To the end zone? [Grins] We're still scratching the surface. But I feel like if I keep that mentality—of always scratching the surface—then no matter how many times I do a certain role, I'll always find something in it personally. And I think that's a scary place too because here I am being told, "Let the choreography do it," and then I'm fighting this urge to find where my place is in it with my artistry. Finding that balance is going to be fun. I talked with Peter Boal about it for a second, and he said the coolest things. He described the relationship with Terpsichore—how it's not when a man loves a woman, but when a boy loves his teacher. He talked about how the whole pas de deux is about that. And also, that when you're sitting on the stool; you never lose focus for one second. You're captivated by these women, and each of them has something to offer you, but they don't have that It thing that you need to become this god. What he said about Apollo in the very beginning of the ballet was cool, too: It's about the colt, the ruffian, the infallible man. This is the guy I watched do it. He was my teacher in the school. He's the reason why I wanted to be a ballet dancer, so to hear his input was so exciting. He boiled it down and said, "A lot of people want to be the god at the beginning, but wait and save it till the end. It will be so much more powerful."

Who else did you turn to for advice?
I love anything and everything that Wendy Whelan does and says, so I asked her if she'd keep an eye on me. I was walking down the street, and it was rainy, and I saw her, and she said, "So, Apollo." I asked her who I should watch tapes of, and she mentioned everybody, and then she said, "Watch Ib." I wouldn't have thought to do that. She said, "He was just so clean, and he really got it." I asked her to tell me if I was doing anything funky.

So what did she say?
We haven't talked yet. I never want to fish for something, so if it happens, it happens, but if it doesn't, I trust that she's not letting me go out there doing something stupid.

Do you ever study at Steps with Willy Burmann, who is Whelan's teacher?
I take class with him all the time. He was really excited for me during this and just talked about cutting it down and doing steps, and it was interesting to hear this from him and then reiterated with Peter [Martins]. I get it. The road I need to go down is clear.

You have said that you love those dancing parts. What do you get out of this physically?
I'm still at that overwhelmed place. One thing is the music: To have that stunning music, but not doing the usual twirlies and hooplas, it's just so different and challenging. I love those moments when you get to play with the music, but in Apollo, you don't really do that. In Violin Concerto or Duo, I feel the music is there to run with. This is learning how to run with the music in another way.

You're dancing with an entirely new cast.
Yes. Sterling Hyltin, Tiler Peck and Ana Sophia Scheller. It's my Who Cares? girls. [Laughs] It's Who Cares? does Apollo. I think we feel so comfortable with one another. We all went out to dinner the first night, and none of us felt very good about [the performance], but to be able to be with each other and to have that camaraderie with them? I have such different relationships with each one, which is how it is in the ballet, too. We can all say our two cents, and no one gets offended. It's fun to get to explore different things with the same people and to see each other grow. These are special moments. We took pictures [after the first show], and we all just look awful: The lighting was funny, and we look like ghosts with ghoulish eyes. So that will be our memory of it, but it's pretty fitting.

Is there a teacher that you have in mind during the pas de deux?
Well, it would be weird to say Peter Boal. When I was younger and in Utah, I was at a jazz studio, [and] there was a teacher, Laura King, who just brought that drive for dancing out of me—the thrill of pushing, of what it feels like in the moment. She was really pivotal. I was young and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and I was like, "I want to be on Broadway!" I didn't know what Broadway was; I didn't know where it was. But I knew I wanted to be there because I watched Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Laura comes from L.A. and did music videos and shows with pop singers, and she inspired me so that I wanted to go in that direction. Then Peter Boal came along, and he was doing Oberon [in A Midsummer Night's Dream ]. I was like, Guys can dance like that? I didn't know ballet was this powerful. I'm moved. And Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto did the divertissement at the end. If I could watch that performance again, I would.

When Megan, your sister, suggested you come here, you hadn't seen Peter Boal, right?
No. I had never seen a performance. In 2002, the company did Live from Lincoln Center, and I watched [Ulysses Dove's] Red Angels with Peter Boal over and over and over again. I had a chance to learn it for the Fall for Dance festival. I never got to do it because I was coming back from an injury, but it's funny. The two ballets that I put on such high pedestals were Red Angels and Apollo. With Red Angels, I get in touch with my jazzy side.

I suppose it's a good one for feeling the movement. I'm sorry! I'm not a huge fan.
I think it was just because I loved Peter Boal so much that I admired the ballet. But learning it in rehearsals, it's a different... It's not really what I thought. Maybe that's because I didn't get to do it? Once you break a piece down into steps, sometimes it loses its...

It's not that good, is it? It's not! It's crap.
[Makes a tortured face] Oh, yeah, yeah. And that was interesting for me. In something like Duo, where there's so much mystery about it, and then you peel the layers, and it still gets more interesting and more interesting. That's brilliant. I love that that can happen in a dance. So when Red Angels came along, the crowd gets into it, I get into it, but...

It's a little hollow in the end.
Little bit.

My question is always, Why is the crowd so into it?
Yeah. It's fun to let it all out basically. But for me, I like my story thing, so even if there isn't one, I like to make up a little something. It may just be something I think about or an impotence for movement. Otherwise, I think it gets so arbitrary: Those European things, they all just look the same. And that's such a stereotype; some are stunning. But a few... Something I love is [Angelin Preljocaj's] La Stravaganza.

I liked it when it premiered, but now I think that was my younger side coming through—maybe what Red Angels was for you. It was just so different originally.
My sister said the same thing. She said that maybe it's the pauses—we took such long pauses from movement to movement. Like all that walking you do to transition in the piece? I don't know if that's what lost the...

The tension, right? There's no tension.

It felt really flat and so, so dark.
The lighting? That's interesting. I feel the programming was interesting too. We did it on the same program as [Douglas Lee's] Lifecasting.

I liked that. Well, I liked it the most the first time I saw it and then subsequently not as much. But I didn't hate it.
It's kind of like all that stuff.

At least it was using some lighting that wasn't too corny and Forsythe-y.
Yes. Whenever you have a new piece on the rehearsal schedule, it's always so up in the air. You never have any idea what the end result is going to be like, and I think that's what I love about dancing here. There are so many opportunities to just be in the rehearsal room and go, I have no idea what the first step is going to be.

You can get something out of it, unlike me.
Sometimes I love rehearsals more than an actual performance. Sometimes I second-guess myself, but in rehearsal, you can let it go. I'm trying to get those moments out onstage more and more, where you can just be yourself.

But you got to dance the lead in Alexei Ratmansky's Namouna, which is my favorite ballet in forever! Holy cow.
[Smiles and sighs] Every day the energy in the studio was, What's next; What's next? Even here, I'm getting the chills. I love that ballet. And I asked him, "Should I be thinking about something? Is there a story? Obviously I'm coming into contact with these people and does that mean anything to me?" You know—my story thing. And he said, "Well, I guess we should have a story."

I love him.
Isn't that funny? I was like, "Oh! There's not a story." He said, "I think it's like Alice in Wonderland. You meet different characters, and they start to make sense to you, and all of sudden, they're out of it." And I'm like, "Okay, it's kind of like a trip." I hope that ballet comes back again soon. I got to dance with Wendy and Jeni Ringer. It was like a dream.

Can you elaborate about working with Ratmansky? Namouna is a major ballet of our time.
Yeah. That pushed me past any limits I've ever been pushed before. My solo used to be longer. He cut about 20 seconds of it, and it's still long. During one rehearsal, we broke it down: "This is your rest step. Take your moments. Find your moments." So we found them together, and the night of—right before the curtain's coming up—he came up to me and said, "Remember how we talked about those moments? Forget it. Just dance it." Oh, my God. Here I am. It's a gala, I'm stressing out and wondering how I'm going to get through it and to have that thrown on me? [Laughs] I don't know. I have such respect for that man. When all of our teachers talk about Balanchine, I feel that same way. I get it because I feel the same way. It's just so cool to have a man like that around. He wasn't afraid to tell me to point my foot or to jump higher. He wasn't afraid to talk about technical things, and I feel like so many choreographers feel like they're going to offend someone by saying these things. He was respecting me by saying them. I don't even know what it is about him that makes him so admirable. But he always treated us with such respect, and I think that comes into play: He can give you corrections, and you can absorb it and be like, More, more, more. What else do you have to say?

You trust him.
You do. You see what comes out of his brain and onto bodies, and you're like, How? You know that part [when] they're on the floor rocking? And they get up and do all the formations?

With the woman?
Yeah. It's so mesmerizing. It's so cool that someone can do that for the human body. We were in love with the ballet, and then when we saw the costumes, all the girls were like... We got freaked out. We were like, Oh, my God. What is this? I loved mine. But everyone else had these weird hats on.

Which I love.
Yeah. I mean only he could do something like that and pull it off. It's so genius and so unique, and it's so refreshing to have that. The costumes embody something really special. I'll never forget my first rehearsal with him. I never worked with him before, and I'm eager to please and all this stuff, and he just did something really fast, and I was like, What? He does something so unique when he dances. It's so folky. And I was really challenged to figure out how to make this look like that. It was an endless race to catch the littlest things that he had to say or do. It makes me wonder what Balanchine was like when he would choreograph things—like what it looked like on his body, or how he would explain things.

I wonder if being around Ratmansky creates less of a degree of separation about Balanchine for you.
I haven't really thought about it, but it makes sense. I think what makes sense to me in feeling that way is, like I said before, I get it. I get that kind of fuel that's so hard to reproduce. When people go on and on about Balanchine, I think, That's so awesome; I wish I could have been there. To finally feel like you are there? I don't compare Balanchine or Ratmansky, but I know what that feels like.

When were you injured, and what happened?
Right before the fall season, I bruised my femur head—so the inside of my knee. It was just a big bone bruise that radiated and made tendons feel like they were hurt when they weren't. Waiting for a bone bruise to heal takes kind of a long time. It was so frustrating to be out for that season. And it always is. But Ratmansky was going; Duo was going; Opus was going, Violin and Who Cares? And I probably wouldn't have done all of them in that four-week span, but if you name those ballets, they're on the top of my list. Then you learn what it feels like to not be in control. It's so funny as a dancer: You analyze every step you do, how it looks in the mirror, your relationship to your partner, but then when that goes away, you can't control when you're going to come back or how you're going to heal.

How long were you out?
It was the beginning of August to the third week of Nutcracker performances. I couldn't understand what was wrong with it. They were like, "It shouldn't be hurting still."

Don't you just love that?
I'm like, "Cool. But I do hurt!" Yeah. I had an MRI that said I'd be fine in seven to ten days, and then two months later, I was still hurting. Every time I tried to go to fifth position, my knee would swell up. So I got another MRI, and it wasn't torn. I tried a few techniques and found this shock-therapy thing, which is just intense ultrasound. And it just radiated through the joint, and after that the swelling stopped. That was pretty cool, and it doesn't work for everything, but it really worked for that. So I'm keeping that in my back pocket.

What did you do during that time off? Did you read Proust? Did you watch The Wire?
I went fly-fishing in the Catskills. My dad's a wildlife biologist for the state of Utah, and we were always big outdoors people, and I never explored that here. I went to a six-mile private stretch of river; the president at SAB has property up there, and she lives on a stream that was where American dry fly-fishing started. It was fascinating. I was up at 5:30am, and there was so much fog, and the leaves had just turned colors, and I saw 40 deer on my way to the river. My friends backed out at the last minute, so I went alone. Other than that, I don't know. I got to hang out with friends. And watch a lot of TV. And lots of physical therapy.

It's must be so easy to get lost in that depression.
A week feels like a year. You want every physical-therapy appointment to be good news, and it's always "We're just going to keep trying." You're like, Get me out of here. But good lessons to learn. You can't control everything. I wanted to get back, but maybe I hadn't learned what I needed to learn—even the way you treat people. I never treated people rudely, but it made me so grateful for everyone's talent because your dancing days are so limited, and you want people to be excited and happy for you when you do something. So it was really learning how to put myself second and appreciate what others have to offer. When you look at Wendy Whelan and Jeni Ringer, they are so excited for other people. And that kind of energy brews creativity and success, and I want to be the next generation that brings that positive energy in. It's really not about how well you do. It's about the network of people you have around you, supporting you and how you can support them. I really learned to embrace the family that I have. You go into a rehearsal and learn a part with somebody, and there's tension because you want it. It's like living in the dorms at the school. You know that there are only a certain amount of spots for the company, and how do you maintain friendships with those people? Now you're here, and it's similar, but you need to learn that you're in a company; you're in this together. It is competition, but it should be a healthy one. Let it bring out the best in you and not break you down. I learned to fully understand that and to fully embrace the frailty of our bodies and how foolish it is to put so much into just yourself; you're only as good as your whole company. I learned gratitude.

Are you still just as close with your sister, Megan?
Yeah. I'm her man of honor! [Megan is engaged to NYCB principal Andrew Veyette.] I'm planning her bridal shower at the moment. What an honor, you know? We've shared so much together. I'm so sappy at weddings. Even if it's someone I don't know: My mom took me to a wedding of one of her coworkers when I was at home once, and I never met them in my life, but when they were saying their vows, I was like, Waaah! She was like, "You have no ties to these people! What's going on?" It's like a Sally Field movie. You put it in, and I'm bawling.

I'm curious: Did you start studying with Willy Burmann because of Wendy? Or Megan?
My sister had gone to him when she was a soloist in the company. You look at Wendy, and you see her body and the amazing things she's able to do with it and how she's never injured. I think that Peter Martins said that she is the most reliable person in the company: You can always count on her. She's always going to come to her show; she's always going to act professional. And so one great thing about going there is that you get to see her dance more and how she responds to correction. The class just makes a lot of sense for my body. I'm constantly trying to perfect my line. For the longest time, I tried to ignore it; sometimes you don't want to face your flaws, but it got to a point where I needed to work on some stuff. I never got lazy. I never felt like I wasn't trying, but you can work in a different way and approach things differently. In going to him, you get so much attention. There's not as many people in class, and he cares about the things I'm trying to work on. He'll go home and come back the next day and have something for you. It's awesome to take class with the company and to feel that camaraderie, but it's so nice to have a place away from that. Sometimes when I do a combination, I think about who's watching. It's inevitable, but when you're at Steps, there's that freedom to just try it and fall. There's that alone time that you need to be able to work on stuff and face those things without worrying about who's watching.

Is that how you take risks? Or how do you?
I guess risk for me is just whenever that curtain comes up; never let fear be the reason why you don't go for it. You're given an opportunity, and it's going to happen whether you like it or not, so you might as well go for it. I know I'm not going to be dancing forever, so every time I pack out my theater case at the end of a season, it's kind of a bittersweet moment. I think about what I got to do, but it's one less season. Just as long as I never take any performance for granted... That's really all I can do. No regrets.

performs at the David H. Koch Theater May 5-June 12.

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