Robert Fairchild

The dashing NYCB principal talks ballet.

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A GOD IS BORN Fairchild performs Apollo at the Kennedy Center with, from left, Sterling Hyltin, Ana Sophia Scheller and Tiler Peck.

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

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.

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