Robert Curran | Photo by Meagan Jordan
Robert Curran | Photo by Meagan Jordan

Louisville Ballet closes its season this weekend with “Director’s Choice: A New World.” The program features three short pieces: Serge Lifar’s “Suit en Blanc” (1943), George Balanchine’s “Square Dance” (1976), and the world premiere of Lucas Jervies’ “What Light is to Our Eyes.”

Ballet fans are particularly excited to see the show since it’s the first evening of works chosen by new artistic director Robert Curran. Insider sat down with Curran to talk about why he chose these pieces and what they say about the future of the Louisville Ballet.

Insider Louisville: How did you choose Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc”?

Robert Curran: Graduating from the Australian Ballet School in 1995, my year level was allowed to do “Suite en Blanc” as their tour. It was a bit of a coup for our year level to (be) strong enough. That was just my first experience. 

When I first got the offer for this job, I thought I really needed to bring things here that talked about who I am as much as about where I want the company to go in the future. I wanted to bring something that played an important part in my life. 

And to be completely honest, I had absolutely no idea if we’d be allowed to do it. There have only been three companies in the United States that have done it, and these are big, big companies. So for Louisville Ballet to put its hand up to the Lifar Foundation and say, “We’d like to do it,” I really didn’t know how it’d go. (Then) in our conversation, they had heard of me, of my career at Australian Ballet and how much I had danced in “Suite en Blanc.” They were very accommodating, right up to the point of letting me stage it.

IL: Don’t they normally send someone to stage it?

RC: Yes. There are two people, maybe three people, in the world who stage it currently.

IL: So that’s a big deal. I’m impressed.

RC: (Laughs) I’m scared. I’m glad you’re impressed, I’m terrified. But I’m loving it at the same time.

Photo by Sam Harris | Courtesy of Louisville Ballet
Photo by Sam Harris | Courtesy of Louisville Ballet

IL: So moving on to “Square Dance” by Balanchine — it only takes us forward a little bit in the last century.

RC: By 30 odd years.

IL: So you are doing the second version, without the square dance caller?

RC: Correct, we’re doing the ’76. In a progression, I think going from Lifar to Balanchine is a very clear step forward. And “Square Dance” is the first example of my commitment to programing Balanchine every year. So that’s something Louisville Ballet audiences will see regularly.

But an opportunity that’s been given to Louisville Ballet, which isn’t given to very many companies, is the opportunity to redesign the production. (When they told me), my head exploded momentarily with thoughts of what was possible.

To me, it was the perfect opportunity to bring together some of the things I had been most forthright about in my application for this role, which had been collaboration with the Louisville arts community. I was introduced to (artist/set designer) Letitia Quesenberry.

IL: She’s such a great artist

RC: I love her, I love her work. 

We were allowed to redesign the scenery, so I submitted (Quesenberry’s initial work and designs), and within 24 hours, the design was approved, which is crazy. It was presented to the trust (The Balanchine Foundation), and they unanimously supported it. 

Perhaps it’s a testament to the new vision of (the Louisville Ballet), perhaps it’s a testament to what’s going on in the Louisville community at the moment that has been recognized around the country, maybe it’s a testament to Letitia’s work, but all in all, it’s a very exciting thing.

That’s (something) that will be in the future as long as I’m in the future of the Louisville Ballet — we’ll be reaching to connect the ballet with the community more seamlessly.

Photo by Sam English | Courtesy of Louisville Ballet
Photo by Sam English | Courtesy of Louisville Ballet

IL: Which brings up next seasons’s collaboration with the Louisville Orchestra

RC: Another example of integrating Louisville Ballet with the other arts and cultural institutions in the city. It’s undeniable there’s a new energy in the city surrounding the arts…

Reaching out to (LO music director) Teddy (Abrams), approaching him with the idea for a co-production, was very high on my list of priorities. It thankfully paid off. He was interested.

IL: You can’t cross the street without running into Teddy — he’s everywhere. But Louisville hasn’t gotten quite as much a chance to get to know you, a member of the arts leadership.

RC: I’m a quiet worker. And it’s really not about me. Natalie (Harris, marketing director of Louisville Ballet) fights me on this all the time, but I really do not think it’s about me. There are 24 beautiful artists you should be looking at. Not me. They are the ones who make the big sacrifices for their art form. So I’m OK being in the background. (Laughs)

And dance is unique in that … well, Teddy can still play. But my career as a dancer, my contribution to the art form in real time, is over. And I’ve made that decision — I’ve gone through that pain. I’ve been at the front of the stage. I was there for 16 years. It seems disingenuous for me to do that here, when there are 24 dancers who should be receiving that attention.

IL: There’s a beautiful quote by Martha Graham …

RC: “Every dancer dies twice.”

IL: That’s it! So were there physical realities that you came up against that made you think maybe it’s time to quit?

RC: No, not for me it really wasn’t, it wasn’t about the physical. If I was willing to go through the physical pain and the emotional pain to get back on stage, I feel like could do it. But 16 years with Australian Ballet, that takes its toll. For some people, it’s a toll on their bodies, for some people it’s emotional. 

Just looking at your self in the mirror and saying, “Am I satisfied with what I’m able to do?” It’s always there, even when it’s not. You’re thinking about your performances. “Could I have taken more risks there, could I have pushed myself further?” You just constantly question yourself. I got into my 30s, and it was an everyday question: “Is this the best I’m going to be?”

Photo by Renata Pavam | Courtesy of Louisville Ballet
Photo by Renata Pavam | Courtesy of Louisville Ballet

“No. I refuse. I refuse to accept that this is the best I’m going to be.” 

So I just kept on pushing and pushing until, one day, when I asked that question, I was, like, “Yeah, I think it is. And I’m OK with that.” 

I was at the peak, I’d hit the top, and I was really proud of myself. And for me, that was the perfect moment to say, “That’s enough.” 

IL: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

RC: What really frustrates me, it hasn’t been my experience here, but what really frustrates me is when I hear people say that the ballet is not for them, and then I ask them if they’ve ever been, and they say “No.”

I just want people to come and see shows, to step outside their comfort zones like the dancers do on a daily basis and come see a show. It’s not as expensive as you think, it’s not as highbrow as you think. I believe that of the (people) who say “Ballet is not for me,” very few would leave saying the same thing.

The Louisville Ballet’s “A New World” takes place Friday, April 10, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, April 11, at 2 and 8 p.m. at the Brown Theatre. Tickets start at $32 and are available here or by calling 584-7777.

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Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at