Robert Curran attracts $US1 million gift for Louisville Ballet

IN his first year as artistic director of Louisville Ballet, in the US state of Kentucky, former Australian Ballet principal dancer Robert Curran has attracted a donation of $US1 million to the company. It is believed to be the largest gift received from an individual donor in the company’s 63-year history, says Louisville Ballet director of marketing Natalie Harris. The donor, who is based in New York, wishes to remain anonymous.

Robert Curran. Photo: Quentin Jones

Robert Curran. Photo: Quentin Jones

The gift was made public on August 14, just days before the anniversary of Curran’s appointment, announced on August 19 last year. To put the impact of the donation into perspective, the annual budget of Louisville Ballet is $US3.5 million. Curran would say only about the donor that the giver “has a clarity of purpose that is as inspiring as the generosity. Our donor insists on anonymity to ensure that the story is about what Louisville Ballet is doing and achieving and nothing else. I can’t tell you how humbling that is.”

The gift will help support a key aspect of his vision for the company, that of connecting art forms, says Curran. “I, we, believe that when you come to a ballet performance you see dance (of course!) but you can also experience live music, visual art, design, technology, literature, dramatic art, and so on,” he said via email. “No other art form can deliver this multiplicity the way a ballet company can.”

The provision of live music is a priority. It has not been a given that all Louisville Ballet performances are presented with an orchestra but that will now be possible (the gift is intended to support artistic activity for two years) and Curran also wants to commission new music for the company. He says details of collaborations will be released shortly.

When I visited Louisville in April this year (read my report here) Curran was staging his first program for the company’s 24 dancers and 15 trainees. Earlier works in the 2014-2015 season had been programmed by his predecessor, Bruce Simpson. Curran’s Director’s Choice mixed bill contained a classical favourite, Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc, Balanchine’s Square Dance and a new work from Australian choreographer Lucas Jervies, What Light Is to Our Eyes. It was made to the first symphony of young American composer Sebastian Chang, which had been commissioned and was given its world premiere by Louisville Orchestra earlier in the year. Jervies’s use of it was a demonstration that Curran meant what he said about wanting to connect with other Louisville arts organisations: even in these early days the intent was clear. And more than intent – Curran had also managed to get permission from the Balanchine Trust to use new designs for Square Dance and commissioned Louisville artist Leticia Quesenberry for the scenic element.

The 2015-2016 season, Curran’s first full year of programming, opens in October with a new production of Coppélia, set in Louisville’s Germantown area in 1917. Curran is choreographing the ballet after the original by Arthur Saint-Léon and it is being designed by local artist Jacob Heustis in what Curran calls “a perfect example of what we are trying to achieve”. Louisville Ballet’s costume master Dan Fedie is creating new costume designs and the score will be played by Louisville Orchestra. (R)evolution, a March 2016 co-production with Louisville Orchestra, will feature works by Adam Hougland (the company’s principal choreographer) and include a world premiere score by Louisville Orchestra’s music director Teddy Abrams, a vibrant young conductor who is still in his 20s.

In April Curran told me how happy he was to be in Louisville. He was “in the right place”, he said. That doesn’t mean, however, he has left home and old friends behind. When we exchanged emails about his exciting news he ended on this note: “Australia is so important to me. I hope I’m doing them proud,” he wrote.

‘I cannot wait to see what we create together’

THEY work quickly at Louisville Ballet. In April Robert Curran applied for the role of artistic director, he was interviewed twice in June and by early July he learned he was the successful candidate. His appointment was announced in Louisville yesterday and he starts in Kentucky possibly as early as next week once his visa has been finalised. He was selected from more than 80 applicants.

Curran, 38, couldn’t be happier. “I am thrilled to be leading a company that has such a rich history and that is so excited and enthusiastic about the future,” he said in Sydney earlier this week, during a whistle-stop trip home.

Louisville Ballet board chairman Joel Stone said via email: “We needed someone who could move the organisation forward over the next 10 years. So much has changed with our patron base and how they interact with dance and art. Robert’s vision for the company meshed perfectly with where we need to go.”

Curran, formerly one of the most loved principal artists at The Australian Ballet and noted as an exceptional partner, has been preparing for this moment since retiring at the top of his game at the end of 2011. He has an Advanced Diploma of Dance from The Australian Ballet School, a Bachelor of Business from Monash University and is undertaking a Master of Applied Theatre Studies from the University of New England. After he left the AB he took a year off to travel and observe the work of other ballet companies and directors.

Lucinda Dunn and Robert Curran in The Nutcracker. Photo: Jim McFarlane

Robert Curran with Lucinda Dunn in The Nutcracker for the AB. Photo: Jim McFarlane

The Louisville board wasn’t deterred by the fact Curran had not previously run a company; in fact they liked it.

“They wanted somebody who was going to bring a level of freshness and innovation. They weren’t afraid of what that might look like,” Curran says. “The company has a really sound structure – sufficiently established so the organisation can run really efficiently but not so rigid that it’s not open for a bit of interpretation and adaptation as each of our initiatives start to take hold.”

The board sought someone who would continue retiring artistic director Bruce Simpson’s commitment to the classical tradition but also “someone who was interested in exploring where that [tradition] might go”. Louisville Ballet’s repertoire includes work by Ashton, Balanchine, Tudor, Cranko, Tharp, Fokine and Bournonville, and its next production is next month’s Giselle, which Curran will stage.

While it may seem a significant alteration in direction to appoint an Australian to the position, the move from Simpson to Curran is perhaps more like a baton change. Simpson’s taste in repertoire is similar to that of The Australian Ballet, says Curran, and indeed “Bruce has an enormous respect for the AB; enormous respect both for the company and the Australian Ballet School”. Ballet can be a very small world. (Australian Stanton Welch, is artistic director of Houston Ballet, a position he has held for 10 years.)

After spending 12 years at the helm Simpson will stay in Louisville, says Curran, who expresses great affection for him. “He has been incredibly respectful of what I need and want. He’s a really great man.”

Louisville Ballet was founded in 1952 as a project-based operation, bringing in artistic directors and dancers. It became a fully professional company in 1975 with eight dancers on contract. Today there are 24 dancers and 15 trainees, making it somewhat similar in size to Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet, albeit with much shorter seasons. The dancers are on 30-weeks contracts and the number of performances for each program is short – only three for Giselle, for example, with 11 for the seasonal favourite The Nutcracker.

Louisville has a population of about three-quarters of a million people and is the oldest city in Kentucky. It has a strong arts culture, being home to Kentucky Opera, Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Louisville Orchestra as well as the ballet company. Financial difficulties in the past have curtailed the use of live music but Louisville Orchestra is expected to play for Nutcracker. Curran hopes there will be opportunities for a closer relationship under Louisville Orchestra’s new young music director Teddy Abrams, who is just 27.

“The relationship has ebbed and flowed over the years. One of the things that is definitely in the future for Louisville Ballet is a stronger relationship with the orchestra. There was no discord in the past, just a financial thing. The orchestra has its costs that it needs to meet. The ballet has its budget that it needs to maintain. Hopefully there will be more flexibility and more of a combined fund-raising focus. At least they are interested in exploring that,” says Curran.

He will also be artistic director of Louisville Ballet School. “There is a school director who takes on the majority of the work, but there is definitely a level of commitment that is expected of me,” he says. “And I am very much looking forward to delivering on that expectation. The Vocational Graduate Certificate in Elite Dance Instruction that I studied through the ABS has given me plenty of ideas, and fortuitously, both schools teach the Vaganova training program.”

In a long conversation with me published on this site last year, Curran talked frankly about his ambition to lead a company, one from which he has not wavered since he stopped performing. He said he would go anywhere in the world, and it was not surprising to hear he had found an opportunity in the US, home to so many classical companies.

“I know that working with Louisville Ballet will be a joy and I cannot wait to see what we create together,” he told me. His first ideas will be seen In April when he stages his Director’s Choice program.