The Louisville Ballet has named a new artistic director. Australian Ballet veteran Robert Curran, 38, steps into the shoes of Bruce Simpson, who programmed the 2014-15 season before he retired last month.
Curran was in Louisville last week to finalize his appointment and is now in Australia awaiting confirmation of his visa, which the company expects to be finalized tomorrow. He plans to be relocated to Louisville well before “Giselle” opens the new season September 12.
Last performed by the Louisville Ballet in 2010, “Giselle” is one of the most popular Romantic ballets, a beloved warhorse that the company’s senior ballet master Uwe Kern and ballet mistress Mikelle Bruzina can lead the company through “in their sleep,” as Simpson quipped earlier in the year. Curran says he’s committed to traditional ballets like “Giselle” that are the cornerstones of the classical repertoire.
“I’m committed to them being done in a way they were intended to be done. So, for example, ‘Giselle’ will be a very, very traditional production. I’m not looking in this case to transform it to make it modern in its appearance,” he said. “But what I strongly believe in, and I take my inspiration from cinema in this sense, that it still has to be real.”
“I’m going to be trying very much to maintain a reality about the dancers in their drama,” Curran added. “I think that’s one way to make sure the traditional works maintain their relevance.”
The board of directors worked with Management Consultants for the Arts to conduct the international search, which netted more than 80 applicants. Out of four potential artistic directors interviewed, board president Joel Stone says Curran was “the perfect candidate.”
“To me, we needed someone who could move the organization forward over the next ten years,” said Stone. “So much has changed with our patron base and how they interact with dance and art. Robert’s vision meshed perfectly with where we need to go.”
Curran, 38, retired from dancing full-time in 2011. Born in Canberra, Australia’s national capital, Curran trained at the Australian Ballet School and joined the Australian Ballet, the largest classical ballet company in the country, in 1996, where he performed for 16 years – ten as a principal artist. He’s a co-founder of Jack Productions, a project-based company born in 2010 focused on the fusion of classical and contemporary dance. That intersection, Curran says, can be a vehicle for ballet to form new connections with the community.
He also sees the development of new work as a key responsibility of the artistic director role, something Simpson made a priority during his 12-year tenure, during which he commissioned 15 of the company’s 70 world premieres, including choreographer Val Caniparoli’s revamped “The Brown-Forman Nutcracker,” which Curran praises as an example of how a classic can be re-fashioned to more deeply reflect the community in which it’s produced.
“There’s such a strong touch of Louisville in that production that increases the connection an audience has with a production,” he said.
Curran says he’s interested in exploring innovative venues and platforms for bringing ballet out into the community, but “never, ever at the expense of the season.”
“I’m 100 percent committed to the subscription season the company has set up already,” he said. “I think there’s definitely a market for ‘Swan Lake’ and for ‘Giselle,’ and for those real traditional ballets. And the experience of sitting in a proscenium theater – I personally love it, and I do think there’s a place for it in this community here.”
Dance, especially classical ballet, is an international art. Curran’s danced throughout the U.S. a number of times. Simpson, for his part, is a Scot who performed most of his career with South Africa’s State Ballet Theatre, and the Louisville Ballet company includes dancers from Russia, Puerto Rico, Bulgaria and Poland. But every dance company serves the community where it resides, too. Curran recently completed a stint as rehearsal director with Bangarra Dance Theatre, a contemporary indigenous dance company. His work with Bangarra was deeply rooted in a specific place and heritage, and Curran plans to develop a strong connection to Louisville himself.
“I see it as my role to really immerse myself in the community of Louisville and get to know the history of the community, the geography and the city, and make sure I am completely absorbed into it, so I feel like it’s my home and I feel like I know what people have expected, what they do expect and what they will expect,” he said.
Simpson announced his retirement last November, and officially stepped down in July. He joined the company in 2002 and shepherded it through the financial crisis of 2009-10, when debt forced the Ballet to sell its building to the Fund for the Arts, to its current stability – the organization operates on a $3.4 million annual budget and has been operating in the black. Until earlier this year, Simpson had also performed the duties of the executive director, but in January, the board of directors named former marketing director Cara Hicks general manager, and she now heads up the financial and administrative side of the company.
Though the season, which includes “The Brown-Forman Nutcracker” during the holidays and Caniparoli’s “A Cinderella Story” (Feb. 13-14), is set, Curran will have an opportunity to program the traditional season closer, a mixed repertory program scheduled for April 10-11 in the Brown Theatre, which Simpson left open for the new director to prepare. Curran says he’s excited to get to work, but it’s too soon yet to know what he’ll put together for the company.
“There are so many things that I need to go through in terms of getting to know this company, getting to know these dancers. I’ve been here for a week now and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to sit in on rehearsals and watch some classes and I’m so excited about the talent, the technical and artistic talent, that exists in this company,” he said. “And I now need to, on my 19-hour flight from Dallas to Sydney, contemplate what will lay down the most challenging and rewarding repertoire.”