Ballet Careers

Balancing Act: At Louisville Ballet, Robert Curran Pushes the Art Form Forward While Treasuring its Past

Curran rehearsing company dancer Erin Langston. Photo by Renata Pavam, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

Last August, Louisville Ballet's artistic and executive director Robert Curran met with an anonymous donor in New York. He came home with a check for one million dollars. His lips are sealed, but the donation bodes well for the ballet's future under Curran, whose tenure only began in 2014.

In its nearly 65-year history, Louisville Ballet has experienced quite the evolution: It has transitioned from civic to professional company; is now housed in a spacious facility nestled between downtown and NuLu, the city's nascent but thriving arts district; and has the nationally respected Adam Hougland as its principal choreographer. As the new director, Curran has already laid out bold plans to strengthen the company, including an expanded relationship with the Louisville Orchestra and a broadened repertoire.


Curran comes to Louisville after a career with The Australian Ballet, where he rose through the ranks to principal. After retiring from the stage, he worked as rehearsal director with Bangarra Dance Theatre (an indigenous Australian contemporary company) before applying to Louisville Ballet when previous artistic director Bruce Simpson announced his retirement. Though he was new to directing, Curran came with a management degree and minors in marketing, psychology and human resources in hand.

Curran in rehearsal for "Giselle." Photo by Renata Pavam, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

Last spring, Louisville Ballet presented its first program of work chosen by Curran, including the company premiere of Serge Lifar's seldom performed Suite en Blanc; George Balanchine's Square Dance, revived after falling out of the regular rep; and a new contemporary ballet, Lucas Jervies' What Light Is to Our Eyes. The mix speaks to Curran's wide-ranging vision. He has frequently said, “This is a ballet company," but knows that troupes must reach forward and backward in the balletic tradition. He has described this as “a very careful balance between respect and irreverence."

In person, Curran is a quiet but intense presence. However, company member Natalia Ashikhmina says that it's in his nature to push. “As soon as you reach the goal that he gave you yesterday, he comes up with the next one," she says. “I expect a certain level," says Curran, adding that he doesn't yell when a dancer disappoints him, but “I am confident in sharing that disappointment."

Curran has exhibited a knack for simultaneously executing several points of his vision: focusing on the art form's tradition, new work, sustainability and building connections within the Louisville arts scene. This season's opener, Curran's new staging of Coppélia, used traditional choreography in an innovative setting: Louisville's Germantown neighborhood on the eve of World War I, with the set and backdrops designed by local artist Jacob Heustis.

Curran plans to expand the rep with more 19th- and 20th-century classics, as well as contemporary ballets. As with Coppélia, he's keen on presenting unique versions of ballets, whether that means fresh designs, settings or other tweaks on classics. He promises Louisville audiences will see works by Balanchine—who had only an occasional presence before Curran's appointment—every season. Case in point: A full Balanchine program is planned for the spring.

Curran with Company Dancer Erica De La O in rehearsal for "Giselle." Photo by Renata Pavam, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

Curran is equally committed to his dancers. “I want a long-term chance to invest in each of the artists," he says. “I don't feel that 12 months is enough time to truly get to know what someone is capable of." The ballet's roster backs Curran up; it hasn't changed since he signed on.

Ashikhmina adds that, in addition to being artistically supportive, the Louisville Ballet has a wonderful emotional environment. “What's different about the company is this family is really friendly. People care about each other." Ashikhmina's husband, Philip Velinov, is also a member, and they have two children. The company also boasts a high number of dancers with college degrees or those who are currently working toward one.

Next up in March is (R)Evolution, a co-production with the Louisville Orchestra. Though the two organizations have consistently teamed up for Nutcracker, they now have the resources to work together throughout the season. The program, a triple bill by Hougland, including his Cold Virtues, a reinvented Petrouchka and a world premiere, hopefully signals more collaborations to come.

Whether the company is presenting classical or contemporary works, Curran is sure of one thing: “I am committed to the glamour of a night at the ballet," he says, and it all starts with rigor in the studio.

Louisville Ballet At a Glance

Number of Dancers: 23, plus 20 trainees

Length of Contract: 30 weeks

Starting Salary: $400 per week

Performances per year: 4-5 main-stage productions and 2 in-studio productions

Website: louisvilleballet.org

Audition Advice

Louisville Ballet holds open auditions for company and trainee positions every year, usually in February or March. The audition consists of several classes. Curran advices dancers to "show that you are invested, that you have your own goals and objectives. That makes it very clear that you are driven, and it speaks to intelligence. If I can recognize that, I can help. But if someone walks in with a perfect body, perfect technique and an empty head, I don't even know where to start."

The Conversation
Viral Videos
Via YouTube

Master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee of the California-based ThePointeShop catches up with Moscow-based Russian State Ballet Theater dancer Matisse Love to hear all of her pointe shoe hacks, particularly her tips for pancaking. Before joining Russian State Ballet Theater, Love, a Los Angeles native, graduated from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and had a recurring role on the TV show Bunheads.

The Royal Ballet's Vadim Muntagirov and Marianela Nuñez in La Bayadère. Photo by Bill Cooper, Courtesy ROH.

Do you ever wish you could teleport to London and casually stroll into The Royal Opera House to see some of the world's best-loved ballets? Well, we have a solution for you: The Royal Ballet's 2018-19 cinema season.

Whether live or recorded, the seven ballet programs listed below, streaming now through next October, will deliver all of the magic that The Royal Ballet has to offer straight to your local movie theater. Can you smell the popcorn already?

Keep reading... Show less
Pacific Northwest Ballet principals Rachel Foster and Jonathan Porretta took their final curtain call on June 9, 2019. Photo by Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

We all know dance careers are temporary. But this season, it feels like we're saying goodbye to more stars than usual.

Many have turned to social media to share their last curtain calls, thoughts on what it feels like to say farewell to performing, and insights into the ways that dancing has made them who they are. After years of dedicating your life to the studio and stage, the decision to stop dancing is always an emotional one. Each dancer handles it in their own way—whether that means cheekily admitting to having an existential crisis, or simply leaving with no regrets about what you did for love.

We will miss these dancers' performances, but can't wait to see what awaits each in their next chapters.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Houston Ballet's Yuriko Kajiya and Linnar Looris in "The Merry Widow." Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet.

With Houston Ballet's Sunday performance of Marie, the company bade farewell not only to its spring season, but to two of its most beloved leading men: principal Jared Matthews and first soloist Linnar Looris each took their final bows on the Wortham Theater Center stage. Both men will travel soon to Estonia, where they will work together to lead the Estonian National Ballet, with Looris serving as the company's artistic director and Matthews as the assistant to the artistic director.

Keep reading... Show less