Interview: Orlando Ballet Director Robert Hill’s quest to keep the passion going in Carmina Burana

This past week, we were given a second opportunity to interview Orlando Ballet director Robert Hill during a rehearsal for Dies, nox et omnia (Day, night, and everything), one of his dances for the upcoming Carmina Burana.

We sat in the relocated rehearsal space of Orlando Ballet (more about this exciting news below) and looked on as prima ballerina Kate-Lynn Robichaux learned her dance by 21st century means: watching her 2013-era self perform it on a video monitor. “I’m much more chill about this dance today than I was back then,” Robichaux said. “It’s probably because you just got married,” Mr. Hill responded, and Robichaux grinned as she raised her left hand to show off her ring.

Mr. Hill bounced between chatting with us and leaping up to help form the dance in front of us, explaining to the dancers that the theme of this piece was the male dancer’s exploration of his passion — his reaching within to find emotion, reaching back out to share it with the world. Robichaux performs the embodiment of his dream, allowing her body to be contorted and moved and carried in a complex series of lifts as she lives out the melancholy of male dancer’s imagination.

We pulled up the lyrics to this one while we watched, and Mr. Hill chuckled, explaining that some of the lyrics were impossible to interpret literally. But in this one, the male soloist sings themes that are timeless enough to still be top-40 fodder, and the dance seems to interpret the lyrics well: “Your fair face makes me weep a thousand times, but your heart is ice; to restore me, immediately would I return to life with one kiss.”

How to explain this ballet? Mr. Hill debuted it with Orlando Ballet in 2013, in collaboration with Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra conductor John Sinclair. They were looking for an interesting piece that could combine choral, orchestral, and dance elements to make a dynamic impact on audiences, and struck gold when they decided on Carmina Burana. The music, composed by Carl Orff in 1936, has a lot in common sound-wise with Igor Stravinsky, and is based on medieval yet surprisingly relevant poetry.

As Mr. Hill says in the interview below, “I think it’s the kind of thing where people don’t know that they know it, until they hear it. ‘Oh, I do know that!’”

It’s true. While studying up for this interview, we couldn’t get the chorus of O Fortuna out of our heads.

On to the interview.

How do you choreograph a piece like Carmina Burana?

Robert Hill: I read all of it [the poems of Carmina Burana] when we first did this and they’re so ridiculous that … to do a real, literal reaction to it choreographically– I just didn’t see the potentiality in it.

Jen Bradley: It would be all histrionics, constantly.

RH: Well … I mean there’s one called the ‘roasting swan’ and some people, in their versions, they actually come out with a swan on a stick. This is dance. If you really really look, there were certain of these [poems] that were clearly influencing what I decided to do in terms of relationships. The ones that were so out there… I thought, Ok, I’m just gonna do a reaction to what I’m hearing, to the musical sound.

Achariya: I did wonder how you came to build a dance lexicon that mirrors this kind of super peppy, super emotive music, you know? Like in this dance there’s a lot of contractions and release.

RH: I tried to keep something from it that inspired or influenced the physicality. But not, like, a translation of the information. So I just thought, when you see the roasted swan — I have these three couples come out and do this really weird routine where it’s all about suffering and they’re being roasted, and what it would feel like if the swan was on a stick.

JB: Informed by the text rather than a direct translation?

RH: Yeah, informed, inspired, influenced, all of that … To me the power of this piece is the sound of the music and the visual of the dancers, especially since we start with O Fortuna. It kind of arrests the audience’s attention because of how it starts, and then of course there’s the piece at the end, so you come full circle. It’s fortune’s circle.

AR: So this music still seems relevant and fresh; everybody still listens to it even though it’s such an old composition. What do you think is speaking to people?

RH: I think it’s the kind of thing where people don’t know that they know it, until they hear it. ‘Oh, I do know that!’

RH: It’s interesting because to me [Carmina Burana] doesn’t represent any specific genre. It’s a standalone piece, to me. It really is. John [Sinclair] refers to [the fact] that rhythmically – the rhythm is constantly changing. So it was fun to come up with [movement] … This usually is one-two-three-four-five-six-seven, but there’s this one movement that’s in fives.

AR: So how do you choreograph that?

RH: Or one-two-three-four, one-two-three, one-two-three-four, one-two-three. So it’s a little Stravinsky-esqe.

AR: Yeah, it actually does remind me a lot of Stravinsky’s compositions.

JB: Yeah, meter-changing.

AR: Meter-changing and just the twentieth century-ness of it all, you know?

JB: And those were such turbulent times. The ending of the peerage in a lot of Europe, and then a lot of… the world wars were happening. People were searching for a moral center and sometimes they didn’t make the best choices.

AR: We wanted to know what new eyes you might be bringing to the piece after seeing it after a bit of a break.

RH: I’m making it cleaner [laughs]. There never seems to be enough time to really get the last bits of paint on the canvas. So, each time you revisit it – I kind of go ‘Ohhh, I remember I wanted to plan time to do da-da-da-da.’ Certain things along the way you say, that never turned out the way I wanted it, so I’m going to change it completely.

I think that when we first did it, the comments were that – because it had never been done that way with the singers on the scaffolding on the stage and everything … I believe it had been done here in Orlando at some point but that was before my time. But people’s reaction to it, all the singers and the orchestra and the dancing, [was] that they had never experienced something theatrically so powerful, ever, here.

So that’s very satisfying. And then for it to be selected to be part of the grand opening for the [Dr. Phillips] center [in 2014].  We brought it back for one performance for that. And given that this is my tenth anniversary season, because it has had such a sort of impact on our community it made sense. I kept hearing people say ‘You gotta do Carmina again.’

It’s also good to see how engaged the dancers are just in the rehearsal. It’s an interesting piece, it’s a departure from classical ballet but the vocabulary is still very much present.

AR: There’s a lot of turned in motion – inward, as opposed to turned out.

RH: I think that that represents the angst and the passion that’s throughout the text — the partying, and the lust. So it’s a great piece because all those different kind of feelings and emotions – human traits – offer a physical expression to represent. It takes you on this physical journey, you know? Which is kind of what I wanted to do with it. I really wanted it to be just a physical response to a combination of the sound of the music and some of the actual written word.

Because ultimately dancing is dancing. I know a lot of modern dance folks and choreographers, and I served on the New York State Council of the Arts Dance Panel, so I had to go and see a lot of shows to be able to go to these meetings. I just remember people writing this very intelligently written description of what their piece is about and then they go out and they go [mimes something very melodramatic and borderline silly]. And you go ‘That says that?’ So I didn’t ever want it to be like ‘Really?’ So I’m not going there.

AR: So this piece that we’re watching [Dies, nox et omnia] – it’s kind of a traditional pas de deux, but in a lot of ways it’s not, because the male dancer has more centrality.  So what did you develop in this piece, particularly for the male dancer to do?

RH: I’m trying to remember. I actually now do wish that I’d kept notes about my decision  making but it seems to me that … they’re not actually physically together.

AR: Ah, it’s a dream. Like in your Romeo and Juliet, the dream sequence.

RH: Right, right. So like he’s experiencing something, and she’s on it, and she’s supporting herself and injecting herself into his physicality without him being necessarily prepared.

[RH pauses the interview in order to correct a dancer’s form].

How do you stage Carmina Burana?

AR: So your set is basically gonna be the chorus. Is that correct?

RH: Yeah. Right.

AR: And your costumes are …

RH: What you saw…

AR: …Looks very nude.

RH: Nudes and black and white.

AR: So that was deliberate, to foreground the music as part of the performance? How did you come to that decision?

RH: First of all I never had on my bucket list to do Carmina Burana. It just came up one day, we were thinking—I had met the folks from the Bach Festival. They’re great people. And were thinking, what can we do together? And someone said ‘Oh, we should do Carmina Burana.’

And I had never seen one, I had never danced in one — of course I knew what it was — and so I went and listened to the music … and I immediately knew that I wanted that sound to be a wall of sound that just washes in. And that was how I came up with that, to build the scaffolding and have all the singers [on stage], even some a little bit downstage. And then the dancers are sort of hugged by the sound.

AR: You’re doing it at Dr. Phillips?

RH: Yeah.

AR: Do you think that change in venue is going to change the staging at all or the way the audience is going to hear the sound or receive it?

RH: I think that everything that we do looks better in that theater. If you think about when you frame a painting… a good frame’s gonna make it look nicer than a bad frame.

JB: It has the qualities of a classical theater but there’s somehow something storybook about it too.

RH: Which?

JB: In Walt Disney. They’ve got all the perfect little stylizations of design that make it pop a little more.

RH: Last year one of my friends from New York was down to visit and they were saying ‘Ohhh…’ [impressed]. So it’s nice… it’s part of the reason why I took this job, because I knew the theater was coming, and that [Dr. Phillips] center was coming, they said it was going to be a game changer for the whole cultural scene here in Orlando. So it’s been a nice journey to really help move the arts forward, certainly with ballet. But we just got awarded four million dollars yesterday toward our new building. So we’ve got the  money to build it. So that’s another nice thing to celebrate in my tenth anniversary.

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The end of an era: reflecting on ballet patron Harriett Lake

JB: We were very sorry to hear about Harriett [Lake, patron of the Central Florida art scene who passed away recently].

AR: She seemed so vibrant.

JB: She did so much for the ballet and for the Central Florida arts scene, what will it be like going forward without her? Was she very intrinsic?

RH: I was interviewed several times about her passing as they knew we were close, and she adored me and I adored her. And I just feel that she has left such a legacy that she’s never really going to be gone. Not a day goes by that we don’t think about her; certainly that I don’t think about her. You know, she just touched everything. That building’s [the new rehearsal facility] going to have her name on it.

I just think of her and she makes me smile. She was so openly and uniquely herself. She’s just a one of a kind and … I’ve saved messages from her. [Mr. Hill retrieves his cell phone and shows voice mails from Harriett]. She would always say ‘Hey gorgeous.’ See? [Scrolling] Harriett, Harriett, Harriett, Harriett.

AR: How nice!

Mr. Hill’s Phone: ‘Oh my God, gorgeous. I finally got myself together enough to go out.’

All three: Awwww!

RH: They’re all like that. ‘Oh my God, it was unnecessary but the flowers were beautiful.’ I would send her flowers all the time. She spoke her mind. Whatever she gave it was always ‘You’re the artistic director, every decision you make I support.’

JB: It’s very lifemaking to have a patron like that. That will support your decisions and tell you that you are the artist, I trust your decisions.

RH: There’ s a writer named Mike McCloud, he did a story once in Orlando Magazine, an article about Harriett. He said in the article how much Harriett really supported me, and he referred to that as, ‘talk about your job security.’ I remember thinking that was a very astute thing to say.

[McCloud wrote a lovely obituary of Harriett Lake.]

JB: And very honest. I mean art needs to live, and unfortunately to live it needs money.

Orlando Ballet and the City Beautiful

AR: There was a cut in the art budget for the state.

RH: Huge.

AR: Did it impact the ballet more than you thought it would?

RH: We were counting on, I think, a hundred and fifty (thousand), and it went down to like, seven. So we had to adjust our budget. Figure out where to get that, because it was in our budget. But we’re past all that. We’re doing pretty well. I think the new building’s going to take us to the next place.

JB: The turnout for Beauty and the Beast was astounding. I mean it was like, packed.

RH: Last season was record-breaking box office for us. And I think we’re going to outdo it this year. We’ve already at this point… You know one of the ballets that sells itself is Swan Lake, so we opened with Swan Lake last year and we’re doing a comparison of advanced sales. We get a daily report. And already Carmina is outselling Swan Lake.

JB: Wow.

RH: I want that house packed. I think it will be.

AR: We’ll do our small part.

JB: Every drop in the bucket.

RH: We did an open rehearsal for what we call ‘Members of the Bar,’ a kind of ‘Friends of the Ballet’ … Part of the deal was if you join Members of the Bar, you get to come to open rehearsal, so we did one last Saturday. This is a perfect first ballet for people to see because it’s so athletic and it’s so not like ‘ballet’. So I thought, good timing.

JB: We’re in an age of digital marvels when you can see people on TV do anything and it looks real, but being in the room with the physicality of it is so much more grounding … there’s just such a profound effect on you when you leave the theater. You’re like, I did see that, that was a person who jumped five feet off the ground, over and over, for two hours straight.

RH: No, it’s true. Also, I think because everything’s so digital … people are solitary a lot. The social aspect of people going to the theater and socializing and walking into the house and hearing the orchestra tuning — it’s a whole experience. I think more and more we go in that other direction, the more people are going to desire that in their lives.

JB: I think it seems like people are moving more towards an experiential life than a material one. I know that’s been a lot of discussion in people’s blog posts and tweeting and Instagram is like going somewhere and doing a thing as opposed to just watching or reading things at home; it’s about going and having the full experience.

RH: It’s like when we do Creative City Project. Have you been to Creative City Project?

AR: Yep!

RH: Two nights in a row this time. I’m actually creating something special for it. It’s very edgy, very techno and very funky that’s going to fit into that outdoor street scene, an in-the-round kind of thing.

AR: So, projecting forward ten years: you’re in 2028, where do you see Orlando Ballet as part of the community and how do you think it will have grown by then?

RH: Oh, I want it to be a real player on the world stage, in the ballet world. It really is on its way to being a cultural gem. I want it to be a place where it really does keep the art form alive.

JB: And you do that by reaching the new generations. Things like Beauty and the Beast really reach out to children who may not have… Not all children will necessarily connect with the stories of Carmina Burana, or Odette, but they know what Disney is. They know that.

AR: Especially here in Orlando.

Carmina Burana is playing October 12, 13, and 14 at Dr. Phillips Center.

Author: jennnanigans

Orlando-area writerly person.

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