BY ERICA RUCKER
Louisville Ballet Artistic + Executive Director Robert Curran is tired of cashmere sweaters. It isn’t the sweaters, exactly. It is what the sweaters represent.
After finding himself on the outside of a long relationship and then experiencing the death of his mother earlier this year, Curran is reflecting on his collection of cashmere sweaters with distaste.
“I find myself questioning when I’m getting dressed,” he says as he leans on the granite countertop in his Germantown loft. He looks down at his outfit — a white t-shirt, khaki pants and white sneakers.
“Why am I wearing this tonight,” he calls it a ‘very preppy’ look. “I haven’t asked those questions for a really long time. I have this loathing toward these cashmere sweaters now. Why did I buy them?”
He isn’t seeking an answer. He knows why he bought them and he knows now why they irritate him so much now.
“I went to Sephora this weekend and I thought, ‘Shit, this is my place.’”
Curran is on the cusp of reclaiming something he’d long buried— himself.
It is easy to find oneself choking under the weight of stress — work or otherwise. It feels like being underwater, like drowning. Any chance to save our humanity—to reach for a hand that reaches back is welcomed. In those moments something as innocuous as a cashmere sweater becomes ominous. The sweater becomes shackle and Curran is ready to shed his.
He has spent much of his four years at the Louisville Ballet focusing solely on work and his role as Artistic and Executive Director. He’s kept himself from the spotlight with the intention to keep the focus on the company and not himself.
Curran spent 16 years in the spotlight as a principal male dancer in the Australian Ballet Company. He’s been the star and his role at Louisville Ballet offered him a chance to take cover. It was his chance to heal. He was losing his relationship and then losing his mother.
When his mother’s illness escalated, the shelter of the company became overwhelming. He needed to come out of hiding but he wasn’t sure how it would look.
“It began when I was pulling myself back and not ‘hiding’ behind the company, but certainly not expressing myself,” he said.
“I realized during the first ballet I did, the first original work I did [for Louisville Ballet] in the fall of 2016, that it was pretty much about my unsuccessfulness in relationships.”
Curran was in a seven-year relationship with American Ballet Theatre principal dancer David Hallberg. He reflects on the relationship with the benefit of time, distance and a renewed self-awareness.
“When I opened my eyes to what was going on, we might have been together for seven years, but we weren’t together for seven years,” said Curran.
“It wasn’t actually what I thought it was, but it’s done and my mom’s died. It feels a little like, getting the poison out,” he says shaking his arms away from his body. “I don’t want to be vicious or gratuitous. I’m trying to be really honest and authentic and trying to not be afraid of messy.”
Curran is taking the experiences of his relationship with Hallberg, the loss of his mother after her third open heart surgery, along with his well of ‘messy’, emotional stuff and pouring them into his latest work for the Ballet’s coming Mozart performance. Curran is performing a world premiere piece called ស្នាមប្រឡាក់ in collaboration with Cambodian-American, visual artist Vinhay Keo
The dance is set to the second movement of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. It is raw, discomforting and heavy.
“I knew I wanted to do a particular piece about a particular thing. Vinhay came out of nowhere,” said Curran. “I wanted to make a really dark piece and his work is all about light.”
“Vinhay and I talked a long time about colonization as a macro and micro thing. [So we will] be making the audience uncomfortable until they get used to being uncomfortable and aren’t uncomfortable anymore, then shifting it and taking away what they’ve gotten comfortable with away from them.”
In the ballet’s current Season of Romance, the idea of relationships for better or worse, is central to all of the works. The company is exploring all sides of human love, both when it is good and when it hurts.
“The piece is about where I really lost my identity as a human,” he says.
“I didn’t know who I was. I was maintaining a veneer of a successful happy relationship and then stepped really quickly into this veneer of being an artistic director. I was in these worlds of veneers that I felt other people needed to see when they looked at me instead of what’s really going on.”
Curran is pouring layers of cilantro, pine nuts and raisins in a bowl and waxing on the idea of stripping away what isn’t working anymore in his personal life.
“It’s definitely part of something bigger going on. I don’t know whether it’s her fault,” he says pointing at the Louisville Ballet Marketing Director Cherie Pérez. “Or whether it’s the timing, or whether it’s me coming to the realization that I can’t fill a mold anymore because it’s choking me. I’m claustrophobic.”
“Lately I’ve been thinking about how I behaved as a child. Who didn’t see this coming?”
Curran grew up in the ‘country’ in Australia. His grandmother insisted that he take dance lessons. She loved to dance and his grandfather had been a really good dancer. As his skill grew so did his need for better instruction. His mom, Suzanne Curran, drove him two hours each way to Newcastle, New South Wales for lessons.
On days when there were no lessons and Curran’s father was away, his mom would let him “work” on his ballet make-up.
“She would set me up on the kitchen bench and say, ‘you should practice your ballet makeup,’” he said. “She would get all of her makeup out and put it in front of me.”
“I would say to myself, ‘I’m doing my ballet makeup and getting better at my ballet makeup.’ Now I look back and think, ‘Girl…’”
He laughs, because it was in these moments with his mother’s cosmetics that he found his own love of makeup and why stepping into a Sephora felt like a relief even in a city that isn’t used to seeing its male leaders in eye shadow or heels.
Curran thinks it is important for Louisville to look at its leaders in a different light.
“A person who did come up with this new business model for the arts, that has been pushing for the Louisville Ballet foundation, that has been running this organization at the executive level with amazing assistance, there’s room for that person; and the person that can do make up and likes to wear high heels,” he says then stops.
“It’s not the heels. It’s the person that likes to express himself through what he wears. I love kicks. I’m really comfortable in heels.”
He continues to consider these ideas. This exploration of his outer self is his mirror to the inner life he’s re-calibrating.
“I’m 42 years old and I’ve never tried any of this stuff or I’ve always tried it under some safe excuse,” he says.
“I’ve never done anything without that excuse, just to see what it feels like, just to see what it does to my confidence and the way I can express myself. And what it does for other people who are also not feeling confident to express themselves. When they see someone in the position I’m in, comfortably honestly doing it, maybe there’ll be more people out there.”
At the end of dinner and as our conversation winds down, Robert relaxes on his turquoise sofa; an edge of the sofa arm is fraying. His arm rests on a gold pillow. His fresh manicure with one gold fingernail, a hint at the person aching to move forward after loss, shines in the dim light.
The set up is perfect. It’s the sum of all parts of this evening. It is an evening that, despite the topics of loss and the end of love, wove its own spell of romance and dreaminess.
Curran is new. He’s learning to walk again on the same legs that have given him an amazing career.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen and where it’s going to go,” he says sipping red wine.
“It’s really new. I think I’ll get some bemusement or some kind of ‘Whoa I didn’t see that coming.’ I mean, she thought I was straight,” again pointing at Pérez.
The Season of Romance continues on October 12 and 13th with Mozart. Tickets are available here.