In a year's worth of pivots for Orlando Ballet artistic director Robert Hill, the opening of The Robert Hill Collection this month might be the most dramatic one yet. The Collection sees Hill, 60, take the stage again as a performer after a nearly 20-year absence — hearkening back to his previous creative life as a principal dancer for companies ranging from the Royal Ballet to the American Ballet Theatre — for two long weekends' worth of shows.
During these performances, the Orlando Ballet's dancers revisit and re-create some of Hill's most memorable performances and choreography; a Robert Hill greatest-hits tour, if you will. And finally Hill himself steps into the spotlight to close the show, performing a solo piece by his friend and choreographer Jessica Lang, The Calling.
The Robert Hill Collection is also the Ballet's inaugural show in their home base of Harriett's Orlando Ballet Centre, and Hill lauds both the space's intimacy — "There's no front curtain, when people are walking into their seats, dancers are warming up on stage," he chuckles — and safety in terms of ability to space the audience.
Orlando Weekly spoke to Hill after the first shows, finding him tired but upbeat, eagerly anticipating Round 2 this weekend.
How are you feeling after the first weekend of shows?
I'm exhausted, but I'm feeling good about the run of the first weekend. Overall, the audience response has been very terrific and people are even coming back for a second look, because they really enjoyed so much what they saw.
How much does muscle memory kick in when you're on stage, after so much time?
It's not like I'm returning to the stage in the way that I used to go on stage. I can't do that. At my age, I simply cannot re-create the roles that I used to dance. This was an opportunity to work with my dear friend Jessica Lang — a world-renowned choreographer — who made this solo for her husband originally, and it has been performed by males and females in companies all over the globe. She took the choreography and she made some adjustments that were appropriate for me at this point in my life and my physicality.
It was a wonderful opportunity that had a sort of novelty about it and I thought, "Yeah I'll take that on." But that was over a year ago originally, and then the pandemic came and the whole concept of staying in shape ... it became something else. But as a result, it gave me the time to be able to ponder doing this, and the nature of The Calling, and it became very profound.
What was the selection process for choosing the other pieces to be performed in this show?
It's like a sampler box of chocolates. I had a really fortunate, very long career, and a very, very diverse repertoire that ranged from Swan Lake and Don Quixote to contemporary choreographies by Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris.
Then, after retiring as a dancer, I started doing choreography and I created a lot of different pieces here in Orlando over the 12 years that I've been the director, so there was a wide variety of repertoire to select from. So it does go from contemporary into a classical solo, back into contemporary and it closes with me doing the solo. It seems to have a nice beginning and a nice journey and a nice end.
Would you talk a little bit more about the time you took for reflection?
Because of the pandemic and because of quarantining and because of isolation ... I think a lot of people were reflecting inward and re-evaluating what motivates us to do what we do, what's making us want to get up each day and do something. It really gave me the opportunity to reflect on the fact that ... I discovered dance in high school, and I knew immediately that this is what I would be doing and I never questioned it. I never had to make the decision, "Is this what I want to do?" And it's been like that ever since.
Reflecting on that gave me a sort of newfound appreciation for the fact that I get to do what I do because so many people are generous enough to help us to do this and create beautiful art, and share it with the community and share it with the world. I like living with that kind of a feeling and I like sharing that with people.
And what's going through your head approaching this last run of shows?
I'm really enjoying it because, as a dancer, you really only improve as an artist by performing. I mean, you can rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, and of course you can progress technically. But until you get out on the stage and perform for an audience — that creates an environment and adrenaline and element that you can't re-create in the studio.
We had five shows last weekend, and we have six this weekend, and I'm enjoying watching the dancers have several opportunities to excel and to grow as artists. And they are. It's really wonderful to see that happening.