By Rachel Straus
NEW YORK — New York City Ballet principal dancer Robert Fairchild, 24, has a favorite quote. It lives on his Facebook page, alongside information about his hometown (Sandy, Utah) and pictures of his new puppy (Griz). The quote comes from the television series “Friday Night Lights,” whose inaugural 2006 season coincided with Fairchild becoming a professional dancer:
“Every man at some point in his life is going to lose a battle. He is going to fight and he is going to lose. But what makes a man is that in the midst of that battle he does not lose himself.”
A leading figure in the company built by George Balanchine (d.1983), Fairchild underwent at the beginning of his career what many ballet dancers describe as a trial by fire. It involved being thrown into major roles at a moment’s notice and being pushed to the limits of his physicality, to the point of exhaustion and severe pain. But Fairchild waged his battle to become a principal dancer with knight-errant composure. It helps that he has noble bearing, picks up material quickly (thanks to his competition jazz-dancer beginnings) and has constant counsel available from his sister, Megan Fairchild, a City Ballet principal. Even more importantly, Fairchild can make the classical style look fresh. “He’s like the handsome prince of today, but he doesn’t perform with all of those old manners of the 19th and 20th centuries,” says former City Ballet principal Heather Watts.
“He almost has a swagger when he dances,” says City Ballet principal Sterling Hyltin, his partner in “Swan Lake” at Lincoln Center in February.
In an art form increasingly focused on technical precision, Fairchild’s dancing expresses something far more—emotional courageousness. When he was a mere corps dancer, Fairchild originated the role of Romeo in Peter Martins’ 2007 “Romeo + Juliet.” The notoriously critical New York Times senior dance critic Alastair Macaulay wrote about Fairchild’s questing movement style: “[He] brings a fantasy quality to the pirouettes, as if his mood were tilting him blithely, voluptuously, off-center.”
While he may appear the dreamy poet on stage, Fairchild’s analytical rehearsal process is anything but: “I’m working on how to make telling the story the main point, and have the steps be the means in which to tell it.” Because Fairchild began studying ballet intensively only six years ago, he acknowledges that in classical roles (such as “Swan Lake”) he faces technical challenges.
Choreographer Eliot Feld took notice of Fairchild in spring 2006, when he was a 19-year-old apprentice. Feld was setting “Intermezzo No. 1” on City Ballet. When a male dancer became injured, Feld asked Fairchild to perform one of the romantic leads in “Intermezzo.” His partner would be his sister.
“’Oh my God,’” she remembers thinking at the time. “‘It’s going to be a nightmare. I’m going to have disgusting dreams.’”
She needn’t have worried. Staying clear of any incestuous implications, Fairchild maintained a courtliness, channeling his “servant’s heart,” as he calls it. “When I first got promoted —and this might be really out there—I heard this voice that said, ‘You’re still here to serve.’ And I know it wasn’t me saying it. I’ve always remembered that. There is something about the servant’s heart. To serve the public, the audience, to share my gifts with them, that is what it’s really about.”
Whatever mind set he might have chosen, “Intermezzo” was a success for the young dancer. The challenges have since increased exponentially. To date he has been featured in 13 Balanchine works, three by Jerome Robbins (including Tony in “West Side Story”) and 11 by contemporary choreographers. In 48 months, he has worked with all the big guns of ballet: Alexei Ratmansky, Wayne McGregor, Angelin Prelocaj, Jormo Elo and City Ballet’s ballet master in chief, Peter Martins.
Despite early predictions from his sister that he would land on Broadway (he was the family showman), “Robbie,” as he is known, remains committed to City Ballet and its repertory because, he says, “it has so many creative layers.” In the future he hopes to dance “Apollo,” one of the most demanding leads in the repertoire. A 1928 Stravinsky collaboration, the work—about the god of music and light— was Balanchine’s first public success; he described it as having a “sustained oneness of tone and feeling.”
The same can be said of Fairchild’s dancing. Like his favorite quote—“in the midst of battle he does not lose himself”— Fairchild confronts vast challenges and the bright lights of fame with a wholeness of spirit. Heather Watts describes it as “pure in some essential way.”
Copyright © 2011, Musical America