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    This story has been updated to include more information we learned after this story went to press about a homophobic letter the Louisville Ballet received in March 2018.

     

    You think it’s Pinkerton up there onstage, with his new Japanese bride, the lover he’ll soon forsake. But it’s not. That’s Robert Curran, the dancer, performing Madame Butterfly in November 2011, the last season of his career. You think he’s gazing at Cio-Cio San, the character, but he’s not; he’s gazing at his dance partner, Rachel Rawlins, a woman he has danced with many times in his 16 years with the Australian Ballet, 10 as a principal artist. Yes, of course, he knows the story, the betrayal coming up, poor Cio-Cio San’s fate. He will bring all of that to life — has trained, monastically, to do so. But right now, with this pas de deux, when the two characters are about to sleep together for the first time, he has the chance to push himself into that indeterminate thing that makes true art happen: risk. For that he’ll need emotion. Real emotion. Not just Pinkerton’s, but his own. So he’s thinking about Rawlins: What can he do to surprise Rawlins? How can he make Rawlins — not Cio-Cio San, the character, but Rawlins — feel something?

    He stands there with those shoulders and those arms and that sculpted, ancient-Greek stance, like he’s both soft and made of stone. They levitate into one another in their simple white garments, moving as deliberately as natural phenomena — as waves, as wind. At least, it looks that effortless to the audience. They don’t see the moments of doubt just before the performance — Can I do it? Am I strong enough? — or the grueling effort up close, the sweat and the snot and the soiled makeup. Every mouth in the crowd is surely airless. Curran lifts her in his two hands and something happens between those two bodies, those two instruments forged through a years-long crucible of training — something bigger than any two characters, any two people, something unlike anything that happened during the hours and hours of rehearsals. The exertion of performing sometimes leaves him seeing spots, but just now he sees only her, and because he sees only her, everyone in the room sees only her. This is his craft: to look at a partner in a way that makes everyone in the crowd swoon. In this moment, before Pinkerton leaves Cio-Cio San alone with nothing but a new child, before Cio-Cio San’s ultimate sacrifice, Rawlins owns the room.

    It’s not Cio-Cio San he lies with. That’s Rawlins. It’s not Pinkerton on top of her as the lights glimmer down, burying his face in her neck, knowing he’ll leave. That man up there is Robert Curran.

    What that means is a more complicated matter.

     

    It’s just before 8 a.m. on a brisk Tuesday in February when an Audi the color of a storm cloud pulls into the lot at the Louisville Ballet headquarters, a building-sized shard of metal and glass on East Main Street. In a fluid motion, the driver’s-side door opens, and a bright white high-top Nike sneaker slips out, followed by a calf, smooth as an apple beneath rolled-up, black, form-fitting sweatpants and one of those hoodie vests that look like the Michelin Man, only slimmer, black, and much more hip. That’s Robert Curran, 42, a peppering of hair on his otherwise shiny head, a little hugging his trigonometric jaw. His clear brown eyes pop, even this early and even more than usual, bolstered by the residue of the makeup he wore to Cher’s concert at the Yum! Center last night. (At age 72, she was incredible, Curran says. Later, when I ask him what his favorite Cher song is, he says, “You can’t do that to Cher.”)

    He hands me a cup of coffee from Please & Thank You, his manicured nails glistening like the surface of an eyeball, one ring finger accented in color, as always. Today, it’s blue. (No symbolism there, just a bit of flair.) He’s been experimenting with gender roles in clothing lately, breaking the rigid barrier between masculine and feminine. Not long ago, something in him cracked open, painfully. Then light began to seep through, casting everything from Curran’s work life to his wardrobe into a new relief.

    But more on that later. We have business to attend to. We head into Curran’s office, a white room with a long and rough wooden table in the middle that serves as his desk. A trio of large, moody, black-and-white photographs dominates one wall. In one, a woman lies on the floor with a vacant look on her face. Across from this is a close-up of a man’s neck, cinched by a paper collar that seems to have stained his skin white — a piece by artist Vinhay Keo, one of several non-dancers who has collaborated with the Louisville Ballet under Curran’s direction. On another wall, an artwork depicts a male dancer, shirtless, wearing a long skirt made of Band-Aids and spiky, ornate white shapes. The books stacked on a back shelf and on the table suggest a veteran artist diving deep into the cultural history of Kentucky: everything from Ballet Technique for the Male Dancer and Philanthropy and the Arts to a book by Kentucky writer Chris Offutt, two books on Daniel Boone, one on bourbon and Night Comes to the Cumberlands. Curran tries to finish a book every week. Bring up novelists like Ian McEwan, Colm Tóibín or Michael Ondaatje, all of whom occupy his shelves at home, and Curran really gets to talking.

     

    “They're in the studio all day. All day! I would be like a pig in mud.” 

     

    This morning, Curran has a monthly medical meeting. He sits down next to senior ballet master Harald Uwe Kern (essentially one of the dance coaches, if you need to butch up the lingo) and several employees from a physical therapy business called KORT. Physical therapists visit the ballet daily to keep up with the idiosyncrasies of dancers’ bodies, the strengths, weaknesses, injuries — monitoring them like racehorses. One of the KORT employees has brought her newborn to the meeting, and Curran is smitten.

    “She’ll probably sleep,” the mother says.

    “I kind of hope she doesn’t,” Curran replies, smiling with his photogenic teeth.

    The therapists discuss the individual exercise regimens they’ve developed for dancers, the opinions of some of those dancers’ doctors (who, both the therapists and Curran say, don’t always understand the impact of dance on a body), and dancers’ performance in classes. There’s talk of tracking dancers’ heart rates in the future, the prospect of which Curran approves. Parts of the conversation sound like a verbal anatomy exam. Curran doesn’t use notes, but he seems intimately aware of what’s going on with each dancer. Is his ankle OK? Is surgery really the best option for her? One of the therapists mentions how she saw a dancer smoking, and that she said it was a bad idea.

    Beefing up what Curran calls the ballet’s “medical team” was one of his priorities after taking over the company as artistic director in 2014, following the retirement of previous director Bruce Simpson. Curran says he added the title and responsibilities of executive director about 12 months in. Having physical therapists onsite every day was not the norm. If a dancer gets injured or has to stop performing because she’s pregnant, Curran finds ways to keep them involved with the company, like having them work on the administrative side, until they’re ready to dance again. When a young dancer named Luke Yee joined the company on short notice last year, he spent some time crashing with a friend. Curran took a bed and mattress he had in storage and delivered them to Yee. Longtime Louisville Ballet dancer Leigh Anne Albrechta had a fractured foot during Curran’s first season, so he sent her to work with the Australian Ballet’s world-class physical therapy team. She says he’s provided a sense of security to the dancers, who work on yearly contracts. “He’s made it very clear to the dancers that, ‘I want you here; I want you hired for a long period of time,’” she says. “For the first years, I didn’t believe him. I was like, ‘There’s no way this guy is actually gonna hire us all back. Like, there’s no way.’ But he’s totally stayed true to it, and that drops a level of stress that is pretty high as a female in this profession.” Her fellow dancer Brandon Ragland also mentions Curran’s commitment to dancers.“(Curran’s) aim was not to fire or clean house, as some directors do. Which is totally possible, and kind of normal,” he says. “‘Guarantee’ isn’t the right word, but he’s told us multiple times that our contract is here for us, and it’s here for however long we want to be here.” (For this story, the ballet would not permit dancers to be interviewed without a marketing representative present, citing policy.)

    Holding the dual role — artistic and executive director of one of the oldest ballet companies in the country, founded in 1952 — is, well, a lot. Just today, Curran has the medical meeting, a meeting at the Kentucky Center with the heads of other performing-arts organizations, reporters from multiple outlets to wrangle, a meeting with the ballet’s marketing committee, and a rehearsal with the Louisville Ballet’s dance school. (In addition to the professional dance company, the Louisville Ballet maintains a school, with recreational classes for enthusiasts and vocational classes for those itching for a dance career.) Notice anything missing? How about, you know, studio time with the professional dancers? In one interview, Curran says he feels like he does 75 percent administrative work, 25 percent studio work, when he’d like it to be the reverse. He mentions the role of ballet master, which involves lots of studio time. “I look at what they get to do: They’re in the studio all day. All day! I would be like a pig in mud,” Curran says.

    A couple of dancers tell me they’d like to see Curran in the studio more. “He’s doing two jobs at the moment. It’s hard for both (roles) to be, in my opinion, as successful as they can be, because one area is gonna suffer more than the other,” Ragland says. “When he first got here, there was so much of this great energy in the studio.” He adds, “When he became both artistic and executive, and he started putting more energy into the administrative side, we felt very left by the wayside. And I know that it’s been a constant juggling act for him. But I will always say that it’s just too much for one person.”

    Curran wants to sit in on a rehearsal for an upcoming production called Human Abstract, a contemporary work by his longtime friend and fellow Australian Ballet alum, the choreographer Lucas Jervies, who often works with the Louisville Ballet. But Curran’s schedule is getting crowded. He has just enough time to fit in an hour for an Orangetheory class. (The idea is to grind through a series of exercises, trying to keep your heart rate in the “orange” or “red” zones, 80-plus percent of your ticker’s beats-per-minute max.) “I finish at 9 o’clock tonight, and I don’t want to go home and do anything but watch some episodes of The Good Wife and have a cup of tea,” he says.

    But the grind has helped grow the ballet’s budget from, by Curran’s estimation, about $3.4 million when he started to “very close to $5 million.” (Around 2010, the ballet was more than $1 million in debt, according to a 2014 Courier-Journal article about Curran’s hiring.) More and more dancers want to work there. At the first round of auditions Curran held in February 2015, maybe 30 or 40 dancers tried out. Last year about 150 did, and he anticipates 200 this year, if not more. “And I’ve got 26 contracts, and most of them are full,” he says. Still, it’s not enough. He’d like to see the budget grow to $7 million, recruit more board members, hire an executive director — do more, more, more.

    Add to that Curran’s ambitious programming. In addition to annual performances of staples like The Nutcracker, Curran is committed to new and challenging work — especially when it involves other art forms. The ballet has done performances involving musicians, writers and poets, architects, visual artists and designers. This year’s Choreographer’s Showcase paired choreographers with visual artists to explore themes surrounding technology and futurism. Last year, Curran created a new work with Vinhay Keo, a graduate of the Kentucky College of Art + Design who contributed light and set design and appeared onstage. The piece — which explored, in a conceptual sense, French colonialism in Keo’s native Cambodia — was titled in a Cambodian language called Khmer; it is not meant to be translated into English. If that doesn’t sound boundary-pushing enough for you: During one sequence, copper-colored confetti fell on dancers for something like 12 consecutive minutes. And if you’ve ever been to a classical ballet performance and been disappointed to hear the orchestra replaced by a recording, Curran has your back. He says the ballet spends between $300,000 to $500,000 a year on live music.

    This all brings up a ubiquitous phrase that drives Curran crazy, one that, he says, had infected the ballet prior to his hiring: It’s just Louisville. “This is not just Louisville, where we could use canned music. This is Louisville. The arts ecosystem is so tightly knit, relying on each other,” he says. He mentions his close professional relationship with Louisville Orchestra music director Teddy Abrams. “I can get on the phone to Teddy and say, ‘I’m meeting with this donor, or I would like to do this program,’ and he’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I’ll put in a good word for you.’ And I’d do the same thing,” Curran says. “I believe in what we are doing as individual companies, but also so much in what we get to do together. The collaboration with the opera last year was huge. It was so scary, but we had the opera and the ballet and the orchestra at Whitney Hall, doing really phenomenal new, brave work. If the work that we’ve done artistically has pulled us together so tight, then there’s potential for us to do some really big things.”

    Curran feels like the ballet is on the cusp of becoming a bigger, better-resourced organization. “We’re really, really close. But it’s like the last five meters before you get to the toilet when you’re busting. It’s excruciating, and frustrating, ’cause you feel like it should have already been done. I feel like it should have already been done. But if you don’t do it now, then the next person who comes along is going to be equally as frustrated,” he says. He looks up from his computer, resting his hands on the wooden table. Just then, someone needs him for something. “I better go and talk to these people,” he says. It feels like he’s gone for a very long time. “Sorry about that,” he says, slipping back into his office. I get the impression that Curran applies that Orangetheory method of running at full speed to his work. At one point, he tells me, “Working to live is a way to work, and I do not have any feelings of disrespect toward people who work to live. But I’m more of a live-to-work person.”

     

    If you leave a performance satisfied, thinking nothing more than, That was pretty, Curran has failed. I doubt anyone thought that after seeing the ballet’s 2017 production of Stravinsky’s Firebird, choreographed by Jervies, who set the story amid the refugee crisis. Not exactly comfortable territory for classical, conservative audiences. Curran has been preparing for the Louisville Ballet’s first show to feature queer narratives, a reimagining of Jervies’ Human Abstract, initially performed in Australia and again in Louisville in 2017, sans overt LGBTQ themes. (This version of Human Abstract, billed as a “psychological drama,” was performed February 28 to March 3. Cinderella shows April 5 and 6.) The ad for it depicts two men from behind, wearing only tights. (Insert peach emojis.) They hold hands, one of them looking straight ahead, the other looking at his partner. There’s copy next to them: “If you love someone, let him go.”

    As the ballet began to promote the season in early 2018, it received phone calls accusing it of Satanism, social media posts full of homophobic rhetoric, ugly snail mail and a grotesque email from Roberto Bolli, the chief of the University of Louisville School of Medicine’s Division of Cardiovascular Medicine. That email is a hateful word salad including gems like “sodomites,” calling promotional materials for Human Abstract “lurid sewage” and describing the ballet as all-caps “EVIL.” U of L spokesman John Karman told the Courier-Journal that someone sent Bolli’s email to the university in February. After a new local arts writing website, Arts Writing is Dead, published the email and later included Bolli’s name in an article, the American Heart Association fired Bolli from his position as the editor of their medical journal, Circulation Research. In a March 7 email to students, faculty and staff, U of L Provost Beth Boehm and School of Medicine Dean Toni Ganzel addressed the controversy without naming Bolli, and attempted to distance the university from his comments, writing, “The message appears to be a personal one; the faculty member did not mention the university or use his title in the email.” They also noted that, “These comments are disheartening. They do not represent the values we hold dear at the University of Louisville.” Karman also told the Courier-Journal that, if the university takes any further action in response to Bolli’s letter, the school will not discuss it publicly. 

    In response to all the pushback, the ballet posted an open letter “against hatred and prejudice,” composed by the ballet’s marketing team and Curran. It begins, “Our hope is that, whoever you are and whoever you love, you’ll feel celebrated at Louisville Ballet.” It goes on: “This particular company’s past is one of resilience, loss, and most importantly, love. And from the first brick at Stonewall nearly 50 years ago” — a reference to the 1969 riots against police at New York’s Stonewall Inn bar, commonly credited as the beginning of the gay rights movement — “to the historic marriage-equality decision only four years ago, we feel it’s a fundamental part of our mission to express narratives that honor those who’ve consistently fought against bigotry and discrimination.” The ballet’s cover photo on Twitter shows two male dancers resting their heads on each other’s shoulders, promoting Human Abstract.

    “I’m proud of it, and I think that we need to stand in our truth and not be afraid, because there are little girls and boys that need to look up to something and feel that they’re supported,” says the ballet’s marketing director, Cherie Perez. “What makes me sad is, Robert and the dancers who have dealt with this their whole life, they’re reaction is to laugh it off. And I’m not OK with that. I don’t want them to have to laugh it off.”

    “I’ve been dealing with this more than 30 years. Not even necessarily to do with my sexual orientation, just my career path. And you do just get very good at laughing it off and pushing it deeper down,” Curran says. “It just pushes down further and further into you until you start hating yourself. I’m just not doing that anymore.” He adds: “I am happy to say that the support is completely overwhelming the hatred. But it still bites that it’s out there, and it makes us even more committed to creating this safe space.”

    Over lunch one day at Proof on Main, Curran had said, “I feel like I could have shied away from bringing (Human Abstract) here; I could have tried to control that, and tell (Jervies) what he could and couldn’t do. But, number one, that does not work with Lucas. And number two, I think we do need to be putting things out there as an organization…that challenge anything that’s been in existence or been in our psyches for too long.” He continued: “I think that there are a lot of organizations the size of Louisville Ballet and bigger that do ignore those things. And I think people are looking to organizations of this size to set their guideposts. And if we constantly give them Disney, those conversations aren’t really gonna happen.”

    Curran was born into a Catholic family in Canberra, the capital of Australia, in 1976. He doesn’t remember if he asked to study ballet, or if his parents simply enrolled him in a class when he was about four years old. His grandmother, a lover of ballroom dance, wanted him to learn. “I’m pretty sure she was convinced that that was the only way I was going to meet a girl,” Curran says. “As it turned out, I met lots of girls, but….”

    His father, Brian, says, “As a very young boy, he would be jumping here and pirouetting there.” Brian filled the house with Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, classical pieces. Curran began his studies under Betsy Sawers, a respected teacher and “pioneer of dance science in Australia,” Curran says. A shy kid, Curran shrank to the back of the class. Then, when he was about six, his father decided to drop his gig at the Bureau of Public Statistics and get some fresh air in his lungs. The family moved to a cattle farm in rural New South Wales. That’s where Curran and his three younger brothers grew up. He and his next youngest brother slept in a trailer under a kind of carport in the back, his youngest two brothers and his parents taking up the farmhouse’s two bedrooms.

    It was a get-out-of-the-house-and-don’t-come-back-until-dinnertime kind of childhood: climbing mountains, plunging through creeks, encountering critters, riding BMX bikes, climbing hay bales. Curran didn’t take to farm life, though; shifting irrigation pipes and baling hay were not exactly his thing. Neither were sports, Curran’s dad confirms. His thing was ballet.

     

    “This is not just Louisville, where we could use canned music. This is Louisville. The arts ecosystem is so tightly knit, relying on each other.”

     

    Unfortunately, he wasn’t cutting it. Curran was the only boy in his ballet class at the small local dance school. His parents — pragmatic, bootstraps Boomers through and through — were goal-oriented, so Curran started working through the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus out of Britain. But his grades weren’t good enough, so his mother, Suzanne, decided to drive him the two hours, one way, to a dance school in Newcastle. She made the trek twice a week, her carsick son plunking away at his homework. Curran had three classes every week, so he’d stay overnight to make the last one, keeping his mother from schlepping back and forth yet again. Usually, they’d arrange for him to stay with another student. “Sometimes the arrangements didn’t work out, and I would end up just standing out in front of the school, hoping that some mother would pick me up and take me home,” Curran says. “And it usually worked out! I don’t ever remember a time where I was left out on the street. It was pretty relaxed in the ’80s.”

    Suzanne always encouraged creativity. Her husband would prod the kids toward music, but she fielded the stresses and excitements, the crayons and paints and messy craft projects. She’s the one who set makeup out on the kitchen table for 8- or 9-year-old Curran to play with. Base, pencil, eye shadow, lipstick, blush. He’d need to know how to do it for ballet — that was the official excuse. But, really, he was just having fun. Colorful, unskilled fun. “I have this vague recollection of this terrible makeup brush that was basically like a sponge that had just been wrapped over a stick, and green eye shadow. Never used green eye shadow since,” Curran says.

    Curran approached high school as a young man interested in ballet in the ’80s. Bullying was inevitable. He was small for his age, a late bloomer. He caught three different buses to get to school each day, and at one particular bus stop, other kids would sometimes dump out the contents of his ballet bag — his tights, uniforms, his ballet belt, which is essentially the underwear dancers wear under tights — onto the street. The bus would leave before he had the chance to gather up all his things, and he’d have to trek to the nearest phone to see if one of his parents could come collect him. He hadn’t contemplated his sexual orientation, but that didn’t matter to other kids, and homophobic language invaded his ears.

    Relief would come with a change in geography. One day, Curran was walking home from a neighbor’s house with his mother. “Do you really want to be a dancer?” she asked him. “Is that what you want to do for a job?”

    “Yes,” he said.

    “Well, would you want to move to Sydney and live with Nana and Pa?” she said. “There’s a school in Sydney where you can do your academics and your ballet training.”

    Curran thought: “This is going to be so much fun.”

    He spent the next couple years living with his grandparents and attending a performing-arts high school, eventually moving in with his uncle’s family. He qualified to join the Australian Ballet School in his mid-teens, but his parents insisted he finish high school. After graduating at 17, he moved to Melbourne and joined the dance school. It was the first time he was in an all-male class. The pressure mounted, with dance taking up most hours of the day. But Curran was a little older and more experienced than the others, and he managed to complete the three-year course in two years. He says he was one of about six young men from the school selected to join the company.

    The dance world is a strange place to become sexually aware. The intimacy borders of the rest of the world melt away at the barre: every day, dancers touch others and are touched. They hone their bodies into tools that other people use. “It’s really, really confusing,” Curran says. “The bodies are such specimens. You lose perspective, is the best way to put it. You’re looking at a female form and thinking, ‘My, god, she’s beautiful.’ But are you looking because she’s a beautiful dancer, or because she’s a beautiful woman? And same thing with men. Am I looking at the person thinking, ‘I want to emulate that?’ or ‘I want to be with that?’ You totally lose that perspective.”

    Becoming a professional dancer complicated matters. Curran made his career as a partner. His director at the Australian Ballet, David McAllister, who still holds that position, says ballerinas had “bidding wars” over who got to dance with Curran. When Curran joined the company, McAllister was still a dancer, and he performed a version of Cinderella in which Curran lifted him off his feet. “I remember getting to Robert, and it was like, ‘Oh. My. God,’” McAllister says. Members of the company used to call Curran’s style “fingertip partnering.” “Because he’d have his partner hanging off one finger, and looking beautiful, and as if she was in the most comfortable position,” McAllister says. With all that attention on him as a woman’s partner, would audiences believe him if they found out he was gay?

    Curran wasn’t totally sure what he believed himself. Then, in his early 20s, he fell for another man. “Totally different to me. Extrovert, crazy, ADD, Scorpio,” says Curran, a Taurus. “But something happened that hadn’t happened before, so I was like, ‘OK, you’ve got to pay attention to this.’ The intimacy became different, even the sexual intimacy was very different.” Still, he kept his personal life private for fear it could affect his career. And even after he came out to his parents in his mid-20s — “That was a nonissue; it changed nothing,” his father says — Curran had relationships with women. “I don’t think that I’ve ever been really sure,” he says. “I cannot imagine myself in a relationship with a woman, but I can’t say that I was ever like, ‘OK, exclusively, that’s it.’ I think they say, ‘I’ve never been a gold star gay.’ I think some people use this as a cop-out, but I do genuinely think that it’s the person, not their gender.”

    McAllister says that Curran rose through the ranks quickly, becoming a principal artist — one of the ballet’s front-and-center stars — at 25. He danced thousands of performances, all across the world. His parents made their first trip beyond New Zealand to see him perform in the UK. They also saw him in Paris and Tokyo, among other places. 

    In his spare time, Curran earned a business degree from Monash University (which the Australian Ballet paid for) and completed a graduate-equivalent certificate in elite dance teaching at the Australian Ballet School. Together with Lucas Jervies and other dancers from the Australian Ballet, Curran formed Jack Productions, a dance company focused on new work, and premiered Human Abstract in 2010. His first exposure to balancing the artistic side of things with business, Jack Productions operated for the next three years.

    In 2011, in his mid-30s, Curran danced the best season of his life. “I pretty much did every single opening night,” he says. “I got all the main roles. I got to do Merry Widow, Madame Butterfly, Requiem — like, all the ballets that I really wanted to do. After the Rain. All these ballets that were really important to me. I got to do them all. And a traditional Swan Lake in Hong Kong. It just wasn’t going to get any better than that.”

    One day in October when he was staying in Brisbane with a friend, he lay down on an outdoor stage at a park, and the thought came to him: I’m ready to retire. He knew it was time because he didn’t feel the pangs of terror that had always accompanied the idea. When he told McAllister, Curran cried.

    “It was sort of unexpected, I’ve gotta say,” McAllister tells me. He says the ballet had already printed brochures for the upcoming season with Curran’s photo all over them. They ran them anyway. McAllister believes that Curran could have danced for years to come, that he showed no signs of wearing out. “I suppose it’s a bit like the swan: to make all that beauty gliding across the water, you never see the pedaling of the feet,” he says. “He saw there was more in life than the pedaling.”

    In Curran’s last show, he danced the role of Count Danilo in The Merry Widow, bowing at the end with a bouquet of flowers. Then the curtain fell.

    There’s a quote by contemporary dance legend Martha Graham I’ve heard Curran use before: “A dancer dies twice — once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful.” Curran was sure. He would not come to regret the decision. But was it painful? Of course. Dancing had been inseparable from his identity since before he was making memories.

    That man there, exiting the stage — who is that?

     

    Curran didn’t expect to get the job in Louisville. He was 37, only a couple years out of his dance career, and relatively inexperienced. He’d spent some time working with the Bangarra Dance Theatre, an organization for indigenous Australians, after hanging up his dancing shoes, but he’d never been a full-time director. He knew before he left his first interview in Kentucky that the Louisville Ballet wanted him to come back for a second — he was one of four finalists selected from 80-something candidates. But after that second interview, Curran felt sure he’d tanked it. He’d prepared a detailed, 45-minute PowerPoint presentation, but something went wrong in the interview, and he couldn’t get it to work. “So I had to turn it into a handout, and my 45-minute, timed, rehearsed, perfect (presentation) turned into an hour and 45 minutes to try and explain without the visuals, and trying to connect with people as they were reading ahead,” he says. He needn’t have worried. “He was apparently unruffled, and he presented this beautiful assignment on his vision for Louisville Ballet,” says board member and former board president Lisa Leet, who was on the search committee that interviewed Curran. “The thought that went through my mind at the time was, The show must go on. He exemplified that.”

    After the presentation, a board member said something like, “So, this is all really exciting. How do you propose to pay for it? You’ve been given all of our financials. You know what we’re able to manage.” Uh-oh. Curran hadn’t received any financials. “It was horrible,” he says. “It was the most horrible feeling.” He told his boyfriend to forget it — the Louisville job wasn’t going to happen. Just, wait, his father told him, wait and see.

    One hot morning in July, Curran lay in bed in his apartment in New York, uncharacteristically late, past 8 a.m. He got a call from the search firm and tried to summon the grace he’d need to weather the rejection. “I probably let it ring like eight times,” he says. He got the job. “I was stunned,” he says. He called his boyfriend, who was in Moscow at the time, and then his parents. Did his dad give him an I-told-you-so? “Oh, yes,” Curran says. “He lives for those moments.”

     

    That man up there at the Kentucky Center for a gala, a tie cinching his neck — is that Robert Curran? How about that man in the photo all the outlets like to use, the one of him wearing a gray sweater? Is that Robert Curran? Who is Robert Curran, exactly? Over the last year or two, he has been trying to figure that out.

    Curran has embarked on a quest for self-discovery in the wake of two major losses. A couple years ago, he broke up with dancer David Hallberg. It was not pretty. Curran had moved to the U.S. in part to be closer to him. Hallberg sustained what he worried would be a career-ending injury. Curran says he sent him to the medical staff at the Australian Ballet. Hallberg’s foot healed, but their relationship disintegrated. Curran felt betrayed. “The irony,” he says, thinking about how he and Hallberg switched countries, “is not lost.” New York Magazine covered Hallberg’s recovery; there is no mention of Curran in the piece.

    Curran didn’t take the best care of himself after the breakup. Some nights he couldn’t sleep. He didn’t eat enough. He was working on a new Swan Lake in Louisville, which was just a little too on-the-nose. “I’ve never, ever in my life felt like my ground, like the ground underneath my feet, was so useless to me,” he says.

     

    “I cannot imagine myself in a relationship with a woman, but I can’t say that I was ever like, ‘OK, exclusively, that’s it.’ I think they say, ‘I’ve never been a gold star gay.’ I think some people use this as a cop-out, but I do genuinely think that it’s the person, not their gender.”

     

    His mother, Suzanne, was a source of comfort, as she’d always been. Visiting from Australia, she’d hear Curran get up early in the morning when he couldn’t sleep and come sit with him on the other end of the couch, reading her Kindle. When he’d break down and the tears would flow, she’d scoot over and hold him, Kindle still in hand.

    As a child, Suzanne had contracted rheumatic fever. Her husband, Brian, says that at some point during her illness, her heart had probably grown to twice its normal size. In February 2018, she had the final of several heart surgeries in her life. After finishing a ballet production that involved the Kentucky Opera, Curran traveled back to Australia to be with his family while his mother recovered. One week became three. “We’d been in and out of that horrible room where they try to prepare you for the worst a couple of times,” Curran says. But his mother seemed to be on the mend, and the ballet had a production to get together. Curran came back to Louisville to work on Giselle. Then, over the next two weeks, his mother’s condition worsened. He didn’t make it back to Australia until shortly after she died in April.

    The experience brought Curran closer to his three brothers, who live in Australia. “Although,” he says, “I do believe they think I’m going to step in and be Mom’s replacement, ’cause they’re all straight country boys, and they’re like, ‘You’re the gay one. You take care of all that stuff.’ Mmmm, I don’t know about that, guys.” At another point in an interview, he says, “And my dad has completely changed now. My dad, up until my mom died, he very, very rarely — I could count on one hand that he would actually say to me, ‘I love you.’ And every time we talk now, he says it every time. And so my dad’s whole life has changed. And my dad’s wearing my mom’s jewelry. He’s doing stuff he would never have done before. He would never have had my mom’s wedding band on his little finger.”

    His mother’s death has changed how Curran interacts with Louisville Ballet dancers as well. “I had this preconceived idea that I needed to be like a distant authority figure,” he says. He still doesn’t exactly socialize with them — he’s a bit older than most of them, and there’s a built-in professionalism to the director-dancer relationship. “But I think coming out of that dark period, I just realized how much room there is for lightness in that power dynamic. It doesn’t have to all be authority and expectation and stern or earnest communications,” he says. “There’s room for vulnerability on my part. There’s room to show when I think something’s funny, or when I’m embarrassed, or when they embarrass me.” (“To get the dancers to make him laugh” is sort of a goal, dancer Leigh Anne Albrechta tells me. She adds that Curran has only shared personal stories during rehearsals maybe twice. “And we love hearing them,” she says.)

    All of Curran’s life he’d been put in costumes — those meant for the stage and those meant for the world. There’s the way he played the role of Siegfried in Swan Lake, and then there’s the way he played the role of manhood. There’s the way he played the role of a student, a dancer, a principal artist and, now, an artistic director. After all that loss, he started to question the parameters of those roles. “I think I had a reckoning with all of the sacrifices that I’ve made to be here in Louisville. And I’ve made some really big sacrifices,” he says. “And so if I’m going to be here, if I’m going to be doing this, what’s going to make me feel like me? I guess I’m tired of pretending. I’m tired of filling a mold. And I mean literally tired. Not frustrated tired but, like, exhausted. Like, depleted. So what am I going to do to energize myself?”

    It’s a buzz, heading into the women’s sections of clothing stores instead of the men’s — that same sense of adventure Curran felt when he first left home to study dance at 13. He likes to wear makeup from time to time, and he’s as comfortable in high heels as he is in Nikes. That’s Robert Curran at the Speed Gala in a kimono and Dr. Martens. That’s Robert Curran in full makeup at a holiday party. “Nobody batted an eyelid. Really, nobody cared. And it was really fun for me. I felt really comfortable, really natural, and easy. And the process was fun, too. Getting ready was fun,” he says. “It kind of harkened back to — this is almost a little paradoxical — but it harkened back to my process of getting ready to go onstage. That cathartic process of preparing yourself for something, instead of just throwing on the normal suit and tie.” In one interview, I ask Curran if he feels a responsibility to be open about his identity and inspire other queer people. “Yeah,” he says. “But not so much on the sexual orientation side. On the gender norm side. And I don’t know what that means for me.”

    One chilly night in February, Curran meets me for dinner at Eiderdown. We talk a bit about life outside hetero-normative margins. “As I proceed through more and more failed relationships,” he says, laughing a little, “I think I’m coming to terms with the fact that normality is not something I should be striving for. It’s really a waste of my time. Because judging myself against that standard, those standards, is pointless anyway, because that’s not what my life is ever going to be, or was ever going to be.”

     

    “I guess I’m tired of pretending. I’m tired of filling a mold. And I mean literally tired. Not frustrated tired but, like, exhausted. Like, depleted. So what am I going to do to energize myself?”

     

    We walk back to his apartment at the Germantown Mill Lofts. It’s a capacious one-bedroom with a hip industrial vibe — concrete floors, exposed brick walls, granite countertops, stratospheric ceilings. The boxes and boxes of wool Curran inherited from his mother sit by a shelf in the living room, waiting for Curran to sit down with a cup of tea, pull up The Good Wife on his MacBook (he doesn’t have a TV) and crochet them into more granny squares he’ll eventually form into a blanket. A chair that belonged to his grandmother sits in the corner of his bedroom, buried under a mountain of scarves. (When I told a friend who worked at the Kentucky Center that I was profiling Curran, she asked me which “marvelous scarves” I’d seen him wear. My favorite: a dark scarf with a flaming red dragon snaking along it.)

    Beside scarf mountain is his makeup station, a wooden table with a towel on it and an arsenal of products, arranged into a scruffy mise en place: palettes, wipes, scissors, brushes, pencils, lipsticks, two disembodied eyelashes lying in a case like little caterpillars. A pair of red high heels gleam on a shelf in the closet next to a pair of black leather heels with studs around the top cuff and a cream-colored clutch. (“I got the red pumps online at Nordstrom Rack,” he emails later. “I’m on a budget! It may be a long, long time before I get to shop at Louboutin! If ever?”) He says he’ll never wear the “horrible, boxy, straight man” cashmere sweaters again. In another interview, I ask him if he’s worried about how people will react to his looks. “I think there’s almost a bit of defiance in it for me, to be honest,” he says. “I feel like I want to live in a city that accepts all of that, and nurtures all of that — nurtures people’s individual ways of expressing themselves. And I think that there was an element of defiance. I think the only thing that worries me is that the amount of work that I need to do here to keep this company going and thriving isn’t always compatible with that expression. Because it takes time to put yourself out there that way; it takes time to be consistent about it. I’m sitting here in sweatpants and high-tops right now, with residue of makeup from last night, painted nails — but that’s not the whole picture. And it was fun, I had a fun time last night (seeing Cher). I got all dressed up, and I really enjoyed it. But it takes time to express yourself like that. And I don’t always have that time.”

    Curran mentions this about Louisville several times: He wants it to be a place where creative people feel comfortable expressing themselves — and an attractive city to people getting priced out of New York or Los Angeles. “The perception is that Kentucky is still a rural and agricultural state,” he says. “And it’s not. The majority of its population lives in Louisville and Lexington. And they are cities. You cannot disrespect the industries like coal, because the state exists on their shoulders. But at the same time, we have to be realistic about what the future is, and also realistic about what the opportunities are. I swear to you, in the next 10 to 15 years, people from the coasts are going to be looking at cities like Louisville, and saying, ‘That’s gonna be an easier place for me to live and do everything I want to do.’ If we’re not ready for that, they’re gonna go to Nashville or to Indianapolis, and Louisville is gonna turn into this grim, empty hole of a place. It just can’t! That can’t happen!”

    Curran makes me a cup of tea, and we sit down in his living room to watch some of his old performances with the Australian Ballet. I ask if he can send me the videos we’re about to see. “No,” he says. “These are courtesy of Australian Ballet. I’m not really even supposed to have them.”

    He cues up a video of him dancing Requiem. He lifts his partner up and down the way a gentle stream would carry a leaf. The piece ends with choral voices softening. It’s so tender. Except no, it’s not. Curran taps the space bar to pause the video. “And now I can’t feel my hands,” he says. I ask what he’d think about during a performance like that. “If I obsess over whether she looks good, it’s gonna look romantic anyway,” he says. “If I’m just constantly trying to make her comfortable, every woman and some of the men in the audience are just gonna be like” — he lets out a sigh — “I wanna dance with him.”

    Next he plays his pas de deux with Rachel Rawlins from Madame Butterfly. “I used to have a huge crush on her,” Curran says. “She knows my sexual orientation. She’s so comfortable with me. It was never about romance, so you can push it, actually, a lot further on the stage. Why the hell was I worried about what some audience members would think if I was out, and open?”

    We watch one last piece, from Afternoon of a Faun, awash in blue computer light. I ask Curran what he feels, seeing this now. He answers without hesitation: “Lucky that I got to do it. I wish I could have paid closer attention to what I was experiencing, but I think at the same time, if I had, I wouldn’t have been experiencing it.” Anything else he’d tell his former self? “I think, if I could talk to that person, I’d say, ‘You need to worry a little bit less, and express a little bit more. Take a few more risks. Trust your technique and your strength.’ I mean, I was stacked in that Madame Butterfly video. Huge. Huge! I did not have anything to worry about in terms of having to lift that 100-pound girl around.”

    For the past couple of years, Curran has been experimenting with visual art. He’s collecting various little objects, wondering how he can use them to contemplate gravity, like with the copper confetti in his work with Keo. But it’s not the same as dancing. “You know, I was thinking, working out today: There are moments as a dancer where your body is telling you you shouldn’t, you probably should stop. But you’re onstage, and you’ve got another 10 minutes to go. So you don’t stop. You have to keep going. And the reward that comes from that, at the end. Like, once you get past that point of questioning or doubting yourself, that’s a really special moment,” he says. “You start the show at 7:30, and at 10:30, when the curtain comes down, it’s been three hours of pretty grueling work. And so fleeting, you know? You’ve got nothing. There might be a video, maybe, but that’s not the same thing. It kind of disappears. I don’t think you can ever re-create that. There’s a kind of melancholy appreciation of the fact that, whatever I do — making a blanket, or making visual art — it’s not going to have the same” — he searches for the words. “It’s not going to replace that.”

     

    There’s Robert Curran, at the front of the class with the other teachers, finally in the studio for the first time this Tuesday in February. Students from the ballet school, most of them teenagers, are rehearsing for an upcoming show. He watches them silently, implacable. They pirouette into complex forms — or almost. They’re like a slightly out-of-focus picture. Curran moves them around, as if he’s turning a camera lens, and everything pops into place. The first time Albrechta learned one of Curran’s pieces, “He knew every single step that was going to happen.” At another point, she says, “We always giggle because we did this one section over and over and over again. And he was like, ‘Just one more time.’ But it was like 30 times.”

    “One of the other things that, if you were a dancer here, you would find out very quickly: Robert doesn’t like to repeat himself a lot,” Ragland says. “In the rehearsal process, he is able to bring out steps and be very clear and specific on the counts, the spacing. As a dancer, you have to be very focused on what he’s telling you because, probably after the second time, he’s gonna want you to have it.” And if you don’t? “It can be tense sometimes,” Ragland says. It’s not that he raises his voice. “It’s more so with Robert, it’s his tone,” Ragland says. “Like, sometimes, he can make you feel so small if he gets really frustrated with you.” Oh, and the eyebrows rise. If Curran’s eyebrows rise, you need to get your act together.

    Tonight his eyebrows are high. “There’s not enough attention to what each of you are doing as individuals,” he says, his voice even and firm. Every time someone shifts their weight, it’s audible. He lays into them for another good minute. “Are you going to do the work? The mental work?” he says. With that, they applaud and line up to curtsy at Curran and the other two teachers in the room. “It’s not that those girls can’t do it,” he says. “There’s nothing that bothers me more than apathy.”

    Just before this story is published, Curran tells me the board plans to hire an executive director in the next 12 months. It seems he might get the studio time he wants in the near future. For now, he’ll keep grinding. Spreadsheets, meetings, emails. “If I had more time, then I would be putting my hand up for some collaborations that would involve me as a performer,” he says. “It would be very different. It would be very, very different. But I don’t resent what I’m doing now, because what I’m doing now is a means to an end. For as long as I’m here in Louisville, we are succeeding.”

    This originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "I'm Done Pretending." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Jessica Ebelhar, jessicaebelhar.com

    Dylon Jones's picture

    About Dylon Jones

    Staff writer Dylon Jones first contributed to the magazine in 2014 and joined the staff in 2015. He's written profiles, features, essays, criticism and reportage about a wide variety of topics and won awards for feature writing and profile writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is particularly interested in narrative journalism, the arts and LGBTQ experience. Jones is an award-winning poet with work published or forthcoming in Tinderbox Poetry Journal, The Collagist and Redivider.

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