Aaron Robison, English National Ballet. Photograph by Karolina Kuras

Wanderlust

Aaron Robison dancing around the world

Aaron Robison’s dancing has taken him around the world and back again. The former principal at San Francisco Ballet and Houston Ballet soloist returned last year to his native UK to join Tamara Rojo’s English National Ballet at the highest rank. He danced in the recent world premiere of William Forsythe’s “Playlist (Track 1, 2)”—the first new Forsythe work mounted on a British company in more than two decades, and was the poster-child for the bill, “Voices of America.”

Aaron Robison, “Voices of America” by English National Ballet. Photograph by Jason Bell

It’s clear Robison is riding a balletic wave. Speaking from Houston, Texas, Robison shed some light on the origins of his wanderlust, and what drives him artistically.

“I get itchy feet,” 31-year old Robison says brightly. “You only have one career, right, so you might as well make the most of it.

“Each company has something different to offer, and I think that’s what appeals to me on a motivational level. You know, it’s nice to be around different dancers, different ballet staff, to have fresh eyes on you as a dancer.”

Born in Coventry, the Robison family moved to Barcelona when he was ten. “My father is a car modeller and his work took him there, so we moved to Spain, and my family lived there for over 22 years.” Robison continued his dance training at La Compania Juvenil de Ballet de Catalunya and at the Conservatorio de Barcelona before returning to the UK with a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School.

Upon graduation, Robison was offered a spot at the Royal Birmingham Ballet, under the direction of David Bintley, where he flourished, touring widely and dancing numerous classical roles in Bintley ballets. He also picked up several accolades, being awarded first place at the Young British Dancer of the Year, Gold Medal at Seoul’s International Ballet Competition, and first prize at the Prix de Lausanne in 2004.

Robison was hungry for repertoire. “I wanted to be able to dance Neumeier works, Forsythe, Jiří Kylián, you name it,” he says. So when the opportunity came in 2010 to return to Spain to join Ángel Corella’s newly formed Corella Ballet Castilla y Leon (later Barcelona Ballet), Robison didn’t hesitate. “Ángel was a dancer who I really admired growing up. So when the opportunity arose, I just took a leap of faith.”

Robison spent two years touring Spain with Barcelona Ballet. “It was a lot of fun getting to travel Spain.” Corella also had an expansive influence on his dancing. [It was] “a completely different approach to how to interpret a role and how to carry a ballet— it gave me that sense of freedom again. I feel like Ángel helped me find that again in my dancing, so it was great to work with him.”

Serendipitously, while on tour to Houston, Texas, Robison was spotted by Houston Ballet’s artistic director Stanton Welch. With the financial crisis and funding cuts spelling the end of Barcelona Ballet, Robison reached out to Houston Ballet.

“It came at a good time because a few months after getting back to Spain, the company folded. So I phoned Houston Ballet, and they offered me a contract. I landed on my feet.

“It was a huge culture shock in the beginning going from Europe to Texas,” Robison laughs. How did you cope? “I don’t know—I guess I met my girlfriend!”

Robison’s career has not always been so charmed, however.

“The first year was really difficult because, well, when I first got here things were going really well, but then in a Nutcracker performance I dislocated my shoulder onstage and had to have surgery. That was tough. I spent nearly nine months out of dancing.

“And I had really bad luck actually—while I was off with my shoulder, literally two weeks after the surgery, I was just crossing the road, and I put my foot in a pothole and sprained my ankle. I went to the hospital and they said you’ve got a really severe sprain, but obviously we can’t give you crutches because your arm is in a sling and do you want a wheelchair?!

“I spent like three weeks on the sofa, isolated. So that was a really tough time for me.”

Aaron Robison, English National Ballet. Photograph by Karolina Kuras

With injuries healed, Robison found his footing again, even learning to drive. “Eventually I got my driving licence which really helped a lot. [Houston] is such a spread out city that if you don’t drive, it’s really difficult to really enjoy it.”

At Houston Ballet, Robison was able to develop his contemporary side, too. “I’d done the odd contemporary ballet here and there,“ he says, “but Houston Ballet, they’re really quite versatile, so you’re always working on that side of dancing too.

“Especially coming back to England now, I feel like a different dancer in that sense; more versatile than when I left.”

In 2015, Robison was promoted to first soloist. “Working with John Neumeier was an experience I’ll always remember. He picked me to do Oberon in his “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as first cast kind of thing. It was a lot of pressure because it was the first time the company was doing a Neumeier ballet, but it was a great experience for me.”

Robison counts Des Grieux in “Manon” and William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” as highlights of his Houston days. “Working with Bill Forsythe—another great choreographer to work with. At Houston, we were really lucky, so many great people.“

During Robison’s final year with the company, he worked with the ballet master at San Francisco Ballet, Ricardo Bustamante. “He came to do “Giselle” with us. I really enjoyed working with him in the studio, and during that last year I was just starting to get itchy feet again, like I do, and San Francisco Ballet was a company that always seemed really attractive.

“When I was 15, they came to Barcelona and I worked with them as an extra in “Swan Lake.” I remembered back then thinking they have amazing dancers and again, great, diverse repertoire.”

Robison, ever humble, says, “I was really happy to get offered a principal contract there, so that was that. I’d been at Houston for four years; there was something still inside me that made me feel like I needed to keep moving.

“It’s funny, when you have these relationships in the studio with someone and you create a special bond, it makes you want to work with them again, so that was part of it.”

The rigour of SFB’s schedule however proved challenging.

SFB has a radically different way of working and producing their season than most other ballet companies, Robison explained, rehearsing repertoire and new ballets in one half of the year, and maintaining a rigorous performance schedule from “The Nutcracker” until May.

“I found that challenging for the body,” he says. “I was a bit worried about my body, staying and working that way. I feel that when I’m doing a role, I need to learn the steps, take in the choreography and then perform it; that’s what works well for me.

“Each role you do, you want to give your best and it requires a lot of work and concentration. And some roles don’t come so naturally, so you have to work on how to make it look good on your body” he says, adding, “But that’s what’s addictive too, trying to own a role.”

Robison danced the title role in Liam Scarlett’s “Frankenstein” (incidentally, he and Scarlett were in the same year at the Royal Ballet School), which he recently reprised as a guest artist. The company too, he notes, was not bad. “I’ve been lucky—I loved dancing with Sofiane Sylve, and loved dancing with Sasha de Sola, and Frances Chung.”

Aaron Robison, English National Ballet. Photograph by Karolina Kuras

Things were going smoothly for Robison on the West Coast, however, the call from home, and Tamara Rojo’s newly invigorated English National Ballet proved too strong.

“After I was talking with Tamara about the roles that were coming, it seemed really appealing. And also to be back in London and close to my family again were big factors in moving back,“ he explains, adding, “My parents are always asking for tickets now, and it’s really nice for them to be able to come.

“ENB has got people looking at them and talking about them at the moment, for sure. [Rojo] is a very strong woman and she has a clear vision of what she wants; definitely something I wanted to be a part of.”

With a generous nature, and diligent approach, it’s easy to see why this Robison has been welcomed by company after company. And yet there’s still more to come.

“Too many great ballets out there, and not enough time!” He laughs. “I’d love to do “Onegin” and “Mayerling.” I haven’t done Don Q[uixote]. When I was a kid they said stop dancing everything like Basilio!—funnily enough, I haven’t done Basilio. I do love the drama.”

Any advice for young dancers? “Listen to your mum,” he says without skipping a beat.

“I would say, be really open to listening to people but also stay mentally strong—because it’s such a difficult but great profession, and there’ll be times when it’s really hard because things aren’t going to work all the time, or you might be cast in roles that you think aren’t right. It’s those times you have to stay strong and keep working and believing that in the end it will work out.

“I haven’t had a straight forward career; I’ve had to find my way to reach to the top. But if you’re really passionate about dancing and keep working and listening to the right people, you’ll be rewarded in the end.” He pauses. “Forget all that. Just keep your eye on the ball.”

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