Robert Tewsley: Natural-Born Prince

Classic Arts Features   Robert Tewsley: Natural-Born Prince
Robert Tewsley makes his debut as a principal dancer with NYCB in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker.

Robert Tewsley, New York City Ballet's newest principal dancer, had plenty of reasons to be anxious this December. He had arrived in the city for a two-week visit and had hit the ground running, learning three new roles, taking class, opening bank accounts, and searching for a place to live.

And yet, even on the eve of his scheduled debut as the Cavalier in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, Mr. Tewsley was poised and calm, reflecting on the sudden and surprising turns his life had recently taken with a genial good humor. Perhaps it's his disciplined technique; ballet dancers are skilled at finding a balance, after all, and Mr. Tewsley's years of training seemed to be serving him well.

Mr. Tewsley had expected to be spending the winter‹and the foreseeable future‹in London. After six years with the Stuttgart Ballet, the British-born dancer, who was trained at the Royal Ballet School, was ready to move on last year.

"I loved Stuttgart and had a great relationship with the director, Reid Anderson, whom I'd worked with for twelve years," he said. Mr. Tewsley followed Mr. Anderson to Stuttgart after six years with the National Ballet of Canada. "But I wanted to go home. I hadn't lived in England since leaving school. I had just danced with the Royal Ballet as a guest for a season, then Ross Stretton offered me a job."

The homecoming proved to be short-lived. Mr. Stretton announced his resignation shortly after Mr. Tewsley arrived last fall, and the atmosphere changed.

"Unfortunately it turned out that I was performing very infrequently‹it averaged out to be once every two weeks," he recalled. "I thought it was better to leave sooner, before I got settled in."

Mr. Tewsley resigned, but wasn't idle for long. A conversation with Peter Martins resulted in an offer to join New York City Ballet, and soon Mr. Tewsley was packing his bags again.

In fact, Mr. Tewsley is no stranger to the city or the Company. He danced with NYCB as a guest artist in the spring seasons of 1999 and 2000, in ballets including Theme and Variations and Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2. In The New York Times, Jennifer Dunning lauded his dancing in the latter, praising "the compelling simplicity of his turns and brisés, and his easy, accommodating partnering."

"New York had also been in my thoughts when I was thinking about leaving Stuttgart, but the desire to be near my family was paramount," Mr. Tewsley said. "I'd had such a wonderful experience when I was here as a guest, particularly the second time, when I got to spend two months. It takes a while to adjust to the demands of Balanchine‹it is so fast," he said with a quick laugh. "You can't just do it immediately. It takes a while. But the more you do the better it becomes‹for the dancer and the audience."

Sean Lavery, a ballet master and former principal dancer with NYCB, spoke enthusiastically of Mr. Tewsley's brisk assimilation of the Company style. "I came in from outside, too, so I remember what that felt like‹like being dropped from Mars onto Earth. But Robert adapts amazingly quickly. He's driven by a hunger to learn the repertory and master the technique. He's not afraid to try things. It's a joy to have him here."

Mr. Lavery also speaks of Mr. Tewsley as a "natural-born prince," and although his wide repertory in Toronto and Stuttgart contained a fair amount of Balanchine (he has danced in such diverse Balanchine works as Apollo, The Four Temperaments, and Stravinsky Violin Concerto), Mr. Tewsley has earned rapturous notices for work in full-length pieces, particularly the John Cranko ballets that are a staple of the Stuttgart repertoire: Onegin, The Taming of the Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet.

What brings an acclaimed specialist in such roles to immerse himself so happily in a new, very different ballet aesthetic?

"It's true that a really big part of my career was the Onegins and the Manons‹those meaty acting parts," he said. "But the truth is, that repertory can become too much; you can't spend your whole career just lifting people around and acting. That's why it's been so exciting to be here for the last week‹I've been learning ballet steps every day, practicing steps."

Mr. Tewsley spoke with obvious relish of the unexpected opportunity to learn an abundant new repertory. But a simple desire to dance‹to be onstage, in front of an audience, as often as possible‹may well be the key factor in his decision to join NYCB.

"I have found that if you only dance every two weeks, every performance is a first performance," he explained. "You don't get the chance to be comfortable onstage. Some people love that. When they're promoted to principal dancer they think, 'Great‹I only have to dance eight times a year.' I can't do that. I have to feel comfortable onstage, and the only way to feel comfortable onstage is to be onstage. That's what is so great here‹even if you're not busy, you're going to be onstage a few times a week."

With NYCB's extensive repertory and performance schedule, Mr. Tewsley should have no trouble getting comfortable. In addition to George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, in his brief initial visit in December he was learning roles in Mr. Martins' Symphonic Dances, and in Ballade, a Balanchine ballet returning to the repertory this season after a decade.

Shortly after that first Nutcracker, it was back to Europe, for a few guest performances and the cleaning up of loose ends, before returning to New York, "for good."

Mr. Tewsley admits he's not much plagued by the anxiety one might expect to attend such an upheaval.

"It's funny‹because I've been here before it doesn't feel like a debut somehow. That's what is so thrilling about being able to come here and join New York City Ballet when things went wrong in London‹I knew what I was coming to."

It might not have been the one he expected when he left Stuttgart for London, but in the end, Mr. Tewsley got a kind of homecoming after all.

Charles Isherwood is the chief theater critic for Variety.

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