Lorne Jackson talks to Birmingham Royal Ballet’s principal dancer, Robert Parker, about why he ditched the stage to train as a commercial pilot – and why he made a return.
Robert Parker knows how to fly. He’s often in an airborne state, bounding across the Hippodrome stage as a principal dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet.
He can also zip through clouds and skim the sky, as his extensive repertoire includes being a qualified pilot.
For a brief period he quit ballet, and moved to America where he attempted to forge a career in aviation.
But the financial crash resulted in the wrecking of Parker’s dream. So he returned to BRB and dazzled with more starring roles. He’s playing Drosselmeyer in this year’s Nutcracker.
Next September he moves into dance education, taking up the coveted position of Artistic Director with Birmingham’s prestigious Elmhurst School for Dance.
It’s a hectic period for Robert, who, along with his wife, also has a three-year-old daughter, Olivia.
Valuable fragments of time are even eked out studying for an M.Phil in education at Birmingham University.
With so much going on, he still finds a work-free window of opportunity to chat to the Post about his illustrious career.
We meet at BRB’s city centre headquarters, where I’m led up a steep flight of stairs to a dingy, loft-like office.
In this crow’s nest corner, at the summit of the building, we are perched high above the city.
Up in the air again – a very Parker place to be.
He’s certainly a man of adventure, who pounces on risk with the same carefree relish that a more timorous soul would accept extra sugar for a cup of tea. Though unlike a lump of sugar, Robert’s gambles haven’t always led to the sweet life.
His year spent attempting to become a professional pilot started well enough. He already had a private licence, but the chance of getting a job with a commercial airline was minimal in the UK, as pilots in their early twenties are preferred.
So, along with his pregnant wife, he made the Stateside shuffle to Florida.
“Our house was massive. About six times the size of our place here,” he says. “We had big Floridian furniture to go along with it. The first time we walked into this place, it was like walking into a museum.”
A fine start to a new life. Plus planes to fly!
Parker, who was born into a working-class Hull family says: “The first time I ever went on a plane was when I was nine. I’d never been on a family holiday, or abroad. And I was just hooked.
“I was fascinated with everything about it. Being in the air, flying like a bird. Just the whole mechanical operation of it. So I’d always been a bit of an enthusiast.
“For my 18th birthday, my girlfriend got me one of those vouchers where you can loop the loop in a plane. Then the pilot gave me the controls, and I almost landed the plane myself. From then on I really got the bug.”
However, Robert accepted that ballet, his other great passion, was his career.
Airborne dreams were bundled to the back of his mind while he concentrated on the delights and discipline of dance. Parker evolved into one of the stand-out performers of his generation. The lead in Beauty In The Beast was devised with him in mind, as were the role of Hamlet in The Shakespeare Suite, Arthur in Arthur and Modred and the title role in Cyrano.
Even so, flights of fancy regarding fantasies of flight never diminished.
“I got to the age of 27, and I was away from the company with my second knee operation.
“It started to dawn on me, as it does with all dancers, that there’s career mortality. It’s going to come to an end.
“So I thought, time to make some preparations for what I want to do next with my life. Being a greedy bugger, I wanted to have a second career just as exciting as the first.
“I had a motorbike, I did rock climbing and diving. I was a bit of an adrenalin junkie.
“So I started taking flying lessons. It sort of took me in a different direction, and made me use my brain in a different way. A more academic way.
“Advanced aerodynamics, meteorology, how to navigate... I was learning so much, and I just found the whole thing fascinating.”
Surprisingly, Robert’s ballet didn’t suffer. Quite the reverse.
No longer feeling the pressure of having just one great passion in life, he danced with a greater freedom than before.
“I was now enjoying ballet like I did when I first started. Though it was hectic. I would be doing Romeo And Juliet at the Hippodrome in the evening, get back at 11 o’clock at night, then out came the study books for an exam at six in the morning.
“But I was high, I was buzzing. It was brilliant.”
At the age of 31, Robert made the break from ballet and touched down in Florida.
Sun, sea, sand and big metal objects with wings, waiting on the runway. What could possibly go wrong?
Quite a lot, actually.
“It was nothing but positivity at the time, with assurances from airlines that I would get a job after a year of intensive commercial pilot training.
“But this was 2007, 2008, and the credit crunch hit halfway through my training.
“I tended to burry my head in the sand, because I had heard rumours and murmurs about how it could affect pilots.
“Then, sure enough, after I’d got my commercial licence, American Airlines announced they were going to lay off 400 pilots. Six regional airlines went into liquidation, and the writing was on the wall, really.”
Parker realised he would have to return to Birmingham and his former career.
To aid him in breaking the news to his other half, he popped into the local liquor store to buy a bottle of wine.
“I was in my pilot’s uniform, and the guy behind the counter realised I was at the end of my training. I asked how he knew. He said: ‘I’m a graduate pilot myself.’ And he was working in the offy. That’s when I realised the writing really was on the wall.”
Was returning to his old life painful?
“Not at all. In a way it was an excuse to come back to my first love. I was secretly overjoyed to be coming back to ballet.”
But after a year’s break, was he in shape for the strenuous physical demands awaiting him?
“The year in Florida did my body a world of good. I came back with no knots and niggles. Everybody was saying: ‘Where the hell did that arabesque come from?’
“It was amazing, the effect of a year in the heat. And I didn’t really keep in shape in Florida.”
So did he spend the 12 months gobbling hamburgers and other calorific scoff previously banned from his life?
“It was so hot, you don’t want comfort food in Florida. There’s no need for your stake and kidney pie, and all the rest of it.”
Florida was the first extended break Robert had taken from ballet since he began to dance, aged seven.
Early years in Hull were a Billy Elliot sort of existence. Mum was a nurse, and dad was a builder and joiner.
“Everyone always makes the Billy Elliot comparison. In fact, the film’s director, Stephen Daldry, asked me to go along to the premiere, to give me his honest opinion, since it was sort of right up my street.
“I came out bawling my eyes out. I loved it, loved it. It was like somebody had been secretly following me around with a video camera.”
Robert’s two older sisters took ballet classes, and since the family couldn’t afford a baby sitter, he was dragged along.
“I used to sit at the front, watching my two sisters, and pulling faces. Finally the teacher had had enough of my shenanigans, and said: ‘Right, Mr Parker. That’s it. The next lesson, you’re joining in.’
“I was the only boy, as is usually the case, and got a lot of attention. It gave me something to focus on, something completely new. The first time I managed to execute a polka step, it was like the greatest thing I’d ever done in my life.
“I took it seriously right from the beginning, because my sisters did it, and they held it in high regard. Also because I was the only boy, and scared to death of socialising with the girls. So I just used to stand in first position, waiting for the teacher to arrive.”
Was Robert’s father – a talented amateur boxer – disappointed that his son didn’t pursue a more rough and tumble career?
“Looking back, it must have been kind of strange for such a macho guy. But I was Robert, his son, so he was delighted with what ever I wanted to do.
“The amount of pride he had in me. Particularly if I won a competition and came home with a cup, and it was reported in the local paper.
“He would be the first to cut the page out, and show it to his mates in the pub.”
That young boy, who made his father so proud, is now a man of many experiences, with a remarkable career behind him.
And he’s more than ready for a tilt at a third career at Elmhurst.
Once again the sky’s the limit for BRB’s airborn adventurer. Any nerves about the appointment?
“Of course. The level of responsibility. But don’t get me wrong, I’m really thrilled and honoured to be accepted for the position, and excited about all the challenges that lie ahead.
“I’ve had lots of amazing experiences in my life, but there are plenty of exciting times ahead.”
* Birmingham Royal Ballet perform The Nutcracker at the Birmingham Hippodrome from November 25 until Dec 11. For more information or tickets: www.birminghamhippodrome.com or 0844 338 5000.