A ballet superstar hits Hollywood with ‘A Chorus Line’ at the Bowl
About a week ago Robert Fairchild was packing his bags following three weeks as an American in Paris. New York City Ballet, where he is a principal dancer, was winding up a three-week season at the Théâtre du Châtelet. It’s a venue he knows well: In 2014 he spent months there immersed in the creation of “An American in Paris,” which became an acclaimed Broadway musical based on the beloved 1951 film.
He performed the title character, Jerry Mulligan, for a year and earned not only a Tony nomination but a new level of fame. Now another opportunity has come calling — this time in Hollywood.
Fairchild will play Mike Costa this month in the Hollywood Bowl production of “A Chorus Line,” directed and choreographed by original cast member Baayork Lee, who is adapting and re-staging Michael Bennett’s original choreography.
Speaking from Paris shortly before flying to Los Angeles, Fairchild, 29, said that the chance to perform in the musical could be seen as returning to his roots.
“I didn’t start out doing ballet,” the Salt Lake City native said. “I started with tap and jazz.”
Much like the character he’s portraying in “A Chorus Line” — Mike delivers the show’s first solo number, “I Can Do That” — Fairchild followed his sister to dance class at age 4. (His sister Megan is also a principal with NYCB and made her own splash on Broadway as Ivy Smith in the 2014 revival of “On the Town.”)
Something else he was doing around age 4: discovering his parents’ LP recording of “A Chorus Line.”
“I used to dance to the cast recording of that musical in my living room,” Fairchild said. “‘Step, kick, kick, beat, kick, touch — again!’ I would make up my own choreography. That music is unbelievable.”
“The first time he started teaching me the steps in the studio, I had the chills.”
— Robert Fairchild
After Fairchild rejoined NYCB for its spring season but before he left for Paris, Fairchild began learning the choreography for those classic musical numbers. He worked one-on-one with Matthew Couvillon, the production’s assistant choreographer, to learn the steps — the celebrated opening audition number, the extensive ensemble sequences and his solo.
“The first time he started teaching me the steps in the studio, I had the chills,” Fairchild said. “My 4-year-old self was so happy! It was like coming full circle.”
Surprisingly, he has never seen the musical performed live.
“But I’ve watched, countless times, the original cast on YouTube,” said Fairchild, whose co-stars at the Bowl will include Sabrina Bryan, Spencer Liff and Mario Lopez. “There’s part of it that I’m excited about — not to have any preconceived notions.”
He made a point of meeting with Wayne Cilento, who was Mike in the original cast and has become a Broadway choreographer (“Wicked,” “The Who’s Tommy”). Cilento gave Fairchild a sense of what went on in the legendary sessions that Bennett held with Broadway dancers, recording their experiences, fears and aspirations. Those sessions eventually were shaped, with the help of composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist Ed Kleban and book writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, into the groundbreaking, soul-baring 1975 musical.
“So much of it is their real lives, turned into a story,” Fairchild said.
When he can, Fairchild seeks out the original performers of ballets he dances with NYCB.
“If I can’t talk to the person who originated a role, I like to watch their videos, because there’s an essence from the original that everybody tries to emulate, in a certain sense,” he said. “You make it your own, but to look at the original is the best way to feel like you’re in the room with the choreographer. I find I can do my most honest work — true to the original choreography — if I see it first-hand, or speak with somebody.”
Fairchild said he started ballet only because he had to. He studied tap, jazz and ballet until he was 11 or 12, and his focus was tap.
“Then I came to the School of American Ballet summer course and fell in love with it,” he said. “From then on, I trained only in ballet.”
He joined NYCB in 2005 and was a principal by 2009. His elegant technique and contemporary flair have lent themselves to an array of leading roles, including George Balanchine’s “Apollo” and Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering.” In May, he and his wife, principal dancer Tiler Peck, were the central couple in a premiere by Christopher Wheeldon, the ballet-world luminary who made his own move to Broadway by directing and choreographing “An American in Paris.”
“I always thought, as soon as my ballet career is over, I would love to do Broadway,” Fairchild said. “Once nobody wants to see me in white tights anymore, I still would want to be a performer. And Broadway was my first passion. I didn’t realize that this opportunity was going to come around, right in the very middle of my ballet career.”
Right after the Hollywood Bowl performances, he heads to the Vail International Dance Festival to perform with Peck and to collaborate with other dancers. Soon after that, rehearsals begin for NYCB’s fall season. But next March, he will return to “An American in Paris,” opening the London production with his original co-star, Leanne Cope.
“I feel like the luckiest guy,” Fairchild said. “I get to dance some of the greatest works that NYCB does, but then I also get to explore what it’s like to tell a story with your voice.
“I’ve felt like my dancing has become much more specific, and much more about a story. Even if there’s a story-less ballet, there’s an intention that feels much more specific. I’ve loved taking what I learned on Broadway and bringing it to ballet.”
“A Chorus Line”
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. July 29-30, 7:30 p.m. July 31
Tickets: $14 and up
Info: (323) 850-2000, www.HollywoodBowl.com www.laphil.com
Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.
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