When Robert Fairchild enters a room, it is initially hard to pinpoint what makes him different. Dressed in pale gray Uniqlo jeans, a red-check shirt and scuffed white Clae kicks, his floppy brown hair falling casually across his forehead, he has the fresh-faced politeness of a young man raised far from the cynicism of big city life. His smile is bright, his handshake firm and his eagerness palpable. Casual clothes aside, the 22-year-old could be a recent college graduate interviewing for a job.
But his regal posture and physical confidence belie his quiet first impression. Fairchild (no relation to the publishing group family) is one of the youngest jewels in the New York City Ballet’s carat-heavy company crown, a fact that becomes readily apparent the second he starts trying on the selection of off-duty dance-inspired looks culled for the day’s shoot.
In front of the camera, Fairchild begins to contort and bend and stretch with kinetic grace.
“Oh my god, what the hell?” says the stunned groomer as Fairchild twists and flies backwards in slow motion, miming a man who has been shot in the arm.
“You’re like a needle in space,” exclaims the photographer when Fairchild extends a long arm sky high.
Other signs of his balletic perfectionism emerge over the course of the day. Examining one shot everyone else deems flawless, he can’t help but frown at his toes. “Oh no, my foot’s rolled over.” And despite all the calories burned in his poses, he only eats half his chicken avocado sandwich at lunch. “I’m feeling bloated,” he explains before changing his shirt for the next look (we should all be so lucky to look thus bloated).
It is this combination of unwavering discipline and unassuming ease that have served Fairchild well since he joined NYCB as an apprentice in June 2005. And they are qualities he will call on again in the coming spring season when he headlines three world premiere ballets choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, Wayne McGregor and Melissa Barak, and performs at the spring gala on April 29 at the David H. Koch Theater.
“I just feel so challenged with all they’re giving me,” explains Fairchild, who was promoted from soloist to principal last October. “I love a challenge. I love perfecting my craft. I think that’s why I chose ballet, because there were obvious things I needed to work on.”
Born and raised a non-Mormon in Salt Lake City, the second of two children to a dietician mother and wildlife biologist father, Fairchild always felt removed from his peers.
“Growing up there was very difficult. All of my friends were [Mormon], and when I was younger I would go with them, but then I started to grow up and was challenging the faith,” says Fairchild, whose parents are not religious, though he is a devout Christian. “The school atmosphere was not healthy, really. [There was] a lot of picking on and I loved to dance and they thought that was weak or made me less of a person. So I felt a little outcast definitely, but when I got in the studio that’s where I felt the most free.”
His older sister Megan (also a principal dancer with NYCB) was already taking ballet and would come home and teach her brother moves, so their mother enrolled him in jazz and tap classes when he was four years old.
“I grew up loving Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire — they were my idols,” he recalls.
When Megan started taking summer courses at the School of American Ballet, she suggested her brother do the same as a way to improve his overall technique. Though “ballet was still not my favorite thing,” he followed her advice, coming to New York when he was 15 and studying with Peter Boal, a former NYCB principal and current artistic director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Watching Boal perform Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Fairchild was hooked.
He went home, refocused on ballet and returned to SAB the following summer. He was asked to stay for the school year while studying academics at the Professional Children’s School. He was made an apprentice the day before his 18th birthday.
Fairchild first drew critical notice three years ago when NYCB’s ballet master in chief Peter Martins handpicked him to originate Romeo in his “Romeo + Juliet.”
“He had all the prerequisites: the looks, the charisma, the charm, the personality, the dance ability and the partnering ability. It was like Romeo was already walking around the hallways here at NYCB,” recalls Martins. “And this time I was right. I’m not always right, but this time I was definitely right.”
Fairchild has since danced feature roles in Jerome Robbins’ “Opus 19/The Dreamer,” Jiri Bubenicek’s “Toccata” and Balanchine’s “Jewels,” among others, an array that puts his mix of classical and modern training to good use.
“He was fantastic as the hoofer in Balanchine’s ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.’ He’s such a natural tap dancer,” says Martins.
“When I get to doing classical ballet with white tights, I still feel like I’m behind the game,” says Fairchild, referring to the years he spent focused on jazz. (However, he recognizes they have helped shape him into a well-rounded performer. This season alone, he will go from Ratmansky’s classicism, set to an Edouard Lalo score, to McGregor’s contemporary minimalism). “Most choreographers who come in now don’t want classical, classical ballet. They want you to move and kind of take more of a modern turn, and I feel very fortunate to be dancing at this time where it’s making that change.”
His diversity was certainly a draw to Barak, whose Forties story ballet will have him playing Bugsy Siegel and even reciting spoken lines (it premieres June 14).
“I wanted a dancer who would be a bit more jazzy and natural, like a real person,” explains Barak. “Robbie has the great technique of a trained ballet dancer, but he also has the instincts to let go and convey more than just classical technique.”
That dualism overlaps to his personal life, where maintaining a balance between discipline and spontaneity is key.
“You’re putting yourself in front of 3,000 people a night. If you don’t take those times to just be with you, I think people get carried away. You become a product of your surroundings instead of staying true to yourself,” says Fairchild, who enjoys an off-duty Rosa Mexicano margarita with friends. “You gotta just breathe and stop worrying about doing the right thing.”
That said, Fairchild is aware that his chosen profession comes with an earlier expiration date than most. “I remember being really young and asking my mom multiple times, ‘What happens when you die?’ I always looked at life with an urgency,” he says. “I just know there is an end, and I want to make the most of the time now. Because when I’m old and gray, I want to say I did my best.”
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