Meet the young man who's keeping Canada's best ballet dancers on their toes.
I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
At an age when most little boys were getting into video games, Robert Binet was enrolling in the highly competitive and rigorous National Ballet School. Now, at the age of 22, the preternaturally self-posessed Binet is a rising star in the ballet world. He’s danced with Wayne McGregor in England, and he works as a choreographic associate for the National Ballet of Canada, under dance legend Karen Kain. The Toronto native recently collaborated with local music darling Owen Pallett for the National Ballet’s Innovation, a four-part series that Binet describes as a “primer on what’s happening in modern ballet.” (It’s playing at the Four Seasons Centre until November 28.)
Our interview with Binet, about his creative process and ballet’s gender imbalance, is below.
Torontoist: Tell me a little bit about the creative process behind choreographing a ballet. What influences you, and what do you try to avoid?
Robert Binet: It always starts from a different point. Sometimes you’re asked to deliver something very specific, like an eight-minute piece featuring a man and a woman. Other times, you’re given complete freedom. You start by deciding what you’d like to do with the time, and deciding if you want to commision a new piece of music. For Innovation, I met Owen Pallett last January, and then got in touch with the [show’s] designer. Throughout this part of the process, I’m imagining the dancers I know who might work on stage. The design and music tend to be settled before I go into the studio.
After the music and design phase, we went into the studio and started to build. For me, it’s a really collaborative process with the dancers, and I try to create the piece with them in mind. For this piece, the National Ballet gave me almost three weeks of [rehearsal] studio priority, which was a real gift. If you’re lucky, there’s time to finesse it before it goes on stage. And, at the same time, there’s costumes, lighting, and other elements being put together for the performance. That whole process could take three months or three years…it really depends on what they want to see on stage.
To the outsider, ballet seems like a fairly conservative dance form. How do you keep things fresh?
Classically, it is very sculptured and pure, but it’s an expansive, expressive physical language, and I see limitless possibility in the art form. Because the bodies are so strong and the dancers’ minds are so well trained, it’s possible to really do a lot of different things. Commissioning new music and costumes can really affect the feeling of a piece. The fact is that people are still drawn to ballet as an art form. Every year there are hundreds of dancers looking for jobs, and that’s a good meter of where ballet is as an art.
What’s it like making the transition from dancer to choreographer? What surprised you about moving into a new role?
It wasn’t such a transition for me: from the time I started at the school, I was given lots of opportunities to choreograph. It wasn’t a black-and-white switch for me to go from being on stage to choreography, because this was always the goal. For me, it was more the transition from doing it as a student to doing it professionally.
Your most recent work, Unearth (part of the Innovation program), used music composed by Owen Pallett. Did you find yourself making different calls than ones you might make when you’re using more traditional or familiar music?
The beauty of commissioning a new score is that if you have an idea and you pick an existing piece of music, you have to fit your idea to that. But creating a new music forces you to clarify your statement—you have to inspire the composer to bring you new work.
When I met with Pallett, he liked what I had to say, so he started working on this several months ago. Over the summer, he worked very intensively: he would send me little bits of what he was working on and ask, “What do you think of this?” and I could say more of this, less of that. It was very collaborative. Because his music is so rhythmic, it’s inherently danceable. He really grasped what it meant to write for dance.
Three-quarters of the artistic staff at the National Ballet are men, while the majority of the principal dancers are women. As a young choreographer, what do you make of the gender imbalance in the creative process?
That’s something that really fluctuates. The National Ballet’s executive director and artistic director right now are both women. As soon as you get into the classic ballets, starting with Romeo and Juliet, it’s as much a man’s art form as it is a woman’s. As far as the balance right now, you’re looking for the best coaches for the next generation of dancers. While there are different requirements for men and women—men need to be able to lift, and the women go on pointe—there is a lot men and women can teach other. For example, a female dancer might show a male dancer how to lift her properly. Often, I will dance a female part when we’re in the choreography stage, to show the dancers what I want them to do.
And there’s a lot less rigidity than there might seem on stage. In the process, we all work very much together. Historically, men have been in the powerful positions, and recently there’s been a surge of women in the higher-level positions. Karen Kain, for instance, is an inspiration to me.
What would you say to little boys who wanted to get involved in ballet or choreography?
I would say, go for it! What I love about it is getting to learn from and work with so many different people. Dancers are some of the most creative, hardest-working people you’ll ever meet, and there’s a joy to be in the studio. There’s also the artists, musicians, the business side of things. It’s a varied job as a choreographer.
Because of an editing error, this post originally gave incorrect dates for future performances of Innovation, at the Four Seasons Centre.