In Conversation with Boston Ballet Soloist Roddy Doble
Hailing from Southbury, Connecticut, Roddy Doble joined Boston Ballet in 2013 after six years as a member of American Ballet Theatre. A true dancing actor who can make even the smallest roles memorable, Doble is currently preparing for Full on Forsythe, a production consisting of three works by choreographer William Forsythe: “Pas/Parts 2018,” “Playlist (EP)” and “Blake Works I.” In early February we met at the Boston Ballet studios during Doble’s lunch break and chatted about his recent roles, how he got started as a dancer, and how dancers communicate with audiences.
Last September when you appeared in Fancy Free as “rhumba boy,” the role (which Robbins created for himself) seemed tailor-made for you. Tell me about that experience.
For me to fall into that kind of hammy American role is not too far from who I am. The sailors in Fancy Free are familiar characters. As a kid, the first thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a cowboy, so those kinds of American identities were pretty ingrained in me.
Robbins insists that the dancers look so loose and naturalistic, but …
Then he gives you all this hard stuff to do. Priorities have changed throughout the years. The emphasis on technical capabilities, while important and necessary to evolve with the times, has increased so dramatically that acting and partnering have not been prioritized in the same way. Ballet facility has become almost fetishized. I’ve seen a lot of dancers who get opportunities that they’re really not deserving of because people go crazy over their legs and feet, which is what nature gave them (usually backed by some good training).
What’s the antidote to that?
I think it’s easy for ballet dancers to fixate on all the ballet-specific things, but for me it’s always important to consider that most of the audience doesn’t have much of a relationship to ballet. Sure, there are going to be some people in the audience who danced at some point in their lives, but most of them are not spending all day in the studio the way we are. So if we only play to the people who are living the same kind of lives we are, we’re going to have a pretty small audience. I still have to produce all the dancer-specific minutiae, but I don’t want to exclude anyone in the audience who doesn’t know a thing about ballet. I feel that the purpose of art is to reach as many people as possible.
Are you saying that dancers can be as athletic as they want, but if they can’t create a character, it’s not going to work?
It’s been proved that our attention spans are shortening, and I have no interest in sitting through a two-hour ballet danced by someone I don’t empathize with. You can have all kinds of impressive technique, but why should I care about your character progression? It’s on artists to give the audience a reason to care about them. If it’s a tragedy, you gotta make ‘em cry. If it’s a comedy, you gotta make ‘em laugh.
I don’t want to ask my audience to do that work for me. I’m the one who’s onstage; I’m the one who’s trained to do that, who’s spent countless hours preparing material so that I can do that. The responsibility of the audience is just to be hit by it, to let it affect them, whoever they are, whatever their background. I want to give people something to take away.
I’m a huge fan of lots of turns, big jumps, and impressive partnering. Those are great, but they can be fleeting. I think what differentiates what we do from sports is that emotional component. That’s what attracted me to dance in the first place: it had the athletic challenge and excitement, but it was also made gentle and emotional by art.
How did you first get into dancing?
My parents are both musicians. They met at Berklee College of Music, and they played guitar and sang together for years. My mom was performing with a 12-string Martin guitar pressed against her pregnant belly for my whole development. Partly because of that, music was always a very physical experience for me, and coming from a musical family, music was always on. I was a rowdy little boy, but very expressive also. My parents saw it; they asked me plenty of times whether I wanted to take ballet, but I was still part of American culture, and I said, “No, ballet is for girls.” I had no interest; I wanted to play sports. I started tae kwan do at four and a half years old, inspired by The Karate Kid, and I played soccer at four years old.
When I was five I was in karate school, and we played the soldiers in The Nutcracker at the local ballet school. Our instructor, who was a big, macho, six-foot-tall guy, was not a dancer, but he put on tights and participated in the production. He encouraged the boys in the school to take ballet; he said it was something he always wished he had done, that it was great for your strength and flexibility. So I think that helped remove some of the stigma, but I still wasn’t that interested. It wasn’t until my best friend in first grade started taking ballet at the school where his older brother and sister were studying that things changed. He had been doing it for about a month and told me it was a lot of fun.
My parents had all but given up on asking me, so I caught them off guard when I came home and said I wanted to try it. They signed me up right away. I remember my first class; my mom tells me the teacher approached her within the first week and said, “You had to have known.” She [the teacher] saw I had the musicality and physicality for dance.
Where did you get your training and education?
I grew up in Southbury, and most of my training took place in New Milford. I started commuting into New York City to train by the time I was about 16 years old, and I finally moved there full-time during my third year with the ABT main company at 20.
I went to Pomperaug High School [in Southbury] for just half a year before starting homeschooling. A public high school was not the right place for me. Aside from training intensely for dance, I was a pretty intense academic student too. It became harder and harder to balance [both interests], and I had to make a concession. Fortunately, it worked out in the end.
By the time I was 11 years old, I found the training I needed at the School of Performing Arts in New Milford, CT, which sadly no longer exists. Arlene Begelman and Robert Maiorano whipped my ballet skills into shape, and I trained pretty extensively in jazz, modern, and tap too. I attended the American Ballet Theatre summer intensive in 2005 and 2006 as well as Stiefel and Students on Martha’s Vineyard in 2006. I joined the ABT studio company at 17 and their main company at 18. I joined the Boston Ballet corps de ballet at 24, was promoted to second soloist at 25, and to soloist at 28.
I consider myself to be very lucky to have danced with American Ballet Theatre. It had been my dream since I was a kid, and I got to tour all over the world alongside a roster of my dance idols. After six seasons with the company, I decided it was time to mix things up. I was hungry for greater opportunity with a more diverse repertoire, and I found it at Boston Ballet.
As a child, who was your inspiration?
At some point I saw White Nights, and seeing what a man who had devoted himself to dance could do really spoke to me. Baryshnikov’s power, his expression, and how lightly he landed was so impressive. I’m still a Baryshnikov fan; he holds a place that nobody else can for me. Some of it’s nostalgia, knowing how much he meant to me, but still I go back and watch his videos, and some of the steps he does, like those cabrioles in Giselle, I have yet to see anyone do better. Some people do them bigger, but I think it’s his landing that makes them so great. He never does tricks; he’s always in character.
I remember reading somewhere that Baryshnikov said you can’t make the audience wait while you set up a turn.
They will stop caring about you very quickly. All it takes is a slight misstep. If I’m uncomfortable, they stop believing in what I’m doing. You have to keep them buying what you’re selling. Those big moments are not going to register the way they should if you don’t keep them engaged in the small moments.
Tell me more about communicating with your audience.
What feels appropriate to you as a performer and what reads appropriately to an audience sitting hundreds of feet away are two different things. So it’s not enough to react the way you would in real life; you have to filter that reaction through your calculation of how to express yourself to people watching from a distance. When I was at ABT Cory Stearns helped open my eyes to that when he and I were in the corps together. He was doing “The Lilac Garden,” and there’s a moment when he stands behind the girl; it’s an embrace, and they both have arched backs. It was interesting to him because it ran counter to what his instinct was. To feel close to someone, you want to close yourself around them, but from a distance, it’s a weaker position; it doesn’t look as loving as it feels. That arch shows the warmth between the two characters, but it’s not necessarily instinctive.
Is there a tension between analyzing each moment and spontaneity?
I think you need to leave room for spontaneity; I try not to do everything exactly the same way every time. I try to be affected by the moment, but you need to have taken some time to at least acknowledge your choices. So it’s good to have a few different game plans depending on how you and your partner are feeling that day because those things affect you. I still have some moments when I think I didn’t make the best choice [in a performance]. It’s important to have those moments; you need them in order to learn and grow.
There are times when I felt I delivered a really precise performance in which I was very clear in my intentions. I didn’t think I left any room for questions as to what I was going for, and people will come up to me and tell me what they think I did, and they’re not always right. The knee-jerk reaction is to correct them until you realize that they took something from it – and it doesn’t belong to me.
It’s like kids who give a performance, and people tell them what a great job they did, and they say, “No, I messed that up.” Their teachers will tell them, “Don’t say that. You’re insulting that person. Just say, ‘Thank you.’” When you execute something with precision, people can attach a meaning to it. I have one idea, but I’m a product of my own experiences. The people who are watching are different from me. They’re projecting themselves onto the characters onstage. If we [performers] are doing our job, they should see something that is recognizable, and that’s the great thing about art.
What does the Forsythe program mean to you? How do contemporary and classical dance inform each other?
This program is hard. I’m a little concerned about surviving it because I’m learning all three pieces. We’re repeating Pas/Parts from last year when Lasha [Khozashvili] and I split the role. We were both in every show, but we were doing half the role, which was still hard. This year we were unable to split the role, so I’m in the second cast for that. I’m in both first and second cast for Blake Works, and I believe I’m in both first and second cast for Playlist. It’s going to be hard to avoid triple bills.
Forsythe’s pieces are always a lot of work, and they take some time to settle into your body. One of the things I really love about Bill is that he is so understanding of the progression that has to take place in order to bring a piece to the stage. There are stagers who, from day one, want to see something that’s performance ready. I think that does a disservice to the dancers. I understand that they [the stagers] are panicking; they want it to be ready; they want to show all the good work they’ve done, but I think you need to allow dancers some space to explore, to mess up. It’s through that process that you’re able to pick a version and be less afraid of making a mistake. Bill loves to see that happen. Really the only thing you can do wrong with him is not try.
With this program, especially Blake Works and Playlist, he’s returned in many ways to classical ballet; it’s not quite as contemporary in some sections. The music is super-contemporary: pop music and R&B, but I think that’s part of his effort to make it more accessible to more people. If the music is familiar to the audience, seeing ballet done to it could make more people feel as if ballet is for them.
What should we be looking for?
I have a pas de deux in Blake Works that I really love in which I’m in sneakers. The story behind that is that the dancer from the Paris Opera Ballet on whom it was choreographed pulled a calf muscle and was unable to do all his dancing roles, but he could still do the pas de deux; they just had to let him wear sneakers. So now you have the man in sneakers and the ballerina in pointe shoes. He has this very grounded look, and she has a balletic look. The song is “The Color in Anything,” and the last lyric is “I can’t always help you.” She ends up pushing him away, so it’s meant to be loving yet contentious. It’s a relationship that’s doomed to fail.
Bill really loves to celebrate feminine strength. In most classical ballet, the man is taking care of the woman; it’s very chivalrous. In his pas de deux Bill likes to have the woman be the real driving force. Especially in the Blake Works pas de deux, which I dance with Chyrstyn [Fentroy], she’s on the move; she’s trying to figure things out. I offer suggestions, but ultimately I’m not the right fit for her. I think that’s a difference between his work and a lot of classical ballet – that the woman is more assertive. From a partnering standpoint, in classical ballet, the man usually makes something happen; there’s not so much weight sharing and counterbalance. In classical ballet, the man keeps the woman in perfect balance.
It sounds as if the emotional connection, or missed connection, in Forsythe works is different from that of most classical ballets.
It’s what happens in real life everyday: good people are trying to sort through something that’s not going to work. It’s not as black and white as a fairy tale. People want to see different kinds of relationships onstage.
Why did you come to Boston?
I’ve heard [Boston Ballet artistic director] Mikko [Nissinen] say that a busy dancer is a happy dancer, and in general I would have to agree. For the better part of my career here, I’ve been pretty busy in a wide range of ballets. I saw that potential when I auditioned and felt I could be a useful commodity. I came in with a lot of drive and trusted that it would be noticed and utilized. I also think the change of scenery gave me an opportunity to step into the next phase of my career with more self-confidence and an open mind. It’s a short career, so you’ve got to learn lessons and make moves quickly.
What are your current and future goals?
I’m nearing three and a half years post-op from my second ACL [anterior cruciate ligament, or knee] reconstruction, and I’m working hard to train out any remaining imbalances. This Full on Forsythe program is particularly grueling for me. I’m trying to ramp up as strategically as possible for these shows, so I can be at my best when we hit the stage. In the future I’d love to step into more and more principal roles. To that end, my goals are pretty straightforward: I want to find every way I can to be a better athlete and a better artist. I’ve laid great groundwork; I am ceaselessly refining my craft, and I am more and more aware of how to showcase the extent of all my hard work in my dancing. I believe that my best days are still ahead of me, so I’ve made a commitment to improving as best I can every single day.
At the end of his 45 minutes of free time, Doble ran off to his next rehearsal of Full on Forsythe, which will be presented at the Boston Opera house from March 7 through March 17. For tickets and further information, visit www.bostonballet.org