After a successful stint as a ballerina, the time finally came for Robert Hill to retire. He then turned his passion for ballet into a new career: teaching it.
In January, Hill will be celebrating his 10-year anniversary as artistic director at the Orlando Ballet company, where he has transformed classic pieces into modern performances anyone can enjoy.“It’s kind of amazing, I can’t believe 10 years have gone by on one hand. On the other hand, look at how much has been accomplished,” Hill says. “The organization is functioning at an all-time high, in terms of camaraderie, in terms of functionality and really being recognized as one of the really important arts organizations in Central Florida.”
Hill says the growth of the ballet can be seen in their latest development; the $12 million Harriett’s Orlando Ballet Center that underwent construction last month.
The center was named after the late philanthropist Harriett Lake, who donated most of the funds to build it. She was known in the Orlando community for her special appreciation for the arts. The school, rehearsal halls and administrative offices that are currently separated across town will be united at the new center in Loch Haven Cultural Park upon its completion in 2019.
Hill says being in one building will make it easier to bring the community quality productions while saving money as well. They’ve experienced financial difficulties in the past, as many nonprofits do, but Hill says the Orlando Ballet is seeing better days.
“We’re definitely way beyond all that,” he says. “We’re in the black and we intend to stay there.”
One of the biggest challenges the ballet faces, Hill says, is keeping it relevant to younger audiences. He does this by reinventing classic pieces, such as their upcoming annual rendition of “The Nutcracker,” showing Dec. 7-16.
“One thing is to take those long, four-hour ballets with three intermissions and cut it down to a two-act with one intermission, which is essentially what I did with ‘Swan Lake,’” he says. “‘The Nutcracker’ we do at much speedier tempos to keep it vibrant and alive and not allow it to become ponderous.”
The Orlando Ballet also hosts Uncorked at The Abbey Downtown, where they show the whole choreography process, up close and personal. Hill says Uncorked is attracting audiences who wouldn’t normally consider seeing a traditional ballet performance.
“I think that when people realize that these are athletes it really changes their whole perspective,” Hill says. “So we do a lot of work to make it very accessible to new audiences and at the same time remain with a great deal of integrity relative to the tradition.”
Hill says over the years their audiences have changed, and as they reach new people they are continuing to do so. “There was a very sort of limited aspect of the community that was our fanbase when I first arrived, and I know that we have reached out to the LGBTQ community and much more diverse audiences,” he says. “So all of that is part of the mission.”
Arcadian Broad is the resident artist and lead dancer at the Orlando Ballet. For the last seven years, he’s worked directly under Hill, sharing artistic responsibilities such as choreography.
Broad says Hill runs the ballet with a special form of perfectionism, giving feedback in a kind and constructive way. “He will definitely make sure he gets it the way he envisions it,” Broad says. “But he does it in a very cordial and caring way that’s very collaborative and just fun.”
Growing up in the Orlando ballet scene allowed Broad to see the company’s growth and effect on the community under Hill’s leadership.
“Ever since Robert has come here, he’s been able to kind of level everything out and find a balance again. Not only is it just balancing, it’s starting to really rise up and go into the direction that would make it a major ballet company rather than a regional company,” Broad says. “The city of Orlando has embraced the art of ballet and so you have to do what you can to get everyone in the door, and then from there you all just kind of go on a journey together.”
As for the next decade at the Orlando Ballet, Hill says he wants the company to emulate Broadway in more ways than one. He says they’re on a mission to become the first classical ballet company in the country to use completely digital production elements, like many Broadway shows do now.
He also hopes the company can create brand new works, such as dance-driven musicals that might have a shot at a Broadway run after premiering locally. Until then, Hill plans on sticking to his roots in the Orlando community to deliver unique performances.
“I want people to feel like they don’t have to go to New York to get high quality ballet. I want people, in the age of technology and smartphones, computers and everything digital, to come out and be social with other people in the theater and experience something that you’re only going to experience once,” he says, “and hopefully be transported away from their woes and come away with a warm feeling.”
The Orlando Ballet is “Celebrating a Decade of Excellence” from Robert Hill with its 2018-19 season at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. It features a combination of classic and new works, live music on several programs and original choreography. The ballet presents “The Nutcracker” Dec. 7-16, “Bailamos!” Feb. 15-17, “Peter & the Wolf” March 30-31 and “Arcadian Broad’s Wonderland: Mad Tales of the Hatter” April 26-28. Tickets are available by calling 407-418-9828 or by visiting OrlandoBallet.org.