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Robert Heindel Talks About His World of Ballet

Renowned Ballet Painter Returns to Work with San Francisco Ballet

By Michael Phelan

In his own words, Robert Heindel is "obscenely spoiled rotten with the whole world I have access to." And what dance lover could blame him? Heindel's world is the world of San Francisco Ballet, The Royal Ballet of London, The English National Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, The Monte Carlo Ballet, The Japanese Ballet, and Birmingham Royal Ballet, companies that have allowed Heindel inside for the privilege of being painted by him.

This past week Robert Heindel was in San Francisco to attend the opening exhibition of his works of Birmingham Royal Ballet, as well as to again work with the San Francisco Ballet. Heindel previously worked with SFB in 1994-1995, when he designed the sets and costumes for The Dance House, choreographed by David Bintley and premiered by SFB on February 14, 1995.

Heindel Sometimes compared to Degas, Heindel is one of the most celebrated living painters of ballet. Yet, he attributes his introduction to ballet to a "fluke." While a young illustrator in Toledo, Ohio, Heindel was leaving work at the end of a day when his boss offered him a pair of ballet tickets. "Probably tickets that a client didn't want," he muses. It happened to be a performance of Paradise Lost with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. For Heindel, the experience was literally an epiphany. "I was awestruck, to say the least!" Heindel recalls with an enthusiasm undimmed by forty-odd years. After they left the theater, Heindel said to Rose, "We've got to do this all the time." But, when they attended their next ballet a few months later and saw different dancers perform, they realized the rarity of what they had seen in Fonteyn and Nureyev. Ever since, Heindel has sought to paint the best.

Today Robert Heindel's paintings are prized additions to the collections of celebrities such as Princess Caroline of Monaco, Sarah Brightman, the late Princess of Wales, George Lucas, and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, who invited Heindel to work with the original casts of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera.

Not content to confine his creative passion for ballet to drawing and design, Heindel commissioned the ballet Garden of Eros, performed by London City Ballet at the Theatre Royal Windsor on October 10, 1988. Garden of Eros was the choreographic debut of former Royal Ballet prima ballerina Marguerite Porter, who Heindel now counts among his many subjects who've become friends.

For Heindel, the most important element in his work is to get dance companies to trust him; the relationship between artists becomes a dialogue, artistically and eventually personally. "It works out that way," says Heindel, "because I've become dear friends with lots of dancers over thirty years."

Yet, he initially works with a dance company by observing the dancers from a distance at rehearsals. "I don't talk to people," he says, "I think it's important that they don't know me at that point." Heindel captures the movement of dancers by taking "endless photographs. I do not sit and draw." Trust develops over time, as his subjects come to trust his renditions of them. Observing from a distance suits him, says Heindel, "because I'm timid." He also admits to being "intimidated" by dancers "because they're brilliant at what they do. That's the reality. I know dance to be one of the most difficult things that I know about."

Heindel's modest, self-effacing style may contradict his celebrity status, but is true to his roots. A native of Toledo, Ohio, Heindel received his formal artistic training from Famous Artists Schools, a correspondence school. By the time he was twenty-eight, he was creating cover work for Time magazine. Today, he values his celebrity for the "extraordinary entrée" it gives him to the world of dance. "I've been here working with the San Francisco Ballet, and I get access because Helgi (Tomasson) knows who I am."

After he concludes his work with San Francisco Ballet, Heindel will go to London to again work with David Bintley, this time for Birmingham Royal Ballet on Arthur II, a telling of the Arthurian legend.

Robert Heindel's works, including oils, serigraphs, and conti on mylar, are being exhibited February 15th through March 15th at Richard MacDonald Fine Art, 445-A Sutter Street, San Francisco. (See press release.)


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Background photo © 1999 Michael W. Phelan

Michael W. Phelan,