Feature

The fruits of a friendship

During almost three decades artist Robert Heindel travelled across America, Europe and Japan in pursuit of his obsession for dance. Whilst his earlier career was rooted in New York where, during the 1970s, he became one of the most respected and successful commercial illustrators of his generation, his true passion was realised after a night at the ballet.

Heindel's wife Rose persuaded him that a generous gift of two tickets from a client was too enticing to decline; with a certain reluctance the man who thought it was 'all tutus and tights' spent the evening enthralled at the magnificence of none other than the partnership between Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Rose recalled his response: 'what have I been missing?'

Following what was a life-changing encounter, the artist embarked upon a course that took him from the illustration agencies and via the dance studios, to the world of art galleries in London, San Francisco, Monte Carlo, Tokyo and beyond. For him the many facets of life were to be found in the illusive world he had discovered.

His preference was to observe class and in particular rehearsal, which gave him an often unique insight into all that preceded a finished performance. His works, primarily in oil, pastel and conte crayon served to reflect the passion, energy and movement he witnessed. Opera House, formerly the magazine of The Royal Ballet and Opera proclaimed: 'from the toil and sweat of gruelling preparation to the theatrics and spectacle of costume and colour, it's not difficult to spot a Heindel. The artist's talent is a singular ability to pour movement and emotion onto the canvas or blank sheet before him'.

In the early 1990s Heindel received a video recording of 'Still Life' at the Penguin Café, for him a curious and compelling mix of dance and music that explored all things primal. The association, indeed friendship, he later enjoyed with David Bintley in hindsight seemed destined. The artist so enjoyed 'Still Life' he made his interest known to the then Artistic Director of The Royal Ballet, Anthony Dowell. Some years prior, Heindel had worked at Covent Garden and produced several canvases with subjects that included Anthony Dowell, Marguerite Porter, Merle Park and Sir Frederick Ashton. In fact, the 'Sir Fred' painting is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The request to observe rehearsals of 'Still Life' was granted and Heindel set upon bringing his own new dimension to what he viewed as an amazing collaboration between choreographer, designer and composer. In 1994 in London's Cork Street Gallery the resulting collection of paintings and sketches, 'Still Life' at the Penguin Café, was unveiled.

The frivolity of the penguin waiters and the cunning of the Brazilian Woolly Monkey were offset by the vulnerability of the Utah Longhorn Ram and the intense life and death impressions stirred by the Southern Cape Zebra.

David Bintley had been aware of Heindel's work for a number of years and thus when choreographer invited artist to design costumes and set for The Dance House the prospect was readily embraced. The initial inspiration for Bintley had been a poem from a medieval 'dance of death' woodcut which asserted, 'Ye all to the dance house must go'. The dance house it referred to was, of course, death.

Heindel revelled in the project and drew on his earlier illustrative discipline to provide not one but some 14 set designs from which Bintley had the 'task' of selecting just one. The rather abstract form selected resembled the faded structure of a house, in outline not unlike that of Heindel's own home in Connecticut.

The costumes were an altogether different matter for with them he wanted to strike a definite chord; Heindel was no stranger to the reality of death having lost his eldest son Toby to cancer just a few years prior. The loss was raw and extremely influential in the artist's ongoing work and in turn the costume concept.

The character of death, with his alarming shock of primitive wild hair and a blue face with two further heads on his torso, would appear at once menacing and a visual focus whenever on stage, impossible to ignore. Heindel recalled the need for a slight re-think on his initial desire for Death to have blue arms and hands when, after some initial rehearsals, the hand prints of Death were literally all over his dance partners!

Another striking device Heindel employed upon the female costumes, beyond the simple leotards and skirts, was a broad scarlet line from neck vertically down the whole torso, a kind of line of life in distinct contrast to Death. This vitality was furthered with the male costumes of colourful lively stripes. The barre itself also appears in scarlet, its horizontal form providing visual structure as well as literal support for the dancers and a point from which to leave and return.

Of course, beyond the genuine pleasure of designing for The Dance House, Heindel was then in the unique position of being able to paint impressions of 'his own' ballet costumes and set. Indeed he followed San Francisco Ballet, for whom Bintley originally created the work, to Cupertino (CA) in order to access dress rehearsals. A few months later whilst The Dance House received its San Francisco premiere, concurrently The Circle Gallery hosted a spectacular exhibition that unveiled Heindel's enigmatic paintings of a ballet in which he had been a central influence.

The visual drama of Death dancing with life, the strident blue and red almost leaping from the black backdrop of the canvas, really did set the tone for the powerful yet poignant collection, which itself was a celebration of memories intended to be embraced way beyond those of choreographer and artist.

From 1995 until his death in 2005, Heindel observed many of Bintley's ballets including Carmina burana, Edward II, and The Protecting Veil, each time creating a suite of paintings and drawings which would then be exhibited and sold in the UK, as well as on the international market especially in Japan and the USA. During this ten-year period, Birmingham Royal Ballet dancers 'captured on canvas' include Monica Zamora, Leticia Müller, Ambra Vallo, Robert Parker, Joseph Cipolla, Michael O'Hare and many more besides.

One Bintley ballet, above all others, yielded the most significant response from Heindel in terms of sheer output, that work being Arthur. Since childhood the American had been fascinated by the legends and imagery that Camelot had cast: brooding menace, chivalry, love, vengeance and betrayal all the vital ingredients of any 'good tale'. To learn of Bintley's intention to bring King Arthur to the dance stage was to prove pure indulgence as far as Heindel was concerned. Here he was able to immerse himself in the whole experience. He travelled to Birmingham from the USA on numerous occasions, desperate not to miss anything; his pleasure simply doubled when he found that Arthur would comprise two full-length pieces. The anticipation was reflected in the artist's studio where he created the largest collection of paintings and drawings from any single ballet.

The high regard Heindel and Bintley had for one another's work was mutual, Heindel ever ready to accept the open invitation to view Birmingham Royal Ballet extended by the Director and choreographer.

'I am constantly amazed and delighted that the greatest painter of dance since Degas should find such inspiration in my own work' David Bintley, 1998