Vista resident Peter O’Brien was only 8 years old when he first thought about making dancing the focus of his life.
“I grew up in a town in northeastern England where this was unusual,” he said. “But my mother had danced classical ballet before and after World War II, and was a member of a popular dance troupe called the Bosby Babes, something like the American Rockettes. She saw my potential and encouraged me from an early age.”
[Ballet master Peter O’Brien in a performance of Don Quixote in 1979.]
Ballet master Peter O’Brien in a performance of Don Quixote in 1979.
Mr. O’Brien’s father was not enthusiastic about his son’s choice of a career. “He was a businessman and local politician, and wanted me to follow in his footsteps,” he said.
But Mr. O’Brien and his mother prevailed. He is now a well-known and accomplished dancer and sought-after instructor with a long and impressive resume. He currently teaches ballet and partnering at the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Steps on Broadway and began teaching ballet at the Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance this past Friday.
“I guess you could say I was kind of the prototype for the character in the movie Billy Elliott,” he said. “In fact, the British Broadcasting Corp. did a documentary on me that made the connection between the fictional character and my real-life experiences breaking with traditional expectations.”
Mr. O’Brien said he became “seriously committed” to a career in dance when he was 12 years old.
“I studied hard and joined England’s Royal Ballet in 1966. I became a principal dancer in 1971,” he said.
Mr. O’Brien said his professional breakthrough came at the Royal Ballet when he partnered with world-renowned ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn at a Lincoln Center production of Poem of Ecstasy. “I was about 21 at the time and that production was the turning point for me,” he said.
By 1979, Mr. O’Brien had danced every major ballet in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire and decided to broaden his horizons.
He was invited to join the New London Ballet, directed by André Prokovsky, and partnered Galina Samsova. “I started to travel extensively, doing dancing, choreography and teaching,” he said.
Mr. O’Brien’s travels included guest appearances at the New London Ballet, Northern Ballet Theater, Stadttheater Bern, Australian Ballet Company, Ballet Francais de Nancy, Zurich Opera House, Alta Balletto, La Scala Milano, and Nureyev and Friends. He partnered with many of the leading ballerinas of their time.
As a teacher, he served as senior teacher head of the department of boys at the prestigious Hammond School in Chester, England. He has also been a guest teacher at several other prestigious companies and schools around the world, including the Hartford Ballet and Juilliard in the United States.
Moving to America
Mr. O’Brien decided to move permanently to America and settled here in 2003.
“I first came to the States in 1967 in connection with my work and stayed at the homes of friends in the Fairfield-Westchester area while recovering between performances,” he said. “This continued through the late 1960s and into the l970s. I fell in love with the area because of its beauty and tranquility, so different from New York City but not that far away.”
Mr. O’Brien started out living in Stamford, Conn., and then bought a condominium in Oakridge in Vista hamlet in 2007.
“I was continuing on with my work with Alvin Ailey and Steps on Broadway and was quite content with my new life,” he said. “I was walking with my fiancée down Main Street in Ridgefield a few weeks ago and stopped to see the ballet classes going on at the Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance.”
By pure happenstance the director of the conservatory is James Robey, a teaching colleague from the Hartt School four years ago.
“Peter remembered that I directed a school in Ridgefield, so he just stopped in to say hello,” said Mr. Robey. “He told me to call him if I needed a teacher, but at the time I was completely staffed for the coming year.”
In August, Mr. Robey received news that a faculty member would not be returning, leaving him with an opening. “I remembered Peter was in town and contacted him right away,” he said. “Peter accepted the teaching post and makes our already diverse faculty even more dynamic.”
Teaching many classes
Mr. O’Brien is now teaching at the conservatory on Friday evenings. “My classes are advanced ballet, focused on mostly teenagers, intermediate ballet for 12- to 14-year-olds, and a pointe work class,” he said.
At present, Mr. O’Brien is teaching 23 classes at different ballet companies and schools. “I guess you could say I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he said.
Mr. O’Brien said he considers himself fortunate to have so much success over so many years. “It can be difficult to make a living in the arts,” he said. “There are many, many talented people that never do so, and I am very sympathetic to their situations.”
Mr. O’Brien said his businessman father probably helped mold his focused approach to his career. “I am happy to say my father eventually accepted the choice I made. I think it finally happened the evening he sat next to Queen Elizabeth at Covent Garden for my premiere in Sleeping Beauty. He was able to acknowledge my success.”
But even though he values his late father’s eventual acceptance, Mr. O’Brien still credits his mother with giving him the impetus. “She saw my talent and started me out young,” he said. “She never stressed dance for my other siblings and didn’t push them at all. She was a wise woman who thankfully guided me down the right path for me.”