Remembering Robert Huffman

Rehearsing with the longtime ballet pianist, who has died at 78, was like having a concert pianist and an inspiring artistic partner in the studio

By GAVIN LARSEN

The dance studios of Portland are dimmer, and more hushed, following the passing of Robert Huffman at age 78 on January 16 after a brief illness. Pianist, accompanist, performer, comedian, friend, confidant, mentor, and inspiration to many generations of dancers and teachers, Robert leaves us poorer, yet richer for the wisdom, characteristic wit, vibrancy and love that defined his life.

Nancy Davis, artistic director of The Portland Ballet (where Robert was principal accompanist since the school’s inception in 2001), considered him to be Russian at heart, and savored his playing of Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Khachaturian. Carol Shults, who taught classes with Robert at the piano since the mid-‘80s, will always think of him as French because of his delicious interpretations of Debussy. And Nick Jurica, a former TPB student now studying at Juilliard, says he learned to love and appreciate Ravel thanks to Robert’s music. Who knows how many other identities this one musician adopted with the countless dancers and teachers who experienced his accompaniment over the decades.

Robert Huffman at rehearsal for The Portland Ballet's "La Boutique." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert/2010

Robert Huffman at rehearsal for The Portland Ballet’s “La Boutique.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert/2010

The list of schools and companies where Robert worked includes every iteration of what is now Oregon Ballet Theatre, the Jefferson Dancers, Northwest Academy, and Whitman College. But his music reached much further than this region: an abbreviated roster of important ballet world figures who taught to Robert’s music includes Mark Morris, Keith Saunders, Trey McIntyre, Alonzo King, Melissa Hayden, Paul Sanasardo, Ed Kresley, Denise Dabrowski, Gelsey Kirkland, and Jacques D’Amboise.

How could one man express so many different musical identities? How could one pianist, who spent vastly more hours playing for ballet classes than any concert pianist would for audiences and whose skill was equal to any, be content in the corner of the studio instead of center stage?

“It was like taking class with Horowitz,” says Jim Lane, executive director of TPB. Nancy Davis agrees. ”Here we had this concert-caliber pianist. I felt like every class was a performance and I was at a concert. He loved ballet so much and knew the music from solos I’d teach in variations class so well he could play them from memory.”

Huffman was born in rural Oregon, outside Springfield, and had the  magnificent luck of having a mother who saw her son had talent and knew what it could mean. Sandra Hyslop, a longtime friend and fellow musician, says that one “special aunt Gwen” first introduced 8-year-old Robert to the piano. Aunt Gwen, who’d been a piano major at the University of Oregon, played endless recordings of classical music for her young nephew, sparking his love of Rachmaninoff and other composers. She even began showing him how to play four-hand piano, which would become a favorite of his. Every Saturday, Robert went into Eugene for formal lessons with Juilliard graduate Tom O’Brien. By the time he was a teenager, his parents agreed to let Robert move there full-time, live with his grandparents, and attend high school in a “more cultured environment.”

His mother kept up her encouragement, taking him to concerts so he could hear every conductor and musician who came through town—experiences that were not lost on Robert’s young ear. “He had this phenomenal memory,” Sandra says. “He was like an encyclopedia of anything—places, dates, musical facts, and for every concert and bit of music he ever heard. And later on, this all came together with his passion for playing and the skills he developed from early childhood.”

Robert’s path from Eugene was a colorful one, taking him to Paris in 1969 to study before returning to Oregon to pursue a bachelor’s degree in piano from the University of Oregon in 1974. Three years spent in Paris under the mentorship of the highly regarded pianist Noel Lee were formative, but the list of illustrious musicians and composers Robert played for and studied with is lengthy, including Aaron Copland, with whom Robert struck up a correspondence and who he considered a true mentor.

Robert didn’t limit himself to solo performance. He was drawn to ensemble, chamber, and even four-hands piano pieces—all of which tied right into his knack for collaboration and ballet accompaniment. With his obvious love of dance and immense respect for children, affiliating with dancers was a perfect fit. We can understand why Robert’s favorite spot was in the dance studio, hands on the keys, looking out over his instrument at rows of young students, and encouraging them—teaching them—to infuse their technique with the richness of a keen musical sense.

Huffman at the keyboard, where he made everyone feel at home. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert/2012

Huffman at the keyboard, where he made everyone feel at home. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert/2012

Learning to dance is a slog. A long, slow slog that is (to be perfectly honest), more often than not, boring and tedious. Even the most dance-obsessed student feels the drudgery of ballet class. But there are moments—fleeting moments—every so often, that negate the sense of fighting a pointless, endless battle, and bring the elusive end goal within arm’s reach. Often those moments come when a dancer hears something that lifts her, stirs her, gives her strength that she didn’t know she had. It’s when the Marseillaise accompanies grand battements, the Firebird’s lullaby flows with the adagio exercise, or a Scottish hornpipe drives the dancer through an impossibly quick allegro combination, teasing and challenging her to a game of speed. Which can move faster, the pianist’s fingers or the dancer’s feet? The feet can’t help but keep up—they have no choice. The rhythm of the music is king, and dictates all movement.

Robert understood, uncannily, how to spark such moments in class. He knew the role his accompaniment could have in dance students’ training. He never wanted to be invisible in the classroom, or even worse, for the music in any class to be forgettable. He felt, without ever having danced himself, the power of putting his soul into what he played for classes, no matter how young and unformed the students were. Any class with Robert at the piano was bound to be inspiring. And it was a two-way street: his eyes followed every dancer, unbeknown to them, noticing which ones were “getting” his musical guidance—and telling them so.

Carol Shults, TPB’s artistic advisor, taught classes with Robert’s accompaniment at the school, as well as at Jefferson High School, Northwest Academy, Ballet Oregon, and Oregon Ballet Theatre. She knows how much dancers crave the promise of what could be considered a “spiritual assist” when pushing themselves through class, and also that the accompanist’s intentions really do matter: “Hundreds of people came to ballet class in order to hear Robert’s music, to move to his music. He did not in any way consider playing for class a ‘lesser’ thing, not at all.” No one who ever took, taught, or observed one of Robert’s classes could think so, either.

Robert was proud of his music, but it was not a selfish pride. It was a compassionate respect for what he could share, and for the chance to bring others—most especially, children—to the same level of appreciation. By some accounts, this could be his greatest contribution.

In addition to playing for ballet classes, Robert frequently taught music appreciation during TPB’s summer courses. Sandra Hyslop: “He treated children with enormous respect, talking to them as if they were actual human beings with brains and vocabularies and a powerful intellect. He wanted to do everything possible to explore music with them, while they were young, and had brains that would accept it.”

Robert was proud of the students as he watched them move up through the school, says Nancy Davis. “Robert followed students just like we did, with great pride in their accomplishments. And they felt his support, and his love. They knew he was an exceptional human being that we were so lucky to know and work with.”

Nick Jurica discovered—and was discovered by—Robert the moment he set foot in TPB’s studio as a 14-year-old auditioning for a place in the school. “He kept making faces at me when I was taking class, so I just made faces back at him. Afterwards, we started talking. There’s sometimes just something that connects you with a person, and we had this unspoken bond. I think I had an appreciation and understanding of Robert’s music, and knew he had a lot to offer as a mentor and a friend. We had a mutual respect.”

What, to Nick, made Robert so special as an accompanist?

“At its highest, it’s not just dancers dancing to music, or a pianist playing for dancers, it’s the two going together,” he says. “Robert was so observant, so present, and so great at making that happen, even if the students weren’t aware of it. He could meld himself and his playing to every teacher’s needs, and knew what each one liked. He did that for everybody—he knew my favorite plie song, and when he played it, I’d look over and see him smiling right at me. He was an inspiration for me to be more musical as a dancer.”

Nancy Davis and Robert had a special bond. Knowing her background as a Balanchine dancer, he’d play music from ballets she’d danced— Serenade, La Source– but one particularly close to her heart was John Clifford’s Firebird. He’d often play its sublime lullaby as a special treat in her classes. Their senses of humor overlapped (“He was an instigator—he knew which buttons of mine to push, and all we had to do was look at each other and I’d have to leave the room!”), but mostly, she feels buoyed by his passion, immense repertoire, and knowledge of both music and dance.

“He brought out the best in teachers,” Davis says. “We all felt that passion, that enthusiasm. He made better teachers out of all of us. He knew exactly the right and best music to play for every teacher’s combination. He would have made a great ballet teacher, or a great dancer, for that matter. And I loved to mention that to him.”

Whether or not Robert Huffman ever danced a step, he truly was a dancer in his heart and soul. What a rare and precious gift he had, but anyone who ever saw his twinkling eyes, heard his irreverent one-liners, or had the supreme joy of stretching the fibers of their bodies and souls to the sound of his music is forever blessed. Rest in peace, Robert Huffman, and may you play forever on your cherished Bosendorfer grand.

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A public memorial is planned for June 13 at Lincoln Hall. Check theportlandballet.org or call (503) 452-8448 for more information.

 

3 Responses.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    A small addendum, although Gavin has said it all, and beautifully. Robert’s love for the children he played for was so deep he risked his job at one school that shall remain nameless by calling the attention of this writer to what he considered abusive behavior by a teacher. His integrity was as unimpeachable as his musicianship.

  2. Shanna huffman says:

    Thank you for the nice tribute to my uncle bob

  3. Suzanne Slauson says:

    Beautifully written article – captures so much of his personality, talent and grace. However, for those of us that knew him, experienced his talent and loved his warmth, words don’t quite share his soul. It has been years since my daughter danced, but we both feel like we lost a member of the family. Prayers, hugs and love to all that mourn this amazing man. xoxo

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