DanceWatch Weekly: Helen Simoneau’s work in progress

Choreography XX at Oregon Ballet Theatre give three women choreographers a voice, including Helen Simoneau

For two weeks now the dancers at Oregon Ballet Theatre have been in the studio rigorously working out new, exciting choreography by Gioconda Barbuto, Helen Simoneau, and Nicole Haskins. The three talented choreographers were selected in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Choreography XX competition, an initiative specifically created to discover new women choreographers in the male-dominated ballet world.

The three have extensive dance world credits. Barbuto is an Italian-Canadian dancer and choreographer who was a soloist with Les Grand Ballets Canadiens de Montréal and danced with Nederlands Dans Theater III. Haskins works as a freelance choreographer and dances with Smuin Ballet in San Francisco, and she received a fellowship grant to New York City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute. Simoneau, an independent choreographer and teacher based in North Carolina, is also the founder of Helen Simoneau Danse.

Gioconda Barbuto’s new work for OBT’s Choreography XX, presented June 29 ­30th, 2017 at the Washington Park Rose Garden Amphitheater. Photo by Yi Yin.

Since February after seeing OBT’s new Swan Lake, choreographed by artistic director Kevin Irving, I have been mulling over exactly what classical ballet is, and how it fits into the current world view. While watching Swan Lake I was struck by the lack of diversity in the company, and the sexist, oligarchic assumptions in the story line, which may have seemed cute and acceptable as a children’s fantasy once upon a time but now seems wildly out of place. In the real world different cultures struggle to coexist and discrimination is illegal, stereotypes are rude, we are trying to understand the ethics of cultural appropriation, there are no happy dancing peasants (poor people), child brides are illegal and women are not commodities to be traded for money and power, and democracy is the desired form of governance. Are we doing our children a disservice, especially girls, by replaying these classical ballet stories over and over? Can ballet companies escape their dependence on story ballets and their feudal view of the world? And what would replace those ballets?

To help me consider those questions, I decided to embed myself in the four-week rehearsal process at OBT for the Choreography XX project to get to know the company and the choreographers, and to get an inside perspective on what exactly classical ballet is and where it’s headed. I am happy to report that real-life ballet and how it operates is nothing like the fantasy that is described on stage—the dancers are amazing and the choreographers are inspiring.

Unfortunately, my great plan to watch a whole lot of rehearsals was thwarted by an illness, but I was able to sit down with choreographer Helen Simoneau to learn about her work, her process, and her dance company in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. That conversation unfolds below.

But first…in Portland dance this week, Portland State University dance students perform tonight for the last time, before their program is shuttered as part of “SHUT DOWN: The Final Performance from PSU Dance Students,” Trip the Dark Dance Company performs “The Goblin King: A David Bowie and Labyrinth Tribute” for a third week, and traditional Japanese dancer Sahomi Tachibana and students perform at the Oregon Buddhist Temple on Saturday.

Performances this week

SHUT DOWN: The Final Performance from PSU Dance Students
presented by the PSU Dance Program/School of Theater+Film
Under the direction of Tere Mathern, Dance Faculty
June 14-15
Portland State University, Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave.
The entire dance program at Portland State University has been cut. In this final performance, Portland State University dance students, faculty, and community dance members, will perform works that express mourning, celebration, integration, and liberation through movement to mark the department’s passing.

The Goblin King: A David Bowie and Labyrinth Tribute
Trip the Dark Dance Company
Co-directed by Corinn deWaard and Stephanie Seaman
June 9-17
The Headwaters Theatre, 55 NE Farragut St.
In tribute to Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth and singer/songwriter David Bowie, Trip the Dark Dance Company takes the audience on an adventure to the center of the Labyrinth to rescue Sarah’s baby brother from the Goblin King after Sarah had wished him gone. It’s a mind-bending, hypnotic adventure that includes a little tap, contemporary dance, theater and a lot of Bowie, and… “where everything seems possible and nothing is what it seems.”

Japanese Dance Yukata Kai
Sahomi Tachibana and Students
The Oregon Tachibana Dance School
Yoshiko Kamata, Kimi Kimura, Angela Kanegae, Wynn Kiyama, and Ann Shintani
6 pm June 17
Oregon Buddhist Temple, 3720 SE 34th Ave.
Sahomi Tachibana was born in 1924 in Mountain View, California, and began dancing as part of her grandparents amateur Kabuki theater. When she was eleven, she traveled to Fukushima, Japan, and studied at the Tachibana Dance School under the tutelage of Saho Tachibana, and earned her dancing name, Sahomi Tachibana, which translates as “a beautiful bird of paradise who learned to dance at Tachibana.” Dances included in the program will be classical Kabuki dramas, folk and semi-classical dances.

Interview with Helen Simoneau

OBT guest choreographer Helen Simoneau in rehearsals for her new work for OBT’s Choreography XX, presented June 29-30 at the Washington Park Rose Garden Amphitheater. Photo by Yi Yin.

Simoneau, is an independent choreographer, dancer, and teacher, who lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and directs her own 12-member dance company, Helen Simoneau Danse, which has a yearly season in North Carolina and seasons every other year in New York.

Can you describe the first day audition/rehearsal, and how did you pick dancers out of that scenario?

The first day for me started during the audition. I came in like I usually do. These are things I like to do coming into a new process, especially with new dancers. Just go to the different steps of the process that I find have always worked for me. And one is to come in and have a phrase that I have already developed in my own body and to teach it and teach it with as much specificity as possible to see which dancers are able to capture those details. And in this case, I was definitely looking for fluidity in the movement and an ease of going into plie and a dancer who pays attention to the transitions.

I talk a lot about not showing the seams, and that is the dancer’s job, to smooth out that seam. So I look for that. And then I gave them a task of pairing up with someone and making a complimentary phrase. So the first phrase we called the “root phrase.” And that is the root phrase because all the material for the piece will come from that phrase, that’s our starting point. That allows there to be a sense of continuity. And a sense of one source. So they paired up and one person was doing the root phrase and the other person is creating new movement that compliments, somehow decorates, or accentuates that phrase. But it’s not unison. We worked on that for a while and that developed a whole set of material. And then we did the post-it notes you saw. [There were six pink post-it notes that had different body parts written on each one].

We had the post-it notes on the wall, and they each wrote different body parts on them and then they connected those body parts, and then we created material in between those connection points. How specific those connection points are is no longer important at a certain point; it just becomes about the movement. It just gives us a more specific task so that we are not regurgitating things that are familiar in our bodies. […] A task like that also allows both partners to be more equally engaged in the task.There’s not one person who’s going to dictate how it goes.

Helen Simoneau’s notebook that she is using to chronicle the making of her new work, as part of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Choreography XX commission. Simoneau creates a new notebook for every project. This helps her keep a record of the choreography and her ideas, translate the ephemeral nature of dance to the stage, and remind her of the behind-the-scenes work involved./ Photo by Yi Yin.

What is the name of this piece?

I’m thinking of calling it “Departures.”

What is the music?

The music is by David Schulman. He’s based in D.C., and the second track you heard is a piece he already created. It’s funny—the title of the piece is called “Acts of Arrival” (Helen is laughing), but I’m thinking of calling the piece “Departures.”

Part B was already created. I heard it through one of my friends who had used a section of it for a work she was making. I loved the structure of it and also that there are spaces in it that have a lot of leeway. There are moments that are very counted and have a very clear flavor, and then also a lot of openness. I spoke with him about creating another section that would match, that would complement. I was thinking the piece would be about 15 minutes. So he created the first track you heard, especially for this process.

How long is the piece?

I think it’s going to be 14 minutes, exactly? [Laughter]

Is it all going the way you envisioned it? Is it OK if it doesn’t get finished in the way you imagined?

I think I didn’t have such a strict idea of how it would go. I find it really difficult to decide ahead of time when I don’t know the dancers, because they are such a big part of inspiring the piece. And so even though I knew what the root phrase would be, generally what the material would look like, had the music already, and a sense of the energetic flow of the piece, I really didn’t decide much more than that because I wanted to leave it open for them.

OBT dancers Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe in rehearsals for Helen Simoneau¹s new work for OBT¹s Choreography XX, presented June 29-30 at the Washington Park Rose Garden Amphitheater. Photo by Yi Yin.

How does the dancer dictate what you do?

I think it’s more that they inspire what I do. The way that a dancer might choose to interpret the phrase work first of all, can inspire. So, I can see a lot of different people do the same material and just be like, “No, no, see how this person’s doing this? That’s interesting to me.” And I didn’t know that was interesting ahead of time. […]

I find that the dancers who are less precious are the ones I am drawn to, and then I start making for them, or in conversation with them. […]

I enjoy a process where the dancers feel comfortable enough to try something that they’re not 100% sure is going to work out. Then we’re all in the same space of not knowing, not having an answer all the time.

I’ve been in some processes where people at this stage of the process doubt that I know what I’m doing, because I’m not 100 percent on what I want. I don’t know what I want sometimes until I see it. In this process, that has not been the case. I feel like they are comfortable with that. […]

I like to leave a certain ambiguity sometimes, because that’s when the happy accidents happen, and that’s where dancers will make a choice where they thought I meant something else, but maybe what they do is more interesting than if I had decided ahead of time. The confusion can lead to some really great discoveries.

How did you develop as a choreographer and how did you develop your choreographic skills?

By doing it over and over.

I think early on, I realized in my training, that choreography was a stronger suit for me than maybe even dancing for other people, and also where I found myself to be most fulfilled. And so I focused on that really early on. It was prominent in my training at NCSA (North Carolina School of the Arts) when I was doing my BFA there, in dance. But then when I graduated, I started right away to choreograph. I was living in Montreal at the time and dancing for another choreographer, but also making my work in my down time.

That practice of making never stopped. I always continued. I always would finish a piece and then as that piece was being performed here and there I would already start something else. There were certainly moments in my life where there was less happening, but I always had that practice consistently of making. And within that developed some of my own methods that I can rely on. I’m always trying to find new ways of building new material so that I’m not making the same dance over and over.

When you applied for this residency, did you need to have a concrete idea, or a finished piece?

We found out a year ago that we were doing this. It was good to have that much notice to block off a month of my life.

I didn’t have a lot of works on pointe, and I sent in a piece that I felt best represented what I would want to do with this company. It was a piece I did for Juilliard in 2015. When Kevin called to let me know that I was being invited to make a work, he specifically talked about that piece and how he enjoyed the rigour in it and the attention to form.

Are you a modern dancer, or are you a ballet dancer. How do you fit into his whole scheme?

That’s a tough question. I think I’m just a dancer. I definitely have more experience in the contemporary.

If I had to pick one or the other, I would say I am more of a modern dancer, especially my experience as a performer is as a modern dancer. I did not perform for a ballet company, but I trained in ballet almost as much as I trained in modern in terms of the conservatory where I was.

That’s all in my body and in my experience. I don’t feel the need to pick one or the other, I enjoy both. Where I did my training at NCSA there were two majors and like a lot of places, and I had friends in both and we would choreograph on each other and it didn’t really matter where your major was. So for me as a maker, both are exciting. Both offer something different and some overlap, and both have a specificity that is unique. Like in this case working with these dancers, who are really capable working on pointe, I don’t get to do that all the time, and it’s an additional skill set that I’m enjoying having access to.

OBT dancers Kimberly Nobriga and Adam Hartley in rehearsals for Helen Simoneau¹s new work for OBT¹s Choreography XX, presented June 29-30 at the Washington Park Rose Garden Amphitheater. Photo by Yi Yin.

I’m trying to figure out what ballet is. It seems like ballet can only go so far and then they have to look and see what the contemporary dance world is doing.

I think that there is a sense of tradition in ballet that is really wonderful and joyful, and I can also see how it could limit choreographically what you think you are allowed to do, or can go into. And I have to say that being here, Kevin (Irving) has not restricted us in any way. It was really up to us whether I wanted to do pointe work or not, how many dancers, if it was an even number of men and women. None of that was prescribed. He made it very clear from the beginning that he trusts us, based on our experience already and what he’s seen, to make the right choice.

And that’s wonderful to have that trust. The dancers are the same way. They are very open and willing to try anything. I definitely can tell what my movement choices are there certainly is a modern dance influence, and I don’t really care, I don’t worry about that. I haven’t yet watched the piece and said, “Is this ballet or is this modern?” It hasn’t occurred to me to contain it.

I think that line is getting more and more blurred. I think dancers that are training now have to be well versed in all of it, I think more so than ever. If you’re dancing in a ballet company you are going to be doing a lot of contemporary work, and you may be dancing in bare feet, at some point. And you have to be comfortable with that.

Because Portland State University just axed its dance program, I am curious to know how having universities that have dance programs in your area influences what you do. How do they feed into what you do?

For us the relationship with NCSA is crucial. I could probably find another dance department, but I don’t know if I could find that quality of studio space. But It’s more than studio space, the relationship with that school is one that is mutually beneficial. […]

Since 2004 I’ve been teaching as an adjunct faculty member and more recently I do a lot more guest choreographer spots. I’ve been doing something with them almost every single year. I really care about that program, I care about those students. We’ve offered a lot of apprenticeships to graduating students from that program, because I get to know them when I set works on them.

There is a gap there because the program in not in New York or a major city. Those students don’t have access to professional dancers regularly. We have an open door policy so when we rehearse, any student can come and watch, and see the process. And it is a different process. If you’re working with a seasoned 32-year-old performer it’s a different process than a 20-year-old. And I think that’s been helpful.

For us, the (company) dancers get to take class, any class they want from these amazing faculty members. But they dance alongside the students, and what that does especially for the graduating students is it just pulls them up a little bit more when they are having senioritis—if they can go across the floor with one of our company members, it just really pulls them up. It also introduces them to people who are currently in the field and who are just a little bit older than them. There’s been a lot of networking or asking questions. Often we will have an informal pow-wow and talk about life after graduation, and realizing how much pressure those seniors have and how stressed out and anxious they are about entering the professional market. Sometimes having a conversation with someone who is three years further in, is really helpful.

Performances next week

June 23-24, Risk/Reward Festival Of New Performance, Produced by Jerry Tischleder
June 27-July 2, Cabaret, Presented by U.S. Bank Broadway in Portland

Upcoming Performances

June 29-30, Choreography XX, Oregon Ballet Theatre
June 30, Spectacle Garden 13: The End, Hosted by Ben Martens
June 30-July 1, Improvisation Summit of Portland 2017, Hosted by The Creative Music Guild and Disjecta
July 6, Éowyn Emerald & Dancers
July 8, Ten Tiny Dances, Beaverton Farmers Market, Directed by Mike Barber
July 14-15, Rantum Skoot, Linda Austin, Gregg Bielemeier, Bob Eisen (NYC), and Sada Naegelin & Leah Wilmoth
July 14-16, Apparatus, by Danielle Ross
July 15, Rush Hour, Heidi Duckler Dance Theater Northwest
July 15, Pretty Creatives Showing, NW Dance Project
July 26, Movement and Flow: Portland Dance Films, Hosted by NW Film Center featuring films by Conrad Kazcor, Fuchsia Lin, Dylan Wilbur Media, Gabriel Shalom, Jackie Davis, and Amy Yang Chiao
July 29, Hafla, Portland Bellydance Guild
August 3-5, Galaxy Dance Festival, Hosted by Polaris Dance Theatre
August 11-13, JamBallah Northwest ’17, Hosted by JamBallah NW
August 24-September 6, Portland Dance Film Fest, Directed by Kailee McMurran, Tia Palomino, and Jess Evans
August 24-October 8, Kurios: Cabinet Of Curiosities, Cirque Du Soleil

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