SMU’s Dance Resident Brings Art and Love to the Stage

An interview with SMU's Distinguished Visiting Artist in Residence in Dance, Jean-Paul Comelin.

By Danielle Marie Georgiou
Art & Seek Guest Blogger

Guest blogger Danielle Marie Georgiou is the Artistic Director and Choreographer of DGDG: Danielle Georgiou Dance Group. She also serves as the Assistant Director of the UT Arlington’s Dance Ensemble.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting in on a rehearsal with Southern Methodist University’s current Distinguished Visiting Artist in Residence in Dance, Jean-Paul Comelin. The French-born choreographer, director and teacher has worked with Balanchine, Nureyev and almost all the great names in dance of the 20th century.

A self-proclaimed world traveler (and rightfully so, he lives part-time in Germany with his wife and part-time in various places across the U.S.), Comelin has called Dallas his home since August. His residency will end in May, but not before he presents his pas de deux, Camille, this week as part of SMU’s Spring Dance Concert (which runs through Sunday).

His views on love have not only been a benefit to the students he has worked with, but they have influenced his work and his way of living:

Danielle Georgiou: It might be a bit late to say this, but “Welcome to Texas!”

Jean-Paul Comelin: (laughing) Thank you!

D.G.: How did this yearlong residency come about?

J.P.C.: Well, originally, I was only supposed to be here for a few weeks. Just come and do the piece. But one of the professors took a leave of absence … only announced it at the last minute, so as they were negotiating for me to come to do this ballet, Leslie Peck (Associate Professor of Dance), who I have known for many, many years, said to me, “How would you like to come for a year?” And I said, “Yes! But you’ll have to let me go, because I have other things [that I’ve already committed to].” She said, “No sweat, no problem,” and here I am!

D.G.: So you’re here setting work and teaching classes …

J.P.C.: Yes. Ballet classes, pas de deux and a men’s class.

D.G.: They are extremely lucky to have you here for a whole year. Residencies are usually only two weeks, maybe a month, and that’s not enough time to get to know a choreographer and the way they work. How has it been working with the students?

J.P.C.: Very nice! The students are really nice. The difficulty of teaching at a university is to not forget that it’s on a one-to-one basis. If you start teaching a course, and everyone can take it or not take it, then you’re lost. Finished. … But I cannot complain. I’ve had a wonderful experience.

Everyone is a human being, and I feel that it’s very important that you spend some time with each of them … some are more open than others, particularly with a male teacher.

D.G.: You overcame quite a bit to be a dancer …

J.P.C.: My father was totally against it. He had a bookstore and a newspaper, and he was hoping that one of us would take over, and no one did. I went to the Paris Conservatory of Music and Dance, and then the Paris Opera. It was not an easy decision … this was the middle-’40s, right after the Second World War … he [Comelin’s father] was hoping that I would choose a [practical] career.

Then a war in Nigeria broke out, and I was sent there for two and a half years. When I came back, I was a different man. I said to myself, “If I stay at the Paris Opera, 142 dancers, 62 men, which means I’m going to be [the] number 62 understudy of this ballet. [I’ll] never make it.” I was already 23 years old. … But I was lucky – a Russian choreographer came from Moscow … took a liking to me and invited me to audition for a new ballet in London. I got the job, became a principal dancer, and life after that was completely different. …

The only downside is that I was away from my family so much. I have a daughter who is 22 years old, and I think to myself, “Where did the time go?” … And it’s difficult when you are away to fit into a life with your family … everyone has taken their own habits, including me in my hotel, and then you’re on top of each other, and being French … are you kidding me? (laughing)

D.G.: Those must have been fun days!

J.P.C.: Oh yes, but we made it work.

… On “Camille”

D.G.: The concept of your pas de deux is very unique as it is based on a well-known artist. Why did you choose to focus on Camille Claudel?

J.P.C.: She was probably one of the best sculptors that we ever had in France … and her story is tragic. She was a pupil of Auguste Rodin in the 19th century. She became his lover, and they had a big love affair. When he dropped her, she became very upset. She was extremely talented, but being a woman in those days, she couldn’t get any support for her work … it was difficult for her to be an artist at that time [and to lose her emotional support from Rodin was heartbreaking].

[After Rodin left her] she became restless … she destroyed half of her collection. … Her mother sent her to an asylum, where she spent the next 33 years (the rest of her life) locked away. She lost it completely.

It wasn’t until after the Second World War that her brother asked the Ministry of Culture to put what was left of her collection with Rodin’s in Paris. So the museum is now called the Musée Rodin à Claudel. … I would love to do a full evening ballet on this story, because it’s so powerful and complicated.

D.G.: I agree. The story is one that many can relate to. As a woman and an artist, that pressure to prove yourself is still present. And who can’t related to a love story?

J.P.C.: Exactly!

D.G.: The images that open the pas de deux…

J.P.C.: Those are hers. The first one is a portrait of her. Then the four others are sculptures done by her.

D.G.: Did you put together the video?

J.P.C.: I chose the images and then two students from SMU put it all together. I thought it would be nice to create an environment for the dancers, so there are other dancers milling about the stage [to create a museum feel] and they are looking around at the art work [as the video plays] as it all comes to life.

D.G.: Why did you decide to have that visual element?

J.P.C.: The pas de deux is not just about her, or about Rodin, it’s supposed to be simply the spirit of love coming out of a statute. And I felt that to introduce the audience to the sculpture of love, it would be an added element to have the exhibition at the beginning.

D.G.: I’m also a video artist, and a lot of my work is a play between video and live performance.  I’m always interested in why other directors and choreographers choose to use it. For me, it makes sense to have that extra layer.

J.P.C.: Definitely! It gives a piece of work a little something extra.

…On Dance and Education

D.G.: Now that you’re teaching here at SMU and have taught at other universities, how important is it that these young dancers are getting an academic education?

J.P.C.: Very important. I’m learning this. It is a tremendous amount of work for them. Some of them are double majors. And it’s a good thing. You want educated dancers. You want good dancers who have a brain and understand!

Some of them could have great careers, but they get very discouraged. That’s why I think that one-to-one basis I was talking about earlier is so important. I’ve been doing a lot of counseling here … both the male and female dancers needed the support.

You have to know where you stand as a dancer, especially coming from a university. When you go to audition for the big companies, you’re up against dancers who just dance all day long. No schooling, no other activities, just dance. You have to be prepared for that.

D.G.: My students ask me constantly, “What am I going to do after college?” And I don’t really know what to tell them, other than, just get out there and keep auditioning and keep training. But I always tell them, if you want to dance, you have to be willing to make a lot of sacrifices.

J.P.C.: Exactly …  But you have to do what is right for you.

You’ll have those days in rehearsal … those bad days when you wonder if it’s all going to work, or if you’re just kidding yourself … But it’s a beautiful career if you can have it.


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