The University of North Carolina School of the Arts shaped Helen Simoneau as a choreographer and dancer.
The native of French-speaking Canada says, with no trace of an accent, “I responded to the vigorous training I got at school. They instill a sense of discipline and personal responsibility.”
“When I look back on what students accomplished in a day, it’s really amazing,” she continues. “I knew I could handle working hard after graduating from that program. I could work through being tired and see my way from beginning to end.”
She loved North Carolina enough to plant roots here after graduation. She founded her Helen Simoneau Danse company five years ago in Winston-Salem. It makes its Charlotte debut March 10.
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Simoneau, 35, may be home-grown talent, but she has performed all over the world, including in Greece, Japan, Italy, Spain, Brazil and South Korea. She was a resident artist at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York and has earned fellowships from the Bogliasco Foundation and the North Carolina Arts Council.
When Simoneau visited Charlotte Ballet last year, she fell in love with the intimate space. President and Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux asked whether she’d be interested in performing there, and she leapt at the chance.
The program’s centerpiece will be a piece Simoneau choreographed. “The Task of Doing” explores the public personae we take on and the metaphorical masks we wear.
“It’s about the contrast between being fake and sincere,” she says. “Many times, we show people what we think they want to see.”
“Someone asks how you are, and your automatic response is, ‘I’m fine,’ even if you’re not. We don’t want to disappoint, so we put on a happy face.”
She created a dance that examines: What happens if we let go of the facade? She does that through movement and staging, which involves four dancers and four large, ornate picture frames.
Simoneau discovered something intriguing during rehearsals: Dancers found it easier to perform “fake.”
“Moments of sincerity proved difficult,” she says. “And we can’t perform sincerity; we need to actually be sincere.”
The music, an original score by contemporary composer Eric Schwartz, drives much of the movement. “We obey the music in some parts,” Simoneau says. But the dancing takes control in others.
The concert also features a duet, adapted from Simoneau’s 2014 “Moonlight Parade,” which she created for her alma mater last year. The experimental work, originally created for 13 dancers, is “fun and bouncy and celebrates the joy of movement,” Simoneau says.
“Sometimes modern dance can be about shock value,” Simoneau says. But not this time. Anyone 12 or older is the right audience for her Charlotte concert, she says. Besides, the entire show is just 75 minutes including an intermission.
The third piece is a solo for Simoneau that explores issues of cultural identity and marks a return to her roots. She’s using music from a Quebecois folk musician, Bernard Adamus. It’s the first solo she’s created for herself in more than five years.
The piece is central to Simoneau’s identity. She experienced culture shock when she moved to North Carolina as a 17-year-old – and not just because of the language barrier. But she discovered how adaptable she was.
Helen Simoneau’s artistry honors her Canadian heritage as well as the place she’s put down roots.
This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance.
Helen Simoneau, a native of Quebec who studied at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, will celebrate her dance company’s fifth anniversary with a performance at the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance on Tuesday, March 10 at 7:30 p.m.