In the Magazine

Face to Face: Helen Simoneau

Simoneau in her Flight Distance III: Chain Suite

It’s almost as if Helen Simoneau is living two lives. A French-speaking Québécoise, she arrived at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts at 17 to study dance, and her now-flawless English even has a slight Southern twang. Her six-year-old company splits its time between Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and New York City. Even her choreography includes duality: Simoneau is just as at ease crafting limb-flung, space-eating group work (Paper Wings, originally for 19 dancers) as she is when creating introspective, compact solos (her award-winning the gentleness was in her hands). Her most recent work, which premieres March 3–5 in Winston-Salem, had its first life as a solo for Simoneau herself. Now she’s translated that solo, Caribou, about her Canadian heritage and American assimilation, into a dance for eight.

On repeating herself, choreographically “A lot of the pieces I make are informed by what I made right before. Sometimes the catalyst to create a new work comes from having more to say. There is a spark from the previous piece that continues into the new work. I’ve done this before, with a piece I made for our first season. It was called Flight Distance. And then I just wasn’t done with that idea, so I made Flight Distance II and III. Caribou was similar. I made a solo, and I wasn’t done with this idea. I was interested to see how this movement material and these ideas would translate to a larger group.”

Making it work in NC and NY “Winston-Salem offers us a stable place to create work. The residency model, for me, is really beneficial for the incubation of the work. We’re trying ideas, but it also provides an opportunity for the company to bond. That’s been something that’s rooted us in the past five years. And it’s really important to me to continue to be in New York, seeing all the dances being created and having the opportunity when I’m creating to have mentors and peers come and see the work and give me feedback.”

Her dream dancer “I’m really looking for collaborators: a dancer who is able to take on a task; who is curious; who is interested in researching the movement and the ideas; who can speak about the work while we’re creating it. All of that is important to me. Yes, there’s a base of skill and training that is necessary for the work to be fully realized, but beyond that I’m looking for partners who are really interested in the process. Because that is so much of the time we spend together.” DT

Training: BFA from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts; MFA, Hollins University

Choreography: founded Helen Simoneau Danse in 2010; has been commissioned by The Juilliard School, the American Dance Festival and Springboard Danse Montréal

Teaching: adjunct at UNCSA; The Juilliard School: Summer Dance Intensive; ADF

Photo by Steve Davis, courtesy of Helen Simoneau Danse

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Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."



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But by trying to retain more male talent, are we suggesting to girls that they are less valuable to the dance world than boys? "There's so much about this getting into these kids' psyches," says Childress. "Like, 'Oh the boy will beat me no matter what.' How do we teach self-worth knowing that you're going up against a boy, so what's the point?"

The Boy Factor is a product of and a contributor to the culture that sends the few men in dance up the glass escalator: "Many boys growing up in the dance world are not told the word 'no' often, so they tend to climb the professional ranks more quickly than the women," says Jean. We often bemoan the absence of female leadership in dance, but the damage is already done if we've taught young women that their gender determines their value to our community.

So what can be done about The Boy Factor? First, we could change how we encourage boys to continue dancing. Instead of empowering young men by devaluing young women, we could work as a community to dispel the culture of toxic masculinity that discourages boys from pursuing dance in the first place.

But it also falls in the hands of judges and teachers. "We need to increase awareness," says the second adjudicator. "A lot of us judges don't realize what we are promoting and the messages we send through our scoring and awards. If enough of us band together, I think we can make a difference so that this part of our field is less toxic."

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