By Merritt Enright
Choreographer Helen Simoneau may be from Quebec, but she’s no stranger to Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
This February, Simoneau hosted an informal choreography showcase at Salem College. Local fans, students, and colleagues gathered in Salem’s Bryant Hall studio to witness Simoneau’s “Paper Wings” performed by Salem College dancers.
The showcase marked the end of Simoneau’s week-long Salem College residency from Feb. 1 through 6, at the invitation of dance department director Heidi Echols. Echols knew Simoneau as a student at UNCSA and noted that Simoneau’s thoughtful dance style and powerful social statements made the her a fitting contribution to Salem’s Dance Company.
“Helen appeals to our department because she approaches dance in a very body-intelligent way,” said Echols. “She’s also very interested in gender, which is something we are really focused on here at Salem.”
The 35 year-old is an alumna of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and founded her own company, Helen Simoneau Danse, after graduation. She has performed in Greece, Japan, Italy, Spain, Brazil and South Korea before returning to the US for choreographic residencies in New York and in North Carolina.
While Simoneau’s choreography is recognized for its gender neutrality, “Paper Wings” is distinctly feminine. The all-female piece opens with the dancers swinging their hips in unison, boldly looking at the audience. Originally set for a cast of 19, the piece has been modified for the group of eight Salem College undergrad dancers. They sway and merge as a pack, reflecting Simoneau’s adept talent of creating wave-like ensembles. The original score by Andy Hasenpflug and John C.B. Wilson is hypnotic: tribal drums that syncopate with the piece’s “girl power” sentimentalism. When one dancer, senior Calleah Solomon, suddenly breaks from the pack and performs a solo, the others freeze and watch her contemplatively.
“It was important to me, when I created this piece, that there was a sense of sisterhood,” said Simoneau. “Life, in dance especially, can get competitive. I wanted to create a space free of that. When the Calleah does her solo, the other women watch her in curiosity, not envy.”
The feminist message is equally important on a personal level to Salem junior Katherine Williams, who is among the eight “Paper Wings” dancers. Williams says she enjoyed Simoneau’s more intimate and direct rehearsal style.
“‘Paper Wings’ is incredible to dance because it’s about celebrating the differences amongst women, instead of comparing them,” said Williams. “Helen is hands on; she knows what she wants and she’ll make sure you know her vision.”
“Paper Wings” will be performed on May 7 at Salem College in the Elberson Fine Arts Center Drama Workshop.