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William Soleau Brings Dreams to SMU Dance Students

by Danielle Georgiou 10 Nov 2010 1:47 PM

“Dance for dance’s sake is fine, but for me, I always want to tell stories,” William Soleau says about his approach to the art form. The freelance choreographer brought his take on classical and contemporary ballet to Southern Methodist University this fall, creating a new work for a number of undergraduate dance students that will debut tonight.


William Soleau; Photo by Aaron Sutton

Guest blogger Danielle Marie Georgiou is a dance lecturer at the University of Texas Arlington. She also serves as assistant director of UT Arlington’s Dance Ensemble.

“Dance for dance’s sake is fine, but for me, I always want to tell stories,” William Soleau says about his approach to the art form. The freelance choreographer brought his take on classical and contemporary ballet to Southern Methodist University this fall, creating a new work for a number of undergraduate dance students that debuts tonight.

Soleau has created more than 80 ballets for companies around the world, and he has had the opportunity as a dancer in both modern and ballet companies to tour to more than 30 countries while personally working with such notable choreographers as Alvin Ailey, John Butler, Toer van Schayk, Antony Tudor, Joyce Trisler, Gray Vereden and Normal Walker. His works can be seen in the repertories of Ballet British Columbia, Ballet de Montreal, Ballet Austin and BalletMet, among many others.

As a freelance choreographer, he worked with the Richmond Ballet, where SMU Associate Professor of Dance Leslie Peck was the resident Ballet Mistress. At a meeting over the summer at the National Choreographic Initiative in Irvine, Calif., Peck approached Soleau with the idea of coming to Dallas.

“She’s been asking me to come and do something, but this was to be the second time I’ve choreographed with non-professional dancers, [so] it was [going to be] a learning experience for me in that sense,” Spleau said. “I said, ‘Sure I’ll come out.’ … I wouldn’t be here it wasn’t for Leslie, and it’s been a great experience.”

In many ways, Soleau found that working with students, and working in a university setting, stimulating and exciting. He has been the resident choreographer for many companies throughout the years (currently he is with the State Street Ballet in Santa Barbara, Calif.) and has formed concrete relationships with those dancers, so it was daunting to come into a new city and a new situation.

“Usually when I come in, I have a preconceived notion of whom my leads are. I know their strengths and their weaknesses,” he said. “But I came here and originally, I was going to do a piece on pointe, which is what I produce 90 percent of the time. But I wanted to use enough of the dancers, because it is really about them, and I had zero men, [so I went with my] second idea, a contemporary ballet piece for all women, with some theatricality.”

Soleau came into dance through theater. In high school and college, he studied theater and was training to be an actor. During a run at Summerstock, he was cast into many dance roles and started to explore the art professionally. He took the theories of Stanislavsky and applied them to his performance technique. Later, he combined that desire to “play human” with the dance theater ideas of Anthony Tudor. Every gesture had a meaning for Tudor: arabesque was not arabesque, it was a question. This type of approach, an acting approach essentially, became the focus of Soleau’s choreographic principles, and he instills those practices into every rehearsal.

“I spend about half my time with the acting, with the look, with how you offer your hand, how you touch the person,” he said. “I spend the other half saying, ‘I don’t believe you.’ I’ll literally stop and ask the other dancers if they believed the relationship, and they usually go, ‘no.’ We start again, and they really get into it and they start to understand the process a little bit. They start to see the motivation behind [the ideas] … All of a sudden, they go, ‘Oh! It’s more than just the steps!’ They become a person.”

Rehearsal for Hello, Night; Photo by: Danielle Georgiou

The work that Soleau created for his all-female cast pushes them to explore the humanistic quality that remains intact while you dream. Hello, Night is “about the place just as you are falling asleep, and the dreams that follow – the random thoughts and scenes that make up the dreams.” Inspired by fragments of his own dreams, Hello, Night plays with space and time and reality. For Soleau, the piece begins in medias res, at that moment when you are in the fourth stage of sleep, REM sleep, where your conscious self and your unconscious self meet. It explores the line between falling asleep and living in reality and facing your unconscious thoughts.

The dreamscape is dependent on three aspects: the music, the staging and the lighting. Soleau created soundscapes while at SMU to add an atmospheric layer to the barren landscape of his dreams. The soundscapes act as transitions from each segment and connect the two pieces of music chosen for the work. The staging consists of wooden boxes that the dancers manipulate and move throughout the piece. They become perches, chairs and security blankets. The lighting aides in this constructed environment by creating on stage exits and entrances. He removed the back curtain and the cyc (the white screen that is usually flown in to project light on creating colorful backdrops) and created a light wall that once the dancers pass through it, they disappear into the darkness – just like a dream.

His experience at SMU echoed the concept of the piece. It was like a dream, since the dancers were “like clay,” he said. “They are just so moldable … At SMU, the students receive not only ballet training but modern dance training and that allows you to go places that you don’t necessarily get to go to with other companies.” He found the strength and technique of the students to be a pleasant surprise. Their ability to adapt to his choreography helped move the process along, and the intense environment they worked in (he only had two weeks to set the movement) created a focused learning atmosphere.

“Coming here and being able to do whatever I wanted was a real pleasure. To be able to do something more theatric, which is really what I like doing. Having a story, having people be people, and passing on that to the students … [giving them an idea] of how I work was really fun.”

Soleau’s Hello, Night premieres tonight and runs through Friday at the Owens Arts Center on the SMU campus along with works by Pilobolus Dance Theater (Alraune), Adam Hougland (Beyond), SMU’s Danny Buraczeski and new SMU jazz dance faculty member Millicent Johnnie. Tickets range from $7-$13 and can be purchased online.