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Interview: Joffrey Ballet Dancer Fabrice Calmels

By Michelle Meywes Kopeny in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 4, 2014 6:00PM

Fabrice Calmels. Photo by Daniel Kelleghan.
Fabrice Calmels is a popular sight at Joffrey Ballet performances. At 6’6” he stands a head taller than most other dancers on the stage, and his jumps and kicks are a feat to be seen. Born and raised in France, ballet has been a part of his life since he was three years old. Tonight he’ll appear on FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance as a guest judge, and we got a chance to talk with him about the show, working for the Joffrey, some challenges he’s faced with his height, and why he thinks Chicago is one of the best cities in the world (really!).

CHICAGOIST: You’ve been with the Joffrey for quite a long time, since 2002. Do you have a favorite role or piece that you’ve performed?

FABRICE CALMELS: That’s a difficult question actually. I think you have to understand that when you perform, when you’re a dancer, you’re really enjoying every single piece. What type of ballet do I like the most? I really enjoy dancing everything, however, I enjoy performing a ballet with a story. I think it’s definitely more appealing to embody a character, to be able to change and be challenged with the acting and be able to really perform a character. It’s something that I really really enjoy. Through the years I’ve been at the Joffrey, I’ve performed different roles such as during The Merry Widow I played Danilo the soldier, I was Othello from Shakespeare, basically with the Shakespeare story and the production from Lar Lubovich, it was his own choreography, and Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon, different roles like that, Apollo, and so on and so on. I like to embody a character and try to really change the personality and associate this with ballet, it’s challenging.

C: You are the tallest professional ballet dancer. Do you think that your height gives you an advantage or is it more of a disadvantage when it comes to dancing, like turns and jumps?

FABRICE CALMELS: You know, it was a disadvantage for the longest time. There’s always a disadvantage in ballet, people are very different. You have to figure out how to utilize your body. However for me, being so tall, a lot of the time people didn’t know what to do with me. Prior to Joffrey Ballet, I was with the Paris Opera. I did all my studies with them, in boarding school, and after I started growing, they didn’t know what to do with me. They were shocked. The Paris Opera, it’s a large institution, I don’t know exactly how many dancers are in the company, but let’s say over a hundred dancers. They are perfection people, that fit and they fit and assemble, all the same height, everybody is the same body type, and I was a giant! When I came to the U.S., it was kind of the same thing, nobody ever saw a dancer that tall. At a lot of auditions, plus I was very young, people didn’t know what to do with me. Really not until I joined the Joffrey Ballet. So, for the longest time it was really a disadvantage because I couldn’t show what I was doing and who I really was as a performer because all they would see is that height. And it was for them a wall, a giant wall and a barrier they couldn’t pass. So, it was a disadvantage at first.

For everyone though, when you’re an athlete, coordination is very necessary and when it comes with height, coordination becomes a challenge. A lot of people say, ‘you’re never going to be able to make it.’ It was a challenge because it was a lot to figure out. You’re not running on a field and playing basketball and just shooting points, you are doing many things, revolving around, understanding how to utilize your body. You rotate in the air, you do big jumps, you do split jumps, rotation with split jumps, many many turns—and all those different techniques require different knowledge with understanding how your body functions. It requires a lot of coordination and awareness and understanding.

It was a huge war, the fact I was so tall and have to use my length to be able to coordinate it and rotate in the air, but I also deal with the mass, and the mass means weight, and weight challenges endurance, so it was a lot to put together. I’m so glad that I was able to do the work and do the homework and be able to conquer that. That was a huge achievement for me.

Photo by Herbert Migdoll

C: You’ve had features in Mens Health and Runner’s World. How much is fitness a part of your life outside of rehearsing?

FABRICE CALMELS: I always analyze my body like an engine, a motor, a vehicle, you have to really take care of it. There are so many aspects, your body is so complicated, sometimes you can work out so much and you feel tightness, and you have to stretch a lot to rebalance your body. So you have to always be very on top of it, be very aware of what’s going on.

Working with the Joffrey, we do so many different styles of dance. We can do Le Sacre du Printemps, The Rite of Spring, and we’ll be turning and stomping and running around, it’s a completely different type of utilizing your body, and so your body can be shocked, completely not liking that. Someone can be great at running, but that doesn’t mean they can be great at lifting weights. So this different type of training can be sometimes very overwhelming for the body and very shocking. When you’re adapting all the time it can be a challenge, so you have to take a little bit more, this is what I like to do. I do ballet, I walk to the Joffrey, I also do things outside like running, working a different group of muscles; and fitness works a different group of muscles. Be aware of what your body needs.

C: Growing up in France, was it a transition coming to Chicago? What are some of your favorite things about living in the city?

FABRICE CALMELS: This is something I keep telling everyone; I think Chicago is one of the best cities in the world. I’m from Paris, and people are like ‘what are you talking about’ most of the time when I say this, ‘you’re from the best city in the world and you talk about Chicago?’

It’s the balance that Chicago has to offer. Paris is a beautiful city, beautiful building, a lot of scenery to attend to, Eifel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées—all that. But there is some kind of equilibrium with Chicago. Going through this winter makes you enjoy the summer. It’s O.K. because it makes you really appreciate things that you don’t get. I think this is really, really good for everyone, to be able to appreciate a summer, deal with the winter, all of this.

There’s a lake, there’s a downtown, there’s a suburb—it’s not this giant city that you never get out of. You can get out of that city and find different things. You can go up north and you have access. It has so much to offer, it’s got this beautiful downtown, lots of nightlife, day activities, lots of things to do and you have that choice and variety about the city that I really like.

C: How did it feel to be selected to be a judge on SYTYCD? Did they come to you or did you go to them?

FABRICE CALMELS: Really it was mutual, we kind of found each other, I will say. I always watch the show anyway since the first season. I’ve always been a huge fan of the show. Because for me, I love what I do, but I’m also very passionate with what I do. Coming from France, ballet is like a 300 year old form, and I feel like in Europe, people understand the art of dance and they appreciate it and respect it. The government pays and funds it. We always have a battle every year to raise money for the Joffrey. Every year we have top creations, top repertoire, top performances, and every year we put ourselves back in the line and everybody’s re-judging us from scratch. But it’s fun to battle and make people aware that it’s really an amazing form and it’s good for the soul, medicine of the soul, and it’s really good to involve art in people’s lives. I always wanted to increase awareness about dance, about ballet, and other genres of art-forms of movement of the body. So I started this website a few years ago called Thirty Seconds of Dance. [It] was basically a blog that used to post every day thirty seconds of footage of a very talented dancer around the world. Hip-hop, salsa, break dancing, ballet, modern, jazz, whatever. It caught on very quickly where we were getting 800 views per week, and it jumped to 25,000. People really enjoyed it, and it was really, really great.

And all I wanted was to create this awareness in people, and be like, we can dance, art is fun, and it can be a very good job. I feel like in the States if you don’t do sports, it’s not an option or like art and dance is not a real profession. I wanted to change that. It’s always been a huge battle for me to present to the American audience dance and art in general.

Once SYTYCD appeared I was so thrilled because finally there was a program, a national program in the US that was presenting dance at its best. It was getting a new generation excited about it, and it was a future for the form, and the possibility and the chance to achieve and be seen in a bright light. I was so thrilled. So for me participating in Season 11 is just a treat. I’m so glad that Nigel [Lythgoe] and the production company decided to pull dancers from major companies and pull them to the surface and say now we’re taking this to the next level and really incorporating ballet and other things into our shows.

Fabrice Calmels in the Joffrey production of 'Othello.' Photo by Cheryl Mann.
C: I saw Nigel Lythgoe a couple months ago when he was in town for the show, and he stopped by Hubbard Street Dance and I got a chance to talk to him there and he said a lot of the same stuff —how ballet is more understood in Europe than it is in the United States—and with his Foundation [Dizzy Feet] he’s advocating for more understanding and education in the US. It’s interesting.

FABRICE CALMELS: It is, it is the case. And someone’s got to start at some point, and I’m so glad that Nigel did this because someone’s gotta start the spark at some point to create momentum. You have to start somewhere, somehow. It’s true, it will take time and it will change. I’m so glad to be able to be on the show and create awareness. SYTYCD is a gift and we really need to push this forward and keep bringing dance and art in general to the American audience and to the public.

C: A lot of the judges on the show are celebrity actors and recording artists, do you think that you brought a different perspective as a ballet dancer?

FABRICE CALMELS: Yeah, I mean, everyone’s different. We all have different points of view. However, a ballet dancer, Misty [Copeland] and I, we’re still actual performers, we still are actually performing. We have a sharp eye to be a little bit more extreme because we’re also doing ballet, and ballet is a form that doesn’t have deviation. Modern dance utilizes a classical base, however you can have nuances, your foot doesn’t have to point a certain way. Ours is going to be turned out and locked in. There’s no other option, there’s no a little bit on the corner, no. It’s a very clear position and every move that we do is a very clear position so we’re very limited and we have to be very precise because it’s so extreme.

So, I feel like the eye of a ballet dancer is very demanding and sharp because of that; we only have one way to go, literally! [laughs] Modern [dance] has more freedom to it. It’s beautiful but it gives you more freedom in your placement and your ability to move. It’s very good, bring the celebrity because they all have dancing backgrounds, some of them have done ballet. They are the bridge between the general audience and the show. Because you really need people like that that have the celebrity appeal that can bring masses toward the show and have also a very clear understanding to the bulk of the world.

When it comes to ballet, it’s a very specific audience, it’s not a general audience, while SYCYTD brings a little bit of both. This is something we really think about and it’s great to see this type of celebrity coming in that did have indeed ballet and dance background.

C: So you said you’re a fan of the show, do you have any favorite past seasons or past winners?

FABRICE CALMELS: I think every single person that comes to the final is a winner. Those auditions have thousands and thousands of people showing up, this is really a reward for them to make finals. SYCYTD should display how many people have been auditioning because I think it would be really eye opening, there are thousands of people coming in and coming through all day and it goes fast. So all those people that go to the finals, they’re all winners, really seriously. To go to this point in this level, it’s extreme, it’s very difficult to get there.

So everyone is my favorite. I love that they’re giving so much, going full out, they really want it so bad they’re fully giving their heart. Unfortunately the show has to choose, America actually has to choose only one.

C: Anything else you want to add?

FABRICE CALMELS: There are so many things—that I could speak forever—but what I would love to be happening is to get people to just give it a shot. Like to the general public, people who don’t know much about dance, to really give this form a shot. Meaning come to performance. Whoever is in Chicago, come to see the Joffrey. Give it a shot, just see. I can promise that most people will come back.

So You Think You Can Dance Chicago auditions air tonight at 8/7c FOX. Live tweet with Fabrice using #‎SYTYCD‬ and @fabricecalmels.