A Passion for the Dance

A Passion for the Dance:  Choreographer Francis Patrelle
By Leda Meredith

Photo Credit: Eduardo Patino

There are few choreographers I know of that are as generous and loyal to their dancers as Francis Patrelle, or who care as much about making sure that each dancer is shown at their best. Dance is a verb, not a noun, and without the dancers up on that stage the choreography does not exist. Francis Patrelle’s work is an ongoing celebration of the people who bring this art form to life.

He is also a storyteller who has survived, and thrived, during an era when the trend in dance was toward the abstract and impersonal. In doing so, he has carried forward a legacy inherited from his Juilliard teachers, Anthony Tudor and Jose Limon. Francis Patrelle’s ballets speak to audiences who want their hearts to be moved as well as their intellects.

Q: What do you require in order to create your best work?

FP: To create my best work, first of all I need a tension-free rehearsal room. Not that everybody has to be happy and go-lucky, but we all have to be there for the same reason, and, hopefully, to leave our egos behind. That includes mine. We all have to be working towards the same purpose. This business is so physically hard, why do we need to beat up on each other?

Thirty-something years later, still choreographing, I still love dancers. I love the process. And I hope to be doing it till the day I die. I am happiest in the rehearsal room. I am happiest creating. The audience, though, does not need to know the process. A quick and juicy and fun-filled rehearsal process may not give a better performance than a hard, pulled out, difficult rehearsal process. As long as there is the final result, the audience doesn’t care. But when I’m creating, I enjoy the giggling and the laughing — even when I’m doing death. Sometimes when you’re doing heavy drama and life struggles, approaching it through humor in the rehearsal room is the only way of going about it.

Q: Is there a “Patrelle Dancer”?

FP: Yes, I think there are dancers that I feel very comfortable working with. Martha Hill, the founding director of the Juilliard Dance Department, used to say, “The American Dancer is one that could have pointe work ready to enter into American Ballet Theater, and then do a back fall at the same time.” That would define a Patrelle Dancer. I love exquisite pointe work; I love beautiful, articulated, defined legs and positions; and I then I want you to be able to lose all of that and bend on the stage and bring sweeping and luxurious movement. I also need and require a sense of maturity and of life in a dancer.

Q: When you are preparing to choreograph a new ballet, do your mental images include the dancers whom you know you will be working with?

FP: Of course. There are two basic ways I choreograph a ballet: eighty percent of the time it has been that I have a particular dancer or dancers in mind, and I am working to create vehicles for them. Their personal motif: their lines, their musicality are all in that first ballet. The second way is that I have a story that I’m needing to tell, and then I go and find the dancer that in my mind defines, or helps define, that story. That’s slightly harder, and ultimately more rewarding.

Q: What is your choreographic process in a situation when it isn’t possible to be familiar with your cast ahead of time?

FP: When that has happened, especially when I am working with a lot of the youth companies that I’ve been working with recently, I must know the music as well as I know my own name. I must know exactly what I want to say in the ballet. I usually try to write out cards, scene by scene, of where I want to go, even down to floor patterns, without a single step in my mind. The steps have to come from the dancers, because I’ve always enjoyed and had this need to make dancers look as best as they can. I never superimpose my motifs on somebody who can’t do them. So if I know exactly what I want to say, and I know the music backwards and forwards so that I can play with it, that’s the way that I go into a rehearsal with dancers that I’m unaccustomed to working with. That is singularly the hardest situation to go into.

Q: How does the original cast of one of your ballets influence the choreography for you and for future generations who will perform the ballet?

FP: They actually define the roles. Let’s take my ballet of Romeo and Juliet. We have now done the ballet five or six times. The roles have changed, the production itself has gotten more mature — I was young when I created that — but the structure and the basic theme steps have always stayed the same. And the original dancers’ moves and motifs follow the production all the way through, even if it has changed over the years.

Q: How do you approach recasting a ballet that has already been premiered?

FP: In two ways. The first, to make everybody’s life a little easier, is to cast similar body types, similar musicality, similar levels of maturity. And then, every once in a while, there is someone who is so stunning, so energetic, so right for something, that even though they may be completely different that I don’t mind going into the studio and changing the role to make it for them. Joni Petre-Scholz could not be more different as Lady Macbeth from Leda Meredith, the creator of the role. Both are unbelievably valid, both are wonderful Lady Macbeths, and both have been an absolute joy to work with. But I did have to go in and help mold the steps to fit Joni’s body, which is a different body type. But what I was looking for in that particular case was the drama, not the body type. The drama – because if you can’t tell the story there is no Macbeth. It’s as simple as that.

When asked if he had any additional comments, Francis Patrelle responded:

I would also like to say that I personally over the years have tried desperately, whether it’s in class or on stage or in interviews, not to talk badly about any other choreographer’s work. Every time you create, whether it’s a ballet, a painting, a song, you’re putting your heart and soul into it. Nobody goes about the business trying to do the worst job they know how. Every time they do it they try to create a bit of genius. So we don’t need to be beating up on each other. I go to see everybody and everything, and when I enter the theatre, I say to myself, “This has been created by my best friend” (even when I don’t know the creator). It makes everything more enjoyable.

Leda can also be found at ledameredith.net

As a performer, Leda Meredith’s career spans contemporary dance, classical ballet, and theatre. Her performances have taken her to twenty-five countries on four continents. She has been a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre II, Edward Villella, Manhattan Ballet, Dances Patrelle, and others. She was a company member of Jennifer Muller/The Works for over seven years, and originated numerous roles in the repertory. She returned as Artistic Associate Director for the company’s 25th anniversary season in 1999-2000.
Her piece Lullabye Lane, premiered as part of Jennifer Muller/The Works’ 25th anniversary season at the Joyce Theater in New York. With original music by composer James Sasser, Lullabye Lane marked their seventh collaboration. They recently completed the full evening work Small Talk At The Volcano. In Spring 2000 she co-created a cabaret style piece entitled All About Angels and Eggs, with Michael Jahoda and Maria Naidu at Dansatelier in Rotterdam. Other choreographic credits include works for Malaparte Theatre Company, the Gene Frankel Theatre in New York, Dixon Place, Peridance International, the Hatch Saturday Series, First Fridays at Five, and the Arts on the Hudson Festival.
She is a returning guest instructor for the Henny Jurriens Stichting in Amsterdam, Western Washington University; and Dance Loft in Rorschach, Switzerland. Leda is currently on faculty with Ballet Academy East. She has taught as part of the 1996 Iles de Danse in France, and for the Artist’s Trusts International Course in England. In December, 1999 she was guest instructor for Carolyn Carlson’s Atelier de Paris. Other dance programs she has taught for include the California State University at Los Angeles, and Brigham Young University in Hawaii.

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