“I will now pretend to teach,” Fabrice Lemire tells Oregon Ballet Theatre’s dancers. The dancers and Lemire–artistic director for Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai, a Cirque favorite that made its debut in 2002 and plays May 6-10 at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum–are assembled on a Tuesday in OBT’s main studio for the daily ritual known as company class.
For Lemire, this is something of a homecoming after almost two decades away. Paris-born and Paris-trained, he performed with Oregon Ballet Theatre from 1993 to 1996, and remains one of the most versatile and technically impeccable dancers the company has ever had. He was memorable as Hilarion in the company’s first version of Giselle, and equally so in Josie Moseley’s modern-inflected With. He displayed his considerable talents as a character dancer when, in Coppélia, he thoroughly inhabited the role of the doll-obsessed toymaker Dr. Coppélius.
On this day, as he walks around the studio and watches the dancers repeat the combinations of steps he has assigned them, he speaks frequently of épaulement, the aristocratic yet flexible carriage of the shoulders that classical dancers work long hours to acquire. His own épaulement was, and still is, elegant and beautiful; very much a part of the way he moves onstage and off. While he makes no individual corrections, as a group he instructs the dancers to “breathe through the spine,” and “feel the épaulement right from the start.” The dancers are extremely attentive, weary as they are after the first weekend of their last concerts of the season.
“Use the floor as a partner,” Lemire tells them. It’s something I’d expect to hear from a modern dancer, but then I remember that he arrived in Portland in 1993 as guest artist and assistant to Donald Byrd, when OBT’s founding artistic director James Canfield brought in the crossover choreographer to set Crack’d Narrative on the company. Byrd, who now directs Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater, combines classical ballet and modern movement in much of his work, and also has specialized over the years in his own versions of the classical repertory, including Life Situations: Daydreams of Giselle, which turns the Wilis into a gang of castrating women. Canfield put it on the same mixed bill as the traditional Giselle, and it provided a brilliant illustration of his belief that contemporary ballet is rooted in the classical tradition.
Lemire, who has been teaching in sock feet, sits down to put on les sabots du pays, namely a shiny new pair of Nikes. The dancers clear the studio of the barres and he figures out a combination he wants them to try: the center work that is also a part of this ritual begins. The class ends traditionally with the dancers, each of them, bowing their thanks as they leave the room.
Several interviews have been scheduled for Lemire after class. When I take my turn in OBT’s board room, before I can ask a question, he makes a long statement he has obviously made before—that he is proud of his journey from dancer to choreographer to administrator, from art to entertainment. I ask him about the differences between them, the distinctions between fine art and commercial art. In dance terms, he says, “The intention behind the movement” is applicable to both; both “allow escape.” At Cirque, where most of the performers are not trained dancers, they nevertheless “have to tell stories with their bodies, and they need to surprise themselves, and me, or they won’t surprise the audience.”
I ask how his experience as a dancer, an itinerant choreographer, and a stager (until a few years ago he was still staging much of Byrd’s work) helped him to succeed with Cirque du Soleil. In July, he starts to develop and direct a new show whose story, he told the dancers, is a prequel to the film Avatar. His response was immediate: “Donald Byrd is so clear about his aesthetic, and he taught me never to be satisfied with the status quo as a performer.” Elsewhere, he spoke of his ability to transfer Verakai from the tent version seen in Portland in 2006 to the arena version that will be performed at the Coliseum in May. Stagers and choreographers must know how to accommodate movement for the space in which it is performed.
Lemire is on a tight schedule, and it’s time for him to do another interview. I tell him I will never forget his performance in Bebe Miller’s A Certain Kind of Heart, Also Love. He smiles softly, nostalgically, and tells me it was the last thing he performed in Portland, when it was revived in the spring of 1996 at the Newmark. “You remember? The curtain comes down on me dancing in a pool of feathers. I never came back until today.”
Many of us at the studio, including Tracy Julias, who danced with OBT at the same time, were glad to see him.