It wasn’t apparent from Helen Simoneau’s polished smile and graceful bow at the final Winston-Salem performance of Land Bridge on March 5 that, just the day before, she had been tucked away in a corner outside the de Mille Theatre at UNC School of the Arts in between final rehearsals for a student performance of one of her repertory pieces, counting down the minutes to her next call time and trying to catch her breath in between.

It’s a familiar game of catch-up she’s been playing since her first day at UNCSA — and it’s one she’s finally winning. 

Right before accepting a bouquet and beaming at the enthusiastic audience, company members from her troupe, Helen Simoneau Danse, had performed her first full-length work, leaping and crawling in a symbolic journey, inspired by the wild caribou of her native Canada, speaking to her own story of immigration, identity and belonging.

The journey leading to the premiere of Land Bridge this past weekend began more than 20 years ago, when Simoneau came from rural Quebec to North Carolina to study dance at UNCSA in the late ’90s. Upon arriving, she almost immediately realized how far behind she was in comparison to her classmates, most of whom had been dancing since they were four or five years old.

“I was definitely an underdog,” Simoneau said in an interview outside of the de Mille Theatre. “They accepted me on potential, not skill. It wasn’t until I was a senior that I felt I had caught up.”

In an environment as brutally demanding as UNCSA, Simoneau was able to thrive from the competition and nurturing artistic space instead of getting crushed by it.

“I was less experienced, but really hungry,” she said. A composition class, required every year for dance students, was where she first felt she was on equal footing. “It’s where my love of making dance came from.” By her senior year, she was landing leads in productions.

Though now an established choreographer, Simoneau’s recent ties to her alma mater remain strong, having brought her company for residencies and taught as guest faculty. This spring, she’s visiting as a guest artist with the Pluck Project, in which dance students independently fundraise to take contemporary works to the Ailey Theatre in New York City so they can be scouted by directors and choreographers.

It’s a high-stakes performance, which is perhaps why the students seemed so relieved to have the tension broken by Simoneau’s teasing on March 4 as she supervised a final rehearsal of “Moonlight Parade” from her repertoire.

Even at a distance from the back of the theater, she knew each of the students’ names, shouting notes to dancers from the lighting booth high up in the darkness with humor in her voice. “No extra drama, Alvarez, you are enough!” “Big, heavy steps, be heavy!” At one point, when running a soloist’s portion without music, Simoneau made pretend sound-effect noises, making the dancer laugh.

That she made time for the project in the middle of her company’s sixth annual residency at the Hanesbrands Theatre speaks to her affinity for teaching.

“Anytime I get a chance to work with students, I do,” Simoneau said, mentioning a special fondness for this graduating class. “It’s their last statement before they leave.”

Leaving is a theme UNCSA students know well; for most graduates, May signifies the inevitable departure from North Carolina for bigger cities and, hopefully, bigger breaks. On March 4, students were packing up cars and dragging wheeled suitcases, headed for spring break, but not to relax — one drama senior said he was about to go audition in Los Angeles.

With previous performances in Montreal, Tokyo and Athens on her résumé, and her network of fellow alums settled in New York City, Winston-Salem isn’t the most obvious place for an up-and-coming choreographer like Simoneau to build a company. A life settled in Winston-Salem certainly wasn’t on her mind while she was at school.

“While I was a student, I was not aware of what Winston had to offer,” she said. “With my theater and music friends, everything centered around each other’s performances.”

After graduating, she went back to her family in Canada, but returned to the Camel City “for a man,” she admitted, mentioning her now-husband, then quickly added, “But now for a lot of reasons! The downtown scene is flourishing, the arts scene is getting better. There’s plenty of room for everyone here.”

In Land Bridge, themes of identity, separation, immigration and belonging are explored through intimate, unexpected movements. (Courtesy image)

Looking back on almost a dozen years of working in Winston-Salem, Simoneau said the lack of a crowded local dance scene is both advantageous and an obstacle, and that without a few key staff and board members committed to the company, the company would’ve folded.

“It took me a while to figure out how to be an artist here,” she said.

“Modern dance is an art form not a lot of people understand. Deciding to come see [it] is a big leap. But once you’re there, you feel the power of body and space.”

Though the form can sometimes be opaque, Simoneau’s choreographic sensibilities manage to surprise, delight and bewilder while still remaining accessible. Common threads in both Land Bridge and “Moonlight Parade” included playing with viewers’ expectations by abruptly shifting a dancer’s movements to the exact opposite direction their body had been heading, or injecting a fluid series of motions with sharp punctuation of rigid arm movements.

The metaphor of migration and identity is very clear in certain parts of Land Bridge — in one memorable section, two male dancers rush at each other, colliding into the other’s shoulder and precariously balancing their weight while slowly rotating — and other sections transcend metaphor, playing with the energies of momentum and falling to communicate ideas as perhaps only dance can.  

The piece perfectly encapsulated the duality of identity that Simoneau has experienced since she was a child, growing up with a Francophone father and an Anglophone mother, being the only bilingual kid in her rural school, then being a Canadian at UNCSA.

“I am all of these; Canadian, American, Quebecoise, Southerner,” she said.

“As an artist, I’d prefer to be uncomfortable and grow than be stagnant. My work has to stay engaging. There’s always something new to discover.”