Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Reflections of a Fulbright Artist

Today's guest blogger is Patrick Suzeau, associate professor of Dance at the University of Kansas, who spent a semester in Vilnius as a Fulbright scholar in 2007. He was introduced to the Fulbright program by another Fulbright senior scholar, Linda Maxey, who suggested that Patrick and his wife Muriel, also a professor of dance at the University of Kansas, go to Lithuania to offer a different and fresh artistic perspective.

We first came to Vilnius for about three weeks in 2004, around Thanksgiving and we had a superb experience. We enjoyed watching and giving classes at the Lithuanian Academy and the National Ballet School. Muriel taught contemporary dance classes that were very well received; contemporary dance technique was a relatively new arrival to Eastern Europe.  Meanwhile I was asked to teach ballet classes. I thought that it was odd that they would be interested in ballet classes considering that they have a strong tradition in Russian ballet. It became clear to me why when I asked them to execute a certain step, which they did superbly. However, they did it as it is done in Russia.  American ballet has evolved in different directions. That is when I realized why these senior teachers were watching my classes. As a New York City-trained dancer, my background is eclectic, something typical of American artists who have been exposed to diverse techniques and approaches. In addition, as a contemporary choreographer I favor unconventional spatial and rhythmic patterns, something that seemed to have been new and of interest to Lithuanian ballet teachers.

I became a Fulbright scholar during the winter and spring of 2007. I came to Vilnius directly following a residency in India. I must say that the contrast between hot, colorful, gregarious, crowded India and cold, but beautiful Lithuania could not have been greater. Despite having lived in Canada for several years I found the cold weather brutal. I lived in a superb apartment in the heart of beautiful old Vilnius where I delighted in seeing the craftspeople sell their wares, some of which I bought.

My situation was wonderful because I was there to do one of the things that I love most, which is to mount one of the works from the Cohan/Suzeau repertoire with well-trained dancers. I had the privilege to work with Egle Spokaite, a supreme Lithuanian ballerina, and several soloists and demi soloists from the Lithuanian Opera Ballet. The work was difficult in the sense that I had to teach an approach to movement that was totally foreign to Lithuanian ballet dancers. Some artists such as Egle were open to the challenge, some less so, but all in all I believe that it was an expansive situation for most of us. The work "Dia de Los Muertos" was performed to live music, performed by Lithuanian musicians with an American conductor. There is no doubt that American composer Gabriela Lena Frank's score was as new an experience to the musicians as was the Cohan/Suzeau choreography to the dancers. The work was performed in Vilnius at the Russian Theatre and in Kaunas at the beautiful Music Theatre. It was subsequently presented several times on television.

Other than this challenging project the rest of my professional work was to teach at the Lithuanian Academy. I found the acting students to be most receptive. Many of the ballet dancers were used to a repertoire that they have performed for decades and in which they have experienced some success, therefore some of them had a limited interest in exploring new esthetic approaches. Nonetheless, they performed with a professional attitude.

My free time was spent exploring Vilnius. It is an attractive city. Despite the cold I walked endlessly everywhere. For instance, I went from church to church (Russian orthodox and Catholic) on Easter night, listening to chants and watching the rituals. I spent most of my evenings going to music and/or dance concerts. Many of these were superb and very affordable.

Once my professional work was completed I was able to travel throughout Lithuania. I enjoyed the spas of Druskininkai (birthplace of the sculptor Lipschitz). I went to the Baltic Sea, to Klaipeda, and loved the dunes at Nida. I loved the old castle at Trakai as well. One unforgettable time was spent in beautiful Kernave during the summer solstice. What a joy to hear and watch all the festivities, the folk music, theatre, and dance as well as  spending the following night in Vilnius going from gallery to gallery, concert to concert, till dawn.

Back in the US, following our time in Lithuania, Muriel and I created a choreographic work "Baltic Sketches" to Lithuanian folk and contemporary music that we presented at the Lied Center at the University of Kansas. More recently we presented it (video version) as part of a lecture on choreography at the World Dance Alliance in Bangalore, India. A solo of it has been performed several times by myself nationally and abroad.  I cherish the seven months that I spent in Lithuania. My Fulbright Fellowship provided me with a unique opportunity to experience a new community. These experiences have contributed to further help me grow as a person and an artist.