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Q&A with ‘Fall Ballet’ choreographer Christian Claessens

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The Jacobs School of Music Ballet department will open its fall season with “Fall Ballet,” at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6-7 and 2 p.m. Oct. 7 at the Musical Arts Center. “Fall Ballet” will feature various choreographed pieces showcasing the strength and skill of the students in the ballet department. 

“Autumnsongs,” a world premiere piece by Jacobs School of Music Ballet Theatre faculty member, Christian Claessens, will be performed second in the evening’s four performance lineup. The Indiana Daily Student sat down with Claessens on Sept. 22 to learn about his new choreographed piece for “Fall Ballet” on Sept. 22. 

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IDS: This question always interests me with faculty, what got you into ballet? 

Claessens: My grandmother took me to a ballet performance and (Maurice) Béjart was a big contemporary choreographer. People like Suzanne Farrell danced in his company and he was a choreographer in Belgium. So, I saw a ballet with my grandmother, I was about eight years old, and I decided it was what I wanted to do.  

IDS: When you came to the U.S. in 1979, was there a difference in how ballet was taught in America versus Europe? 

Claessens: It was very different. I remember when I came to the States at that time, I felt that the dancers were not as refined as they were in Europe. I wouldn’t say that today but at the time there was a different style, there was strong Balanchine influence it was very different from Cecchetti, what I trained in. 

IDS: Are there significant differences between the two methods? 

Claessens: I would say there’s an unbelievable refinement to the American School of Ballet (today) that you don’t find anywhere else. Other schools have things a certain way, but the American School of Ballet, you have a lot more options for expression. I think it’s always good to have a strong base of something else and then refine with the Balanchine technique or the American technique. It’s like the frosting on the cake. Even though I’m European, I completely rely on my American training. It’s the most important. Today as an older person, I realize it’s what I teach – it’s refinement. It’s beauty. 

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IDS: What then brought you to the Jacobs School of Music? 

Claessens: I’ve been here twelve years. My personal life brought me to Bloomington where I reached out to an old colleague of mine, Michael Vernon, for something to do while I was in Indiana. I’ve been here since. 

IDS: You knew Michael Vernon? 

Claessens: Oh yeah, I’ve known Michael Vernon for years. I used to take his class, so I knew him very well. 

IDS: “Autumnsongs” is set to a piece by Jacobs Faculty member, Don Freund, what drew you to his composition? 

Claessens: I listen to a lot of his music, and I came across this piece he had composed. I decided it was what I wanted to work with. I really wanted to have a collaboration with Don Freund as well as the Jacobs School of Music because I thought it would be great to have a little crossroads. 

IDS: Could you explain the name you’ve chosen for the piece? 

Claessens: It’s called “Autumnsongs” because that’s what the music is called. I don’t really think it matters what it’s called because it’s not about a name, it’s about a live performance. “Autumnsongs,” I like it and the music has an Autumn flair— this piece is a wedding in a village, so it has those colors. The music in everything is so important and I felt it was important for the music to have some sort of recognition because we’re working together.  

IDS: If you had to assign it your own name, do you have an idea of what that would be? 

Claessens: I never really wanted to think about it because I feel that a title limits your view. It hasn’t defined itself in any way, it’s what it is. It’s based on the music so why not just name it after the music? I thought about the set, the music, the costumes, the relationships of the dancers. Even though it has technique in it, I wanted them to be able to live the experience instead of trying to do it exactly as I said. I want them to participate in my journey and I find it’s important for me how I work with people. It’s not about me, it’s about how we’re living this life together. It’s not about you or me but how we’re all experiencing life in different moments that come together.  

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IDS: How do the dancers influence you in this creative process? 

Claessens: I don’t believe in just creating something on your own. I do believe in creating something in noticing if it fits the dancer well, if it fits the character or the partnering. You get a lot of information from the dancers, they’re very smart and they have a lot of concepts and ideas and they’re not always able to express themselves. That’s one of my main goals. I think it’s an important moment to talk to the dancers you’re working with. I don’t put them at a lower level, I put them at the same level because we’re working together and we’re going through this process together.  

IDS: What was the inspiration for this piece? 

Claessens: I’m an art collector and I came upon this painting by Nicolas de Stael and I’m using that as the backdrop. What I wanted to do was a mixture of art and music put together, that’s how I composed the idea of how I would want this to look. Eight corps are going to be in orange, eight corps in yellow, then there’s a red and blue pas de deux, it’s very colorful. I had this idea of an excerpt of Romeo and Juliet but it’s not at all like a Shakespeare story — it’s very avant garde. There’s these two separated parts where the men are separated from the women and it begins and ends the same way. 

IDS: Are you excited to showcase a premiere of your own work? 

Claessens: If people like it or not, it doesn’t matter. It feels like me, it’s the first time I’ve done something that feels like who I am or how I dance and how I see things. This was kind of a reflection of my life and I’m happy how it turned out. I’m not looking at it for any kind of recognition, I’m looking at it as a legacy of myself in a way. It’s also influenced by a lot of the people I’ve worked with: Dutch choreographers, Balanchine (choreographers). It’s a mixture and I made it in the way that I would’ve wanted to interpret the ballet— it’s a very personal piece. 

IDS: I think we can all relate to that separation of ego and art, is that what makes it more personal? 

Claessens: I just feel like it’s part of me and it’s part of my sensitivity. In our life, especially in this field, we’re not necessarily competing but we’re always trying to be better than we were. And here especially I don’t feel that. This is it, whether you like it or not, because it’s my truth. This piece is different, it’s subtle but it’s very avante garde. In the past I’ve wanted validation but here, it’s almost like a portrait. I see it more like dancing through a painting and I feel a different medium, it’s very different than what I’ve done.

IDS: Why is that so impactful for you? 

Claessens: It’s just another pathway to my life. It’s like falling in love. It’s from your heart, there’s nothing else that can come in the way. 

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