When Fabrice Calmels left Chicago to move to L.A., it wasn’t in search of sun and sand. After 18 years dancing with the Joffrey Ballet, he wanted to explore the possibilities that could exist, bolstered by his nearly two decades of experience in one of the top ballet companies in the nation. He wanted to flex some other artistic muscles and pursue acting. What he got was that and a whole lot more. Taking the risk to move across the country in the middle of the pandemic, Calmels used the lockdown time to get to know L.A., really hone in on what his goals were and how to achieve them.
We caught up with the Guinness Book of World Record holder (tallest ballet dancer) to chat about what it was like to start over, how L.A. is different from Chicago, why it’s vital to foster inclusivity in ballet, and what he’s doing to contribute to that.
What was it like to leave the Joffrey and do something on your own?
“The reason I left is because I felt like I had done quite a lot with the company. After 18 years, you know every single corner of the company. A big part of the Joffrey was always to do new works. But it was always the same thing for me, doing pas de deux, all story-related ballets, and it became very similar, over and over. I’ve done it. If I wanted to do something different, I needed to take a leap of faith and try. I was already involved with TV, so I knew it was a step I could take toward that direction. I told my dad I wanted to do more complicated acting roles and he said, ‘Well…what are you waiting for? You’re not getting any younger, and time flies! If you want to do something, do it now.’ So, that put me over the edge.”
What’s been helpful from a dance background in pursuing acting?
“Ballet dancers are very meticulous. We know how to do things over and over. You do have to understand that not everything works. You have to give the audience just enough to read the message, with your body language, it could be with anything. With acting, it’s more about the subtle, small things – like an eyebrow or if you close your eyes at a certain time. It’s more concentrated on your face, and on your upper body and hands. It requires deeper research around the character and implementing this into the story. As a ballet dancer, you are so used to pantomime that you want to be read from an audience that is, at minimum, 40 feet away. So, you have to go from ‘100’ from ballet to ‘1’ with acting.”
Are you doing any of your own creative projects?
“When I came to California, I had to learn what L.A. was about. Chicago is a really accommodating city. It’s a city easy to grow within. It’s a young city. For the life of a dancer, it’s much easier. But in L.A., I understood very quickly how expensive the city is. It was very expensive to take classes and to teach. I realized it was not a sustainable system. I looked into investing in building a space. I wanted to buy something so I could control my monthly payments. It became my full-time job almost, and took me over a year. We found the worst space. It was horrible, and we couldn’t be outbid. So, we rehabbed it. It was a 1940s old winery, and at one point, it was also an egg factory. Now, it’s a beautiful 6,000-square feet space with vaulted ceilings, a 1,200-square foot dance studio, offices, crazy parking and an insane view of the city. It’s been a great experience — understanding marketing, understanding finances and having to learn all these things you don’t get to as a dancer.”
What do you plan to do with the space?
“I’m using it for myself right now — and it’s very active because I’m doing guestings and I teach. I teach ballet to everyone who could benefit. I have professional ice skaters, some young pre-professional dancers, and I also teach people who have never done ballet before but always wanted to learn. We made a very unusual program for them; it’s not a traditional ballet class. We mixed a little fitness in with the ballet. I’m really teaching whoever wants. I also teach privates. However, two of my clients were rejected from other ballet studios, but we should allow these people to enter a ballet class and improve themselves. I’m very upset when I hear this storyline because I was the same type of character. I grew tall and all of a sudden, I became the weirdo. ‘You’re too tall; you cannot do that!’ I always lean toward the underdog, because I feel like I was that guy when I was a teenager. Each time I hear of a person who has that passion and wants to do dance, I say, ‘Welcome!'”
You can follow Fabrice Calmels and his latest ventures on Instagram: @fabricecalmels.
By Emily Sarkissian of Dance Informa.