Dimitri Chamblas Innovating Dance Education

The World Dances spoke with Dimitri Chamblas, California Institutue of the Arts’ new Dean of the Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance, while he was in Paris. He was there to perform as a choreographer and as a dancer at Palais Garnier and Palais de Chaillot, respectively. Trained at the Paris Opera ballet school from the age of ten, Chamblas entered the professional field of dance as an innovator at an early age and has since been proactively creating new dimensions for the art form. He was the Artistic Director of the 3rd Stage Paris Opera. He partners with Benjamin Millepied on film production and curated the first 360-degree immersive dance film. We caught up with him  to discuss his vision for the future of dance education at CalArts, the existing and potential links between European and American dance, the future of dance, and more.

“I like the fact that I keep up those connections in Europe,” says Chamblas between rehearsals at Palais Garnier. “It’s a way to create links between the United States and Europe, which is super fascinating for dance. I am kind of a link, actually.” 

Chamblas, who joined CalArts as the Dean of Dance eight months ago, is using these linkages to his students’ advantages. His connection with choreographers in Paris and in the U.S., such as Boris Charmatz, Benjamin Millepied, and William Forsythe, allow him to bring these artists to work directly with his students as they would with professionals. “In Europe, you start your career as a professional when you’re 17 or 18. In the U.S., universities are so developed that lots of dancers are still studying when they’re 18-22,” says Chamblas. “I don’t know if that is the right time to remain a student. I want CalArts to be a new place for dance. I consider my students to be young artists—I cannot think of them as kids.”

To foster students’ professionalism, both in terms of their capacities and self-perceptions, Chamblas exposes them to residencies with choreographers and companies and real-life opportunities. For example, LA Dance Project was in residence at CalArts for four weeks, setting their own works and collaborating with students. This propels the students into the experiences of professional-level auditions and interactions with choreographers, and builds a performance repertoire for the school.

How does Chamblas’ curriculum prepare young artists for such rigors? “It’s a new approach. I arrived eight weeks ago. Let’s not treat them as children,” says Chamblas. “They should be on stage. Let’s go on tour and shoot films. And Los Angeles needs new places for dance. We have to collaborate. We’re launching a huge digital platform for dance. It mixes theory, online classes, digital performances. We have to consider that students today need to learn how to build projects, to invent new tools for dance, how to make money, how to promote themselves. They need to learn it all.” 

Chamblas says dance education must reinvent itself to serve today’s students. “Dance has been moving so much. We talk about digital as a stage for dance. It can be on cinema, streets, in museums. Dance is everywhere but dance schools are the same.”

Despite his visions for potential digital dance futures, Chamblas sees the body as the primary tool of dance and technique as the first requirement for his dancers.  “I don’t mind about the style of dance, from ballet to urban to butoh or whatever. The tool is the body. I want really strong technique in my dancers,” he says. However, he further clarifies,  “Technique is not a synonym for virtuosity. It means considering your body as a means of exploration, considering your body in a very precise way of working, and being able to be super clear in what you do. If you have this, it tells me you’re curious to explore your body and ways of moving, and it means that you’re a worker.”

Through technique and experience, Chamblas believes that young dancers will be able to discover their “singularity”—that which makes them special and distinct from other artists—and be able to carve out their niche in the rapidly changing world of professional dance.

The opportunities the CalArts curriculum provides are vast—from creating work on camera, to creating clothing lines for dancers, to choreographing and performing in professional-level pieces in Los Angeles and on tour. “All the classes are really practical. We don’t spend much time sitting and watching films. You make things,” says Chamblas.

Ultimately, Chamblas sees the changing face of the dance world as not just an opportunity for his students to thrive, but as an opportunity to help Los Angeles do the same. “I think that dance can save Los Angeles. Imagine super diverse dancers and super diverse dances all around the city—in the streets, projected on walls, on screens. The city needs interactions and unexpected things," he says. And his students may be the next generation of visionaries to provide them.

Photo: Dimitri Chamblas in a working session at Paris Opera with Etoile Dancer Stéphane Bullion