When you watch the extraordinary gracefulness and presence exuded by Kansas University dance professor Patrick Suzeau, 59, as he glides across the stage, it’s hard to believe he was once a pudgy child who didn’t encounter dance until he was 15.
He grew up in Montreal, the second son of hard-working but poor parents.
“I was a dreamer, and my brother called me ‘Megaton’ because I was overweight,” Suzeau recalls.
“I often wrapped myself in sheets and dreamed of being on stage. My parents were horrified, dissuaded me from pursuing acting and told me to get a regular, well-paid job.”
Determined to follow his dream, Suzeau decided to enter acting’s back door. He left school at 14 and forged his age to take a makeup artist course.
“While walking around Montreal searching for work, I met a friend who suggested I try his friend’s dance company,” he recalls. “Dance companies couldn’t afford makeup artists, but I went anyway and saw dancers leaping to the beat of dance teacher Hugo Romero’s tambourine.”
He was mesmerized.
“Something stirred deep within me. I fell instantly in love with dancing,” he explains.
“Hugo didn’t use makeup artists. He asked if I wanted to dance and if I had a leotard. I didn’t even know what a leotard was. Hugo’s passion opened the eyes of my imagination and introduced me to what was possible. Without Hugo I wouldn’t be here.”
Moved by the memory, he pauses.
“I was a raw dancer with no technique and didn’t have a ballet body, but it didn’t matter because I had great flexibility and my passion was for modern dance.”
Romero awarded him a scholarship and encouraged him to apply to New York’s Juilliard School. When his parents refused to sign the necessary paperwork, Suzeau persuaded his orthodontist to sign passport forms, then hitchhiked to the Mexican home of artist Santos Balmori and his choreographer wife Helena Jordan, friends of Romero.
“They became my ‘Mexican parents.’ They ‘got it’ with dance and were able to encourage and teach me. Flash bulbs kept going off,” he recalls.
“Life shifted from being black and white in Canada to full color in Mexico.”
Within a month he’d learned Spanish, won a full scholarship to the national dance school and performed throughout Mexico. He returned to Canada a year later, and, with his parent’s blessing, accepted a full dance scholarship to Juilliard in 1969.
After attending several Bharatanatyam East Indian classical dance performances in New York, he fell in love with the dance’s exquisite form and its exploration of immediate space and symbolism. After Juilliard, he spent a year in India studying dance. He returned to dance professionally in New York, where he met his dancing partner and wife, Muriel Cohen. They’ve danced and choreographed all over the world to great reviews and critical acclaim. They’ve been at KU since 1989.
“I love teaching dance and movement and feel privileged I’m still able to dance and perform myself,” he says.
“It requires great discipline, and I need to work with my body and movement every day.”