Naked Ambition
Paul Upali GouËllo - Dancing to his heart’s content in Paris

Adopted by a French couple when he was a few weeks old, Paul Upali Gouëllo recently returned to Sri Lanka in search of his birth mother. Inspired by the dancers of the French Opera and encouraged by his adoptive mother, Paul Upali had the immense fortune of being trained by the respected Jean Claude Gallotta, a famous doyen of dance in France. Performing since the age of 6, Paul is a seasoned dancer who has travelled across Europe performing for various audiences. Smitten by Sri Lanka, Paul Upali yearns to return and dance to his heart’s content, in the land of his birth.

How old were you when you first started taking dance lessons?

My mother used to tell me about the star dancers from Opera de Paris which really fascinated me. I started dance classes at the age of 6 years. Initially it was hard as I disliked people giving me instructions as I was super active and could not stay still in one place for long. I started with modern jazz which helped me release my pent up energy.

What made you want to follow a career in dance?

I have always wanted to be on stage. I believe that dance is a powerful human emotion that can draw people together. My dance teacher Sophie Kratchkovsky instilled the idea that I could excel as a dancer. I still hear her voice in my head urging me to persevere. I like to use dance to bring people together and unite them.

Who spotted your potential for dance?

My mother wanted me to do a job that involved something artistic. She also knew that I love to dance. When I was 8 years old I performed at my first dance gala and my dance teacher Irene Popard gave me a solo part. I was the only boy in the dance school. She told me later that she knew I will succeed in my passion. When I was 10 I studied under Carine Reggiani, the daughter of a famous French Italian singer called Serge Reggiani who had a dance school called Nous les Enfant. I was with them for three years and that was my first experience of living a dancer’s life with a closely knit group of dancers.

How long did you train to be a dancer?

Since the age of 6. I have invested so much time in training to be a dancer. I do about six hours of dance a day. When I was 20 I started the Rick-Odums-Paris International Jazz Dance School where I taught ballet, modern and jazz dance. I also needed to keep abreast of new developments in the field of dance so I attended a contemporary dance school to learn Graham dance techniques and ballet. Here I trained with choreographers from all over the world. The style of dance that I preferred was the Jean Claude Gallotta way of dance and I had the chance to be accepted to the Gallotta company for a two week training programme.

What forms of dance do you perform?

Each evening I perform contemporary dance with Jean Claude Gallotta himself! I also perform jazz, modern dance and fusion jazz. I was trained to be a multi-discipline dancer which is very helpful in terms of getting dance jobs.

Where do you perform currently?

Currently I am touring all over France with the Gallotta Dance Company. We are doing a lot of shows to introduce the culture of dance. We have the opportunity to tour many European cities.

What shows have you performed in?

There have been so many. I have performed in Compagnie de L’Alambic - Christian Bourigault, Qui Danse?, Rick Odums Repertoire, and also at the Open Look Festival at St. Petersburg. I have also taken part in ‘My Rock’ which is an energetic Gallotta contemporary dance show featuring music from Elvis Prelsey, The Beatles and Rolling Stones. In 2016 I performed in Volver.

How physically challenging is to be a full time dancer?

It is a very physically demanding job. We have to rehearse for hours every day. There is also a lot of travel involved. Due to the nature of our work we can not take part in sports for fear of being injured. As a dancer I have to take special care of my diet as I have to look after my physique. For me it is all worthwhile as I am doing a job I love.

Who are the dancers you have been inspired by?

My first dance teacher Sophie Kratchkovsky! I also admire the dancers from the Paris Opera. Agnès Letestu is another famous French ballerina I admire and I had the fortune of studying under her. Also Beatrice Warrand and Thierry Verger, the two main dancers of Gallotta Dance.

Have you ever faced any discrimination as a male dancer?

Of course I faced discrimination doing dance when I was young! I was told dance was something girls do and not boys. My mother told me to disregard the snide comments people used to make and I never let it affect me. I had to fight extra hard as not only was I a boy, I was also a boy of a different colour.

You were born in Sri Lanka and after a few weeks you were adopted by a French couple. Tell us about that experience of growing up in France?

My birth mom was poor and wasn’t in a position to care for me so she gave me up for adoption. I was only a few weeks old when I was adopted by a French couple who raised me in an environment which was full of love, care and respect. They were able to provide me with opportunities my birth mother could not have. My adoptive mother belonged to a generation of women who placed value on freedom, social rights, equality, justice, diversity and was against war, violence, weapons and conflict. She instilled in me a strong set of values. My sister who is also an adoptee from Madagascar and I were sent to private schools which gave us a good grounding. In High School I was strong enough to be myself without caring about what people would say or think about me. Those were my rock and roll years. With long hair and many friends I led a bohemian life studying literature, history and philosophy with art and dance as options.

Last year you returned to Sri Lanka for the first time since you left to look for your birth mother. How easy was it to locate her?

After much soul searching I was keen to locate my birth mother. There was a curiosity within me which was not receding. I decided to come to Sri Lanka with the support of my adoptive parents and look for my biological mother. I went to Castle Street Hospital where I was born and showed the staff my adoption file. They said the details in the documents I had was enough to locate my mother. A tuk tuk driver went to the town listed in my file in search of my birth mother. That whole night I was in a panic and so nervous. The next day the driver sent me a picture of her and picked me up to meet my birth mother. We were to meet her at the Police Station, one of the most unlikely meeting points I had imagined.

Can you describe the reunion with your biological mother?

When I first met my biological mother we were both overwhelmed by the situation! She was very shy, surprised, embarrassed and looked rather lost too. We were meeting each other after 27 years and it was quite an emotional reunion. I was invited to visit her at her place of work. She works as a domestic helper taking care of an old lady. She seemed happy and well cared for in her place of work. Three days later I returned with my adoptive mother and it was again an emotionally charged meeting between the two women who played such an important role in my life. My birth mother was I had been well looked after and told me that I should always be thankful to my adoptive mother for giving me a chance in life that she could not.

During your visits to Sri Lanka you collaborated with local dancers. How was that experience?

My first friend from Sri Lanka, Asanka Warnakulasuriya urged me to look into the possibility of collaborating with Sri Lankan dancers. This piqued my interest as I wanted to discover more about traditional dances. During my first trip I had the chance to visit the Deanna School of Dancing and also meting another famous dancer named Kapila Palihawadana. This year I returned with two dancers from France, Corentin Cronier and Diane Magre, who helped me conduct various dance workshops. We did some workshops at the Deanna School of Dance and also with Kapila and his dance troupe.

We also conducted dance workshops in Bentota for children. They were so happy with the experience, that we did it again and maybe this will lead us to other opportunities! I shared a dance class with Kapila and some of his dancers! That was a great moment! I also attended the Gurugedera Festival at the Chitrasena Kalaayathanaya and was so moved by the various Sri Lankan dances they performed.

Will you be returning to Sri Lanka for more collaborations?

I feel a deep connection with Sri Lanka, after all, this is the land of my birth. I have also formed close friendships with many Sri Lankans during my visits here. The people are so friendly that I feel very much at home. I am also interested in doing some more dance workshops and possibly stage a public performance. I also want to stage a performance that fuses western dance with Sri Lankan dance. For me Sri Lanka is a place where many things can happen. Even though I grew up far away from this island I want and feel I need to find a little place for myself in this country I would soon like to call my home.

Text Tina Edward Gunawardhana
Photos Siyath Govin Plus
Stylist Jude Gayantha Perera from