Four American Dancers Open Up About Their Professional Experiences Dancing in Europe.
By Stephanie Wolf of Dance Informa.
Many American dancers are curious about the professional dance scene on the other side of the Atlantic. While turning that curiosity into a reality can be daunting, the outcome can be a gratifying artistic experience like no other. Here, four American dancers open up about dancing abroad, giving insight about the contracts, work environment, repertoire, and living overseas.
The artistic and fiscal allure of European companies
There are a number of reasons why Europe is an appealing place for dancers to pursue their professional careers. Royal Ballet of Flanders dancer Jessica Teague, who has also performed with the Dutch National Ballet and Gothenburg Ballet Sweden, explains, “dancers have slightly more job protection in Europe.” Most contracts run for at least two years—a few companies even offer “lifetime contracts,” which are good until retirement age. Teague believes this security may eliminate certain stresses. “[Dancers] can work more relaxed without fear of being fired unexpectedly for reasons beyond their control. It takes away the pressure to dance through injuries as well.” Not that the system is perfect; longer contracts can also mean less opportunities for younger dancers vying for their first job.
Dancers are also given more job security when it comes to starting a family. Virginia Hendrickson, who also dances at Royal Ballet of Flanders and began her career with Ballet Frankfurt, had three months of maternity leave after the birth of her daughter, Sofia, giving her time to recover and bond with her child. Additionally, her husband and fellow dancer Yevgeny Kolesnyk, was allowed one month of leave. Hendrickson was back onstage four months later as her maternity leave coincided with the company’s summer break. Neither her position with the company nor her salary were in jeopardy during this time.
Elizabeth Towles and Jason Franklin moved from Colorado to Germany to dance with the Stadttheater Bremerhaven. They have come to really appreciate the cross-discipline interaction of their new setting. “Working in a theater involving opera singers, actors, orchestra, costuming, etc. is hugely different than working around just dancers. Everything is involved with the theater as a whole.” Elizabeth also performs a lot more with her new company. “I was used to having a show run for one or two weekends and then pressing the delete button. Performing all the time helps the stress level go down because it is just how life is.” Franklin adds, “The work load tends to be more spread out because we work year-long instead of a [seasonal] contract.” Additionally, he feels “there’s a different respect among the dancers because everyone comes from such different backgrounds and cultures.”
European contracts are year-round, including paid holidays and health benefits. At Royal Ballet of Flanders, the dancers get eight weeks of holiday pay. Towles and Franklin have a thirteen-month contract with Stadttheater Bremerhaven—the extra month is considered a holiday/summer bonus. “The biggest difference [between American and European contracts] is we’re paid by the government,” says Franklin. As government employees, they also receive health insurance and retirement benefits. “Theater is a part of the culture, as opposed to a ‘luxury,’” explains Franklin in regards to the logistics of their contracts. This alleviates constant worry about fundraising, something American dancers are all too familiar with.
The government subsidizing also allows for a wide-ranging repertoire. “Companies in Europe are able to take more ‘risks’ with programming and developing choreographers,” says Teague, who has danced in the studio with legends like Nacho Duato, William Forsythe, and Jiri Kylian. Though, Towles and Franklin were surprised by the lack of a Nutcracker-heavy holiday performance season, the bread and butter of American companies. “Most of the dancers [have] never even seen The Nutcracker (der Nussknacker),” says Towles.
Adjusting to cultural differences
Since the dancers come from all parts of the world, English is the dominant language in the ballet studio for both companies, which can help ease the transition into a foreign country. Yet, many companies can help direct dancers to institutions where they can learn the native tongue.
Securing an apartment, opening a bank account and setting up internet and phone services can be tricky without being fluent in the native language. “Everything official was crazy to wrap our heads around,” says Towles. Hendrickson agrees, “It can take a long time to set up living here.” She reflects on adjusting to stores’ hours and different trends in customer service. Ultimately, these items are minor drawbacks for her, as she is enamored by the history, art, and culture of Antwerp.
Using the Internet and Skype, Towles and Franklin reach out to their family and friends to help counteract culture shock and any home sickness. “I am very close with my family so it is the hardest thing about living in Europe,” says Hendrickson. Teague has been in Europe for over fourteen years and can’t imagine living anywhere else. All four reason that it takes some time, but eventually, the dust settles and things start to feel right.
Pursuing employment in Europe
Auditioning abroad can be an expensive and timely endeavor. Yet, there are several resources to tap into, both for finding employment and for adjusting to living overseas. Dance Europe is a handy tool to find company and audition information. The Internet is also a viable resource. Sites like networkdance.com, company websites, as well as information sites about living abroad are good starting points. Tapping into a dancer network and asking friends about various companies, is also helpful. Regardless of how the information is obtained, it’s crucial to conduct a lot of research so you are well prepared and informed before investing in travel.
“My advice is to go for it!” says Teague when it comes to auditioning for European companies. “I think working overseas…is a life changing experience.” Hendrickson agrees, saying her experiences in Europe have been greatly enriching; she’s had the chance to work with dancers from all over the world, been exposed to groundbreaking choreography, and has traveled to exotic and exciting destinations. Franklin and Towles add to these sentiments. “We’ve had experiences we never thought [we would].”