Dancing in Europe may seem like the ultimate ballet fantasy—elegant theaters, noble traditions, royalty in the audience—but careful planning and some strategic moves can actually get you there. Despite the current recession, some companies are hiring, and many more have pre-professional programs and second companies that prepare students for future opportunities. Here, several dancers who have made their Europe dreams come true explain how they did it. Plus, read on to find out who’s hiring now, and a list of European training programs that can help dancers position themselves for international careers.
How four dancers made the leap from the U.S. to Europe
Kathryn Boren, Staatsballett Berlin
Fairytale endings don’t get much better than Kathryn Boren’s. Her big professional break came one afternoon (“just a random Saturday,” she says) while she was taking a ballet class at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Boren, a Texas native, had come to New York at 15 to study at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School after winning a scholarship through Youth America Grand Prix. Two years later, she was invited to join ABT’s junior company.
That Saturday, she glanced out the door and saw Staatsballett Berlin director Vladimir Malakhov watching the class. A ballet superstar (and ABT veteran), he had brought international prominence to Staatsballett Berlin. Boren recognized him immediately and noticed him looking at her. When class was over, he offered her a contract. Boren still had a year left with ABT II, so she declined, but the seed had been planted.
When her ABT II contract ended, there was no open spot for her in the main company. “They asked me to stay on a bit longer, but I wanted to get out of my comfort zone,” Boren says. “So when ABT II toured Europe that March, I contacted Vladimir and asked if it would be okay to come see the company and take a class.”
After class, Malakhov offered her a two-year contract. This time, she was ready. Staatsballett Berlin’s repertoire is similar to ABT’s, Boren says, but Malakhov brings in a greater number of new choreographers—the company recently worked with Stuttgart Ballet’s Marco Goecke—giving dancers a chance to explore different types of movement.
Although the 20-year-old misses her family back in Texas—parents, two sisters and a golden retriever—she says she video chats with them every day. And Boren has found Staatsballett Berlin welcoming. “It’s really important to find friends you connect with,” she advises dancers who want follow her example.
Zachary Clark, Hamburg Ballet
Some opportunities are too good to pass up. When Zachary Clark was finishing high school in Georgia, his ballet teachers Gigi Hyatt and Janusz Mazon, former principals with Hamburg Ballet, suggested he continue his studies in Germany, at Hamburg Ballet’s school. “They said it would be a good place for me,” Clark says. “And who doesn’t want to go to Europe?”
He flew to Hamburg for an audition, and was accepted. From there on in, he says, the experience was seamless. The school helped arrange an apartment for him (along with a roommate, a Canadian dancer) and scheduled German classes once a week. The company was “totally international,” and the common language was English.
For Clark, it set a career in motion. After three years of class, he was invited to a company audition. Hamburg Ballet director John Neumeier selected Clark for the apprentice program; he joined the corps de ballet last year.
“It just fit,” says the 23-year-old, who adds that he hopes to work in Europe for his entire dance career. He loves Hamburg’s beauty and history, and says the company has an energy that motivates him. “Our repertoire is mostly Neumeier ballets, and I love the emotional level that goes with them—all the dancers here are inspiring to watch.”
Meanwhile, Clark says his German is now “quite good,” and although being far from his family is difficult, the company has been supportive. “We have such a busy schedule around the holidays that I am not able to go home, but other dancers also cannot go home—so we spend holidays together. It’s become a second family.”
Sarawanee Tanatanit, Le Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève
Making big changes is not a problem for Sarawanee Tanatanit. When she moved to Switzerland four years ago to join Le Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève, it marked the Thai native’s fourth country—as well as a new dance company, style and language.
After starting her career as a champion rhythmic gymnast, Tanatanit moved to Vancouver to train, then switched to ballet. In 2001 she won a Prix de Lausanne scholarship and moved to New York to work with ABT’s Studio Company; she joined the corps of the main company one year later.
By 2008, she was eager for a new challenge. She had seen Ballet Genève, a contemporary ballet company, in a New York performance and loved it. “I thought it was the best show I’d seen in a long time,” she says. But while the company’s dancers are classically trained, its aggressively modern style scared her. “I thought I wasn’t ready,” she admits.
Still, she wanted to learn more. So when she went backpacking in Europe for a couple of weeks that year, she emailed Ballet Genève asking to take class. The instructor was company director Philippe Cohen. “I sat down and spoke with him afterward,” she says, “and told him that I was looking to move.”
It turned out that Cohen had already noticed her during an ABT performance in New York—the piece’s choreographer, Benjamin Millepied, had worked with Cohen in the past—and that Ballet Genève also had a space to fill. He offered Tanatanit the position.
The switch to contemporary ballet was “really hard for the first two years,” says the 28-year-old. “I didn’t know if I was choosing the right path. But this year I started to understand the movement, to feel like I know how my body functions. And I’m loving it—it’s completely different. As an artist,” she says, “I have to keep learning every day.”
Caroline Baldwin, Royal Danish Ballet
Being a dancer in Europe is like being a rock star, says Caroline Baldwin, a corps member in the Royal Danish Ballet: “Danish people are so passionate about their ballet. If someone asks you what you do for a living, and you say Royal Danish Ballet, it’s almost like you’re a celebrity.” She adds, with a hint of awe in her voice, “The queen comes to the ballet all the time. We acknowledge the queen first before we bow to the audience.”
That’s a big change from Chicago, where Baldwin grew up going to high school in the city and then heading out to the suburbs for several hours of daily classes at the Faubourg School of Ballet. Four years ago, at 17, Baldwin competed in Youth America Grand Prix and won a scholarship to train at the Royal Danish Ballet School for three weeks.
Baldwin had studied at summer programs before, in New York, London, San Francisco and Houston. “Every year I’d wanted to stay in the year-round program, but my parents were adamant that I finish high school.” This time, however, when the company suggested she stay on to take classes with the apprentice dancers, she was able to convince her parents to let her remain in Copenhagen and continue her studies online. Within months, she says, she was offered an apprenticeship—and after she took her apprentice exam, she received a contract with the corps de ballet.
It was a perfect opportunity, she says: “I fell in love with Denmark, and I fell in love with the Royal Danish Ballet. When you come in as a foreigner, everyone opens their arms to you.” —Rachel Elson
Leading European Ballet Academies
Attending one of Europe’s top schools can give you peek inside the ballet culture on the continent, and possibly open a door with an affiliated company. Here are some of the biggest programs.
Compiled by Emily Katz
Académie Américaine de Danse de Paris
Classes: Ballet, pointe, adagio/pas de deux, contemporary, repertoire, Pilates, choreography, somatic movement
Performance opportunities: Two major shows a year at the Palais des Congrès de Paris
Académie Princess Grace
Monte Carlo, Monaco
Company affiliation: Les Ballets
Classes: Ballet, pas de deux, variations, contemporary dance and repertoire, character dance, Pilates, dance composition, piano lessons, music and theater
Performance opportunities: Students dance in Monégasque cultural exhibitions, perform with the Opéra National de Nice and Opéra Garnier in Monte-Carlo and collaborate with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo.
Tuition: €6,500, room and board is an additional €6,500
Bolshoi Ballet Academy/Moscow State Academy of Choreography
Company affiliation: Bolshoi Ballet
Classes: Ballet, pointe, repertoire, pas de deux, modern choreography, character dance and historical dance
Performance opportunities: Students perform with the Bolshoi Ballet, on tour and in school recitals.
École Supérieure de Danse de Cannes Rosella Hightower
Company affiliation: Cannes Jeune Ballet, plus a partnership with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo
Classes: Ballet, contemporary, pointe, men’s, repertoire, dance movement therapy, jazz, theatrical studies, musical studies
Performance opportunities: Annual school show, Cartes Blanches workshops where students show their own choreography, performances with Cannes Jeune Ballet
Tuition: €1,700 to €1,850
English National Ballet School
London, United Kingdom
Company affiliation: English National Ballet
Classes: Ballet, variations, pas de deux, repertoire, contemporary, Spanish dance, body conditioning, choreography, Dalcroze Eurhythmics, music, anatomy, dance history, Benesh notation, dance on screen
Performance opportunities: Two annual school shows, plus performances with English National Ballet
Hamburg Ballet School
Company affiliation: Hamburg Ballet
Classes: Ballet, folk dance, Spanish and castanet technique, modern, classical and contemporary variations, pas de deux, dance composition; advanced students learn traditional and contemporary repertoire of The Hamburg Ballet
Performance opportunities: Advanced students perform with the Hamburg Ballet
Tuition: €1,300 to €1,800 for junior/intermediate students, based on class level; free of charge for advanced students; housing is an additional €5,850
John Cranko School
Company affiliation: Stuttgart Ballet
Classes: Ballet, pointe, repertoire, pas de deux, character dance/Spanish dance, contemporary dance, improvisation, variations, dance history, anatomy, makeup
Performance opportunities: Several school shows a year, plus performances of the Stuttgart Ballet
Tuition: Free of charge
Dancers must find their own housing.
Paris Opéra Ballet School
Company affiliation: Paris Opéra Ballet
Classes: Ballet, character, folk dance, contemporary, jazz, music, mime, theater, history, anatomy, gymnastics, entertainment law
Performance opportunities: Demonstrations at the Palais Garnier, an annual show and in the défilé with POB
Tuition: €1,284 with board per term (3 terms per year)
Auditions are held only for students under age 13. Older students must be invited to audition, usually through competitions.
The Royal Ballet School
London, United Kingdom
Company affiliations: The Royal Ballet
and Birmingham Royal Ballet
Classes: Ballet, character, contemporary, gymnastics, Irish, Morris, and Scottish dancing, repertoire, solos, pas de deux, stagecraft, makeup, conditioning
Performance opportunities: Advanced students perform with The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet
Tuition (including boarding fees): £ 32,151 Lower School; £ 28,080 Upper School
Private auditions for overseas students granted at the discretion of the director.
Royal Ballet School Antwerp
Classes: Ballet, pointe, pas de deux, repertoire, mime, character, contemporary, role development, modern, improvisation, jazz, choreography, body conditioning, yoga, Pilates, production
Performance opportunities: School shows and with the Royal Ballet of Flanders
Royal Danish Ballet School
Company affiliation: Royal Danish Ballet
Classes: Bournonville, pas de deux, modern, drama, gymnastics, music, mime
Performance opportunities: With student group Company B
Tuition: Free of charge
Company affiliation: Béjart Ballet Lausanne
Classes: Ballet, pointe, men’s, pas de deux, Béjart repertoire, Graham technique, music training (singing and percussion), Kendo
Performance opportunities: Several, including shows with Béjart Ballet Lausanne
Tuition: Free of charge
Dancers must find their own housing.
Vaganova Ballet Academy
St. Petersburg, Russia
Company affiliation: Maryinsky Ballet
Classes: Ballet, character, pas de deux, dance history, modern dance, acting skills/mime, stage practice, repertoire
Performance opportunities: On the stage of the Maryinsky Theatre, the Hermitage Theatre and the Vaganova Ballet Academy School Theatre
Ballet in Flux: Who’s Still Hiring?
Europe’s economic crisis has not only taken a toll on the euro. Traditionally state-funded, ballet companies have been in the firing line recently. That doesn’t mean you have no chance of being hired if you plan an audition tour, but it pays to find out about each company’s financial situation and prospects.
British companies have emerged relatively unscathed–for now. Birmingham Royal Ballet and English National Ballet have had to deal with a 15 percent cut in government funding, but both have chosen to keep their rosters intact. “Our 57 dancers are incredibly important to us,” says Christopher Barron, Birmingham’s CEO. “We’re working very hard to make sure we can keep that number.”
Elsewhere, some cuts have been inevitable. Kathryn Bennetts, the Royal Ballet of Flanders’ artistic director, resigned over plans to place the company under the wing of the Flemish Opera. In Denmark, deep cuts to the budget of the Royal Theatre led the Royal Danish Ballet to lay off 11 dancers. One program on next season’s schedule was almost dropped, but ended up being saved by a last-minute sponsorship.
Even Monaco, long a plush bastion of culture, has had to trim back. Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo has canceled its traditional summer season and is merging with the Princess Grace Academy and the Monaco Dance Forum. The resulting organization must save a million euros over two years. Director Jean-Christophe Maillot has managed to keep all 50 of his dancers, but worries about the company’s ability to make new work and to get visas for foreign dancers. “We hope it’s only momentary,” he says. “I don’t want culture to become a scapegoat.”
Strategically, it may make sense for a dancer who dreams of a European career to train where she hopes to dance. One way to weather the recession and be seen is to spend time in affiliated schools like the Princess Grace Academy or in junior companies. Dutch National Ballet’s budget may shrink in the future; the number of dancers is going down from 80 to 78 in August. However, director Ted Brandsen plans to launch DNB II in 2013 to compensate. “We will probably have to reduce the roster again, and it’s a good transition model for young dancers,” he explains. “With fewer spots available, we need to be more selective, and new recruits have to be able to do everything straight away.”
Some countries have escaped the downswing. Germany, helped by a stronger economy, has not seen major cutbacks in its cultural institutions so far: Stuttgart Ballet and the Staatsballett Berlin have seen no reduction in funding, and John Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet will add three dancers next season. —Laura Cappelle