Your Career

The European Difference

Dorger in Royal Danish Ballet's production of Giselle (photo by Costin Radu, courtesy Royal Danish Ballet)

When Holly Dorger arrived in Copenhagen to join the Royal Danish Ballet after graduating from the School of American Ballet, she was shocked by the unfamiliar. “We brought home cat food thinking it was canned tuna," she laughs, recollecting her first weeks among new surroundings. Nine years later, the principal dancer calls Copenhagen home, crediting Denmark and artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe for her success.

European dance companies typically offer secure contracts, better salaries and a varied repertoire. Yet for American dancers, understanding a new culture, adjusting to different company dynamics and getting used to European contemporary work can be challenging. Below, dancers from four European companies weigh in on what they've learned from moving abroad.

Shelby Williams. Photo Courtesy Royal Ballet of Flanders.


Languages and Social Customs

Culture shock is common for Americans who have little experience speaking a language other than English. Shelby Williams, a dancer with Belgium's Royal Ballet of Flanders, first went to Europe in 2009, taking an apprenticeship at Dresden Semperoper Ballett when jobs in the U.S. were scarce. Having danced in both Germany and Spain, she's learned to expect a three-month adjustment period to grasp a new language, theater structure and visa process, and understand necessities like bank, phone and apartment contracts. Her advice: Make an effort to learn the local language. “It can be easy to neglect because most companies work in English, but it helps break down any cultural divides and will completely change how at home you feel," she says.

The first few weeks abroad can be especially lonely, when everything from learning a new bus route to ordering a cup of coffee is a challenge. Social customs differ, too. Mark Wax, who joined Norwegian National Ballet after dancing with Alberta Ballet and Boston Ballet, says that immersing himself in the culture and becoming more social helped him make friends: “Norwegians are extremely respectful of personal space, and it takes some time to get to know them, but they can find the extroverted American style charming."

Work Atmosphere

Since European companies are publicly funded, dancers can usually count on more job stability, often even receiving lifetime contracts—“something unheard of at home," says Williams. “So, dancers work because they want to, not out of fear of losing their jobs if budget cuts hit." The result is that the work environment in Europe tends to feel less competitive than in the U.S.

Dresden Semperoper Ballett coryphée Joseph Hernandez noticed a more open rehearsal atmosphere when he first moved to Europe to join Royal Ballet of Flanders. “Our director would ask about intention—what we were thinking about—when we executed a step," he says. “It was something I'd never been asked to do in America. I'd always been taught to work hard, but had never been asked why."

But, Hernandez continues, there can be a downside to European job security. While those in the U.S. can't risk growing complacent, “a lot of dancers here become so comfortable in their situations that they don't think about future plans. Some people might stay, even if they're unhappy," he says.


Mark Wax in "Serenade." Photo Courtesy Norwegian National Ballet.

Repertoire Tastes and History

Compared to the prominently neoclassical repertoire in America, dancers are generally pushed to further extremes in Europe, performing everything from purely classical to wildly experimental choreography. “At Royal Ballet of Flanders, we perform works ranging from William Forsythe to Pina Bausch, and from Ohad Naharin to the Bolshoi's production of Spartacus," says Williams.

Once during a rehearsal, Wax was surprised when choreographer Jo Strømgren asked him to improvise a freak-out: “I stomped to the center of the room while silently screaming, and proceeded to rip off my shirt," he says.

Learning a new ballet style can be equally daunting. After years of Balanchine training, Dorger had to adjust to the Bournonville technique, a style deeply embedded in Danish history. Hübbe encouraged her by advising her to keep learning, and she's come to love Bournonville ballets. “You feel a natural joy when you dance ballets like Napoli and Flower Festival in Genzano," she says, describing the thrill of tackling fast footwork paired with airy port de bras.

Of course, dancers with American ballet training always look forward to dancing the familiar. As Dorger explains, “When a Balanchine ballet comes to us, it really does feel like home. I don't have to think so much, I just get to dance—and that feels amazing."


Holly Dorger. Photo Courtesy Royal Danish Ballet.

Going the Distance

All four dancers agree that being far from friends and family is the hardest part about moving abroad. But, Wax explains, Europe's higher salaries make visits home possible. “I have 10 weeks of paid vacation a year," he says.

Williams continues to let work abroad propel her: “I know that no company in the U.S. could offer the type of work that I'm doing at the moment." And, she says, “I adore the simplicity and romance of life in Europe, like riding a bike to work, or hopping to another country by train."

As for Dorger, she's now part of the Danish fabric—she was even knighted last fall by the queen of Denmark, one of the country's highest honors. She is engaged to a Dane, and plans to stay—“as long as I continue to feel myself improve and develop as an artist."

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Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Lopez in Circus Polka. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB.

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

Keep reading at dancemagazine.com.

Summer Study Advice
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Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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Career
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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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Videos

They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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