This story originally appeared in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of Pointe.
Ever dreamed of dancing your way through Europe? Of discovering new companies and wandering the streets of historic cities? For Kelsey Coventry, an American dancer with Leipziger Ballett in Leipzig, Germany, moving abroad was the perfect next step. “I thought that I would try to spread my wings a little further," she says.
Europe also comes with another lure: lengthy, stable contracts with good benefits. “Since I work for an opera house here, and we're government funded, I'm considered a government employee," says Coventry. “We're paid 13 months out of the year, with a 2-month vacation. It's a pretty good deal."
But before you get the job, you need to audition. If you've never traveled abroad, planning a European audition tour can seem daunting. But with advance planning and the right blend of organization and flexibility, it can be an easier and more affordable experience than you think.
Research, Research, Research
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As early as possible, reach out to dance friends abroad and poke around the websites of European companies you admire. Look for repertoire that suits you and cities that intrigue you. When Boston Ballet corps member Shelby Elsbree planned the audition tour that landed her a spot at the Royal Danish Ballet a few years ago, she used major cities that were easily accessible from the U.S. as a starting point.
Jessica Teague, a soloist at Royal Ballet of Flanders, also recommends looking into companies you've never heard of. "Add in at least one company that is just purely out of curiosity," she says. "I've discovered some really cool companies that way." To tap into the European dance scene, Dance Europe will be one of your best resources. It's a print magazine that's available in some major U.S. cities, but its website also includes company and audition directories.
Pay special attention to whether the company hires foreign dancers by looking at company bios or the audition page, especially with smaller troupes. In some cases, filing for visas costs companies time and money, so you want to make sure they're up for it.
Reach Out to Companies
When you're researching company auditions, Nikolaj Hübbe, artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, recommends finding out what kind of dancer the director is looking for, too. Start by asking contacts that you have in the company, but also ask a company manager when you're scheduling the audition. "Are they looking for small girls right now? Or tall boys?" says Hübbe. "People say if dancers want it enough, they can go to the company and knock down the door. Yes, that shows a certain passion and courage. But if a director is looking for 5' 5" instead of 5' 10", that's the reality."
Even if there's an open audition scheduled, ask whether the company will allow you to take class as a private audition instead. Unlike at large open auditions, "you know that the director will be able to see you and measure you up against their own company," says Coventry. "And you can see how you fit in from your own perspective, too."
To request a private audition, look on the company's website for the appropriate contact (often the company manager or artistic director's assistant). Then, e-mail an inquiry that includes your resumé (with your citizenship right at the top, highlighting any dual citizenship), photos and dance reel. Elsbree recommends sending hard copies, as well. Follow up in a few weeks to make sure they've received your materials.
Plan Your Trip
Planning your audition tour is like putting together a puzzle. Teague, Elsbree and Coventry recommend setting aside approximately two weeks for a tour that targets five companies and a few possible backups. Your safest (and cheapest) bet is to book early with extra time padded in, just in case your itinerary changes.
Most companies look for new dancers between January and March (which happens to be a great time of year for flight deals), before the bulk of open auditions. But April or May could also be an advantageous time. "Later in the year directors know exactly who's staying and who's retiring, and sometimes things go a little bit faster," says Teague.
Arranging auditions geographically is logical, but not always to your advantage, especially if companies have specific dates they'd like you to visit. When Coventry planned her tour, she started with her first-choice company, giving them the two-week time frame that she'd be in Europe and letting them suggest a date. Then, she e-mailed her second-choice company with a shorter time frame and so on.
Choosing transportation largely depends on the order of your auditions. Keep in mind that low-cost European airlines, such as easyJet and Ryanair, may often get you between cities much more quickly—and more cheaply—than trains. On the other hand, trains can be a relaxing way to see the countryside. Teague recommends asking about youth discounts and weekend fares when purchasing tickets.
Unless you're staying with friends, you have three main accommodation options: a hostel, a bed and breakfast or a hotel. Hostels are dormitory-style and your most affordable option; European B&B's are often less pricey than hotels. When choosing accommodations, stay within walking distance of the theater if possible. "The last thing you want on the morning of your audition is to get lost on public transportation," says Teague. Elsbree adds, "You want to make everything as seamless and as convenient as possible, so that you can save your energy for the audition."
Bring one book bag and one carry-on suitcase with wheels. That's it. "If you can manage to do this trip without checking a bag, you will thank yourself," says Elsbree. "If you're moving from city to city, you can wear the same thing every other day, and no one will know," adds Coventry. Pack plenty of pointe shoes, a leotard for each audition, a couple of outfits and your travel tickets.
The dance world is small and very international, so you'll likely find fewer cultural differences inside the studio than outside it. "The parameters of ballet exist wherever you are—adagio is still adagio," says Hübbe. "Speed is maybe an American 'brand,' but that will be incorporated into a well-rounded audition class." Teague adds, "The chances that you'll run into someone you know are very big. You'll find contacts along the way."
Of course, there will be cultural differences from one studio to the next, so keep these ground rules in mind: Always be your confident self, and err on the side of politeness. If taking company class, ask the dancers next to you before you take a place at the barre.
Whether you end up with a contract or not, a European audition tour is almost guaranteed to be a life-changing experience. "It is so perspective-shifting, just to expose yourself to other cultures and companies and cities," says Elsbree. "To this day, my audition tour is still one of the highlights of my dance career."
Budgeting for Europe: Two weeks on $3,000 (or less)
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Round-trip flight: $800–$1,200, depending on time of year
Accommodations: $20–$100 per night. You can almost always find a great, well-located hostel room for $20–$40 (per person).
Food: $20–$30 per day. Boston Ballet corps member Shelby Elsbree recommends trying street food in each city you visit. "It's cheap and delicious," she says. Plus, it's a great way to experience local culture.
Travel within Europe: $30–$100 per ticket (book in advance for the best rates)