Europe Awaits

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
Paris, France
Classes: Ballet, pointe, adagio/pas de deux, contemporary, repertoire, Pilates, choreography, somatic movement
Ages: 18–21
Performance opportunities: Two major shows a year at the Palais des Congrès de Paris
Tuition: €3,700

Académie Princess Grace

Monte Carlo, Monaco
Company affiliation: Les Ballets
de Monte-Carlo
Classes: Ballet, pas de deux, variations, contemporary dance and repertoire, character dance, Pilates, dance composition, piano lessons, music and theater
Ages: 14–18
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

Moscow, Russia
Company affiliation: Bolshoi Ballet
Classes: Ballet, pointe, repertoire, pas de deux, modern choreography, character dance and historical dance
Ages: 10–18+
Performance opportunities: Students perform with the Bolshoi Ballet, on tour and in school recitals.
Tuition: $18,000

École Supérieure de Danse de Cannes Rosella Hightower
Cannes, France
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
Ages: 11–23
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
Ages: 16–19
Performance opportunities: Two annual school shows, plus performances with English National Ballet
Tuition: £16,000

Hamburg Ballet School
Hamburg, Germany
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
Ages: 10–19
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
Stuttgart, Germany
Company affiliation: Stuttgart Ballet
Classes: Ballet, pointe, repertoire, pas de deux, character dance/Spanish dance, contemporary dance, improvisation, variations, dance history, anatomy, makeup
Ages: 16–18
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

Nanterre, France
Company affiliation: Paris Opéra Ballet
Classes: Ballet, character, folk dance, contemporary, jazz, music, mime, theater, history, anatomy, gymnastics, entertainment law
Ages: 11–18
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
Ages: 11–18
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
Antwerp, Belgium
Classes: Ballet, pointe, pas de deux, repertoire, mime, character, contemporary, role development, modern, improvisation, jazz, choreography, body conditioning, yoga, Pilates, production
Ages: 12–19
Performance opportunities: School shows and with the Royal Ballet of Flanders
Tuition: €7,000

Royal Danish Ballet School

Copenhagen, Denmark
Company affiliation: Royal Danish Ballet
Classes: Bournonville, pas de deux, modern, drama, gymnastics, music, mime
Ages: 6–16
Performance opportunities: With student group Company B
Tuition: Free of charge

Rudra-Béjart School

Lausanne, Switzerland
Company affiliation: Béjart Ballet Lausanne
Classes: Ballet, pointe, men’s, pas de deux, Béjart repertoire, Graham technique, music training (singing and percussion), Kendo
Ages: 16–20
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
Ages: 16–20
Performance opportunities: On the stage of the Maryinsky Theatre, the Hermitage Theatre and the Vaganova Ballet Academy School Theatre
Tuition: $15,000

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

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Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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