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By Siobhan Burke
5 dancers on making the move to Europe
Ariel Cohen in Stuttgart
Photo by Florian Gobetz
Ariel Cohen had no shortage of work when she decided to move to Berlin from Brooklyn, in 2010. If anything, she had too much. Since earning her MFA at Smith College in 2007, she had been juggling jobs as a performer, teacher, and choreographer, while co-directing her own company, slipperyfish dance, which toured throughout the northeast. “Essentially, I was running around like a madwoman,” says Cohen, 36, “but making it work, somehow.”
Eleanor Bauer, a dancer/choreographer now based in Brussels, found herself in a comparable situation in 2003, the year she graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in dance. “I was doing the hustle that everybody does, which is 18 freelance jobs: I was choreographing, I was dancing for other people, I was a house manager, I was grant-writing, I was doing art criticism writing.”
That frenetic pace didn’t seem conducive to Bauer’s main interest: making art. “I realized, Wow, I could be doing this hustle-and-grind indefinitely, and it may never change,” she says. “I might get a little more recognition or a little more money, but this relentless tempo with no time to really reflect, or fail, or make three pieces in the course of arriving at the one that you actually show?” She saw no end in sight.
Right: Danielle Rowe in Lightfoot/León’s Shoot the Moon. Photo by Rahi Rezvani, Courtesy NDT.
The dance profession—on any continent—isn’t exactly known for its material rewards. Love tends to outweigh money as the driving force in our field. But for American dancers, particularly freelancers like Bauer and Cohen, the struggle to stay financially afloat can become unsustainable, to the point where “running around like a madwoman” feels like running in place. Europe—that land of publicly funded art and affordable health care—has long provided a refuge, with its more dance-friendly cultural and economic climate. As Cohen puts it, “One of the greatest joys of working in Germany and Switzerland is that what I do for a living is supported and deemed important in this culture. If I sign a contract for a job, it means I will be working full-time and earning enough money to cover all of my living expenses. Almost every performance I participate in is sold out, and the audience is varied; they’re not primarily dancers.”
It sounds, well, perfect. So are there any drawbacks to this reputed dance utopia? How is the transition different for freelance dancers and those in full-time companies? And how do you get there in the first place? For a few different perspectives, Dance Magazine talked with Bauer, Cohen, and three other expats—Jenna Fakhoury of the GöteborgsOperans Danskompani, Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, and Brett Conway of Nederlands Dans Theater—about making the transatlantic leap.
Above: Fakhoury and Fan Luo rehearsing Richard Siegal’s the world to the darkness and to me. Photo by Tilo Stengel, Courtesy GoteborgsOperans Danskompani.
It was love, not money, that first lured Jenna Fakhoury to Sweden, where her boyfriend (now husband) worked as a rehearsal director of the GöteborgsOperans Danskompani. But once she permanently moved after landing her first gig—a six-month project in Stockholm with the sought-after Swedish choreographer Örjan Andersson—the financial comforts became apparent.
“I think that was the most luxurious project I’ve ever been involved with,” says Fakhoury, 28, who trained at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, then danced with Lar Lubovitch and Shen Wei. “This is sort of pedantic stuff, but my salary was higher than it had ever been in the U.S., and on top of that, there was a per diem, and our housing was paid for. It might be a special case with Örjan, because he gets a lot of funding and works with small groups of dancers, but in general, the government here contributes a lot.” When Fakhoury tore her meniscus in rehearsal, the surgery she needed cost a fraction of what it would have in New York.
Fakhoury auditioned twice for the GöteborgsOperans Danskompani, one of Europe’s most boundary-pushing repertory troupes (which recently changed its name from The Göteborg Ballet), and got in on her second try in September of 2012. While she enjoys similar “luxuries” there, she says that the emphasis on dancers’ well-being—regularly scheduled breaks, for instance, that choreographers can’t adjust without the dancers’ permission—does have its downsides. “In environments where the amenities and the rights maybe aren’t as codified, there’s also sort of a boiling creativity and hunger,” she says. “I often find that here, as wonderful as it is, the rules and stipulations can interfere with the creative process.”
Brett Conway, 30, who danced with Alonzo King LINES Ballet for eight years before joining NDT in 2010, echoes that sentiment. “The system here is very nice. But sometimes there are these guidelines and regulations that kind of get in the way. If you’re working for a company in the U.S., and you’re not necessarily a union company, you’re more just there to do the art—it’s like blood, sweat, and tears. It’s a different feeling.” He adds, “Not that people don’t work hard here, because they certainly do.”
Above: Bauer, at back, in her A Dance for the Newest Age (the triangle piece). Photo by Bart Grietens, Courtesy Bauer.
For Conway, the audition process could not have gone more smoothly. While on tour with LINES in Europe, he heard from a colleague that NDT was looking for dancers, so he contacted the company and arranged to take class. Having performed only with King since 2002 (the same year he graduated from Virginia School of the Arts), the class helped him realize he was ready for a change. “I got offered a contract. So I was like, OK! I guess this is what I need to be doing.”
The emotional hurdles of moving halfway across the world proved more arduous. “I’m super glad I did it, but it was hard and bittersweet leaving San Francisco. I loved working for LINES and all of the friends that I made along the way. But you have to make that leap, especially if you’re comfortable somewhere else and you’re thinking, Well, I would hate to give this all up, because what if I don’t like it as much over there? You never know until you try.”
Meaghan Grace Hinkis, 22, had a similarly smooth transition into The Royal Ballet, where she is now a first artist, after two years at American Ballet Theatre. She says that when she found herself on tour with ABT in London, “I thought, I might as well take advantage of being here—it had been a dream of mine to dance with both ABT and The Royal.” After watching her in class for a few days, Monica Mason (The Royal’s director at the time), offered her a contract.
Even coming from a company like ABT, where the dancers, as members of AGMA, receive decent salaries and health benefits, Hinkis has noticed a deeper reverence, culturally, for ballet in London. “The arts are very much appreciated here. It really is part of the culture,” she says. “People go to the ballet all the time, and they have a lot of choices because the season is so long.” Getting through that season—which lasts from September to July, with just one short break—has been one of the greatest challenges for her: “You really have to learn to pace yourself, to think of the season as a whole and know how to deal with a heavy schedule.”
For Bauer, it wasn’t a company but a school—where she could develop her choreographic voice without the pressures of the “hustle-and-grind”—that drew her to Europe. In 2004, she made it through the rigorous audition process for P.A.R.T.S., the Brussels-based conservatory directed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, which, she says, offered the “strong theoretical grounding” she was looking for.
Above: Hinkis with Ludovic Ondiviela in Nutcracker. Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy ROH.
Now a resident choreographer at the illustrious Kaaitheater in Brussels, Bauer still marvels at the city’s abundance of resources for dance-makers (even in the midst of the European Union’s own financial crisis). “I ran into a problem,” she says, “where I was like, Oh my goodness, I want to make a piece for nine people where the audience can only be 160. You will only lose money showing this piece, because the number of tickets sold, versus how expensive it is to employ these performers, doesn’t match. And the director of Kaaitheater was like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t matter. Nobody makes money off of ticket sales anyway. We’re publicly funded.’ And I was like, ‘Oh wow, I can do whatever I want here.’”
As long as you complete the right paperwork, that is. For a freelancer like Cohen—who is something of a nomad, traveling between countries with Berlin as a base—acquiring and renewing visas is practically a part-time job. “I’ve always been a pretty organized person,” she says, “but living here has made me meticulous. Every piece of paper has to be in order because I’m so often having to request visas as a non-EU citizen.”
As much as Cohen has thrived in Europe—finding steady, satisfying employment with a range of artists and institutions, from the Nürnberg Opera to the performance artist Tino Sehgal—she credits her American training with helping her get there. “There are advantages American dancers have in working on this side of the ocean,” she says, “and one is that our culture has taught us to go out and get what we want.”
Looking Back on A European Career
Riggins in Neumeier’s St. Matthew Passion. Photo by Holger Badekow, Courtesy Hamburg Ballet.
Lloyd Riggins, principal dancer and ballet master with Hamburg Ballet, grew up in Florida, where his mother directed the School of Southern Ballet Theatre in Orlando. He spoke with Wendy Perron about living and dancing in Europe since 1987, when he joined the Royal Danish Ballet.
What drew you to dance in Europe?
I had been at a Bournonville workshop in Copenhagen and the Royal Danish Ballet asked me to come study. They were having a big ballet and opera festival, where the Hamburg Ballet was a guest. The first performance was Neumeier’s St. Matthew Passion, and I was completely blown away. And then came all the Bournonville ballets with the Danish Ballet. I was overwhelmed. When I got a contract with Denmark, of course I said yes.
What was John Neumeier’s relation to the Royal Danish? John was very connected with the company and I danced Puck and Demetrius in his Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Benvolio and later Romeo in his Romeo and Juliet.
How did you decide to leave the Royal Danish and go to Hamburg? I was having a great career in Copenhagen, but I was a little frustrated because I was always in the classical idiom. There would be new choreographers coming, and I never got to work with them.
What do you find is unique about Neumeier’s work? The human aspect of it. For every step that we do, there’s a why, as far as a human emotion. We’re not ballet dancers dancing, we’re people who are dancing. You have to speak with your body. With John’s choreography, the opportunity to speak is so great. That is why I love to dance it. There’s a very similar thing with Bournonville: It’s not just, And now we make a divertissement that looks beautiful. It is an expression of joy.
What was your first challenge at Hamburg? John’s approach was, Who are you? What do you have to offer here? What do you want to say? This was the most difficult thing to get used to. In Denmark, you’re carrying all of the history with you—all the people who’d done James in La Sylphide before you. Well, here is a creator who goes in a room with no steps in his head, listens to the music, says “Do.” Then he looks at you like, And?
So you are creating also? Yes, the first time I realized it—a dancer was sick and John needed a little transition solo—it was my first awakening to, Oh, he wants me to say something. I did this step and I fell down, and he said, “Good, keep going.” I had to go, Ahhh, and open this door.
What do you miss about the U.S.? We worked with San Francisco Ballet on The Little Mermaid recently and they had a very nice American energy, like “We can do it; we don’t have all this tradition behind us.” I miss that energy.
What advice do you have for Americans who want to come to Europe? I would say, Come, even if it’s just for a couple years. It’s only more experience.
Siobhan Burke is a contributing writer/editor at Dance Magazine and a freelance writer for The New York Times and The Performance Club.