3 Black American Dance Artists on Making Work—and Building Lives—in Europe

November 6, 2023

Imagine leaving home and taking up residence in a foreign land—not as a migrant seeking refuge, but as an expatriate, voluntarily opting to start a new life in a different language and culture. That’s the “What if?” that many American dance artists dare to risk by relocating to Europe. African American dancers are a large part of this picture.

The phenomenal Black dancer/singer Josephine Baker made the move in the 1920s and never looked back. Though her touring career brought her to the U.S. more than once, Baker became a solid French citizen, later gaining recognition as a World War II hero for her work with the French Resistance. Renowned­ cabaret owner and vocalist Ada “Bricktop” Smith moved to Paris, where she danced and taught Black dances like the Charleston and Black Bottom to Cole Porter, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Retiring in 1961, she returned­ stateside after four decades living abroad. In the 1960s to 1970s, Black ballet artists Sylvester Campbell, Billy Wilson, and Raven Wilkinson each expatriated for nearly a decade, dancing with the Dutch National Ballet, then returned home.

Some contemporary Black American artists are staying for the long haul, learning the manners and mores of a new culture and taking on the cloak of expatriation. This number includes, in Paris, Wanjiru Kamuyu; Trajal Harrell, who splits his time between Zurich and Athens; and, in Berlin, Esther Cowens. Each artist’s trajectory follows a different course and paints a unique profile.

Wanjiru Kamuyu

a female dancer wearing a tank top and jeans sitting for a photo
Wanjiru Kamuyu. Photo by Matthieu Waddell, Courtesy Kamuyu.

For Wanjiru Kamuyu all signs pointed to Paris, where she’s lived for the past 16 years. The daughter of an African­ American mother and a Kenyan father, she was born and raised in Kenya. She relocated to the U.S. with her family when she was 16 and eventually received her MFA in dance from Temple University. Settling in New York City, she danced and toured extensively with Urban Bush Women. After auditioning for a Paris-based French musical on Josephine Baker, she became its choreographer and a principal dancer and singer and toured with that company, then signed on to the Lion King’s Paris ensemble, followed by FELA! in the United Kingdom and on tour in Europe and the U.S. “I kept getting work, so I let go of my apartment in New York and began using Paris as home base. I didn’t even think much about it,” she continues, with a laugh. “I was working, happy, and I met Cyril”—lighting designer Cyril Mulon, now her husband.

Kamuyu has upcoming engagements in France (Vélizy and Evreux), Taipei, Chicago, and Milan, and has performed and taught across Africa, including in Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo), Bamako (Mali), and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), keeping her busy crossing continents. Her dance ensemble, WKcollective,­ is the associate company of camin aktion,­ a creative production agency based in Montpellier,­ France.

“As a choreographer, I’m getting funding, and residencies that are paid for,” she explains. “The structure here allows for more of a sense of support, with collaborations and community-engagement projects.” Further, she qualifies for a national program that dispenses salary compensation between bookings for freelance working artists, and part of the taxes she pays are set aside as a fund for either a vacation or a project an artist chooses to do. She also has universal health care. “These are the perks of living in France that also seduced me,” she says.

An elite international solo performer, Kamuyu is touring two majestic pieces, An Immigrant’s Story and Portraits in red, for the 2023–24 season, along with her new work, a trio entitled Fragments. She has the distinct honor of performing Okwui Okpokwasili’s solo, Bronx Gothic—a work as radical for its time as was Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A in 1966.

Regarding her emerging success abroad, she says, “Your foreignness can work for or against you. People can think you’re ‘exotic,’ or xenophobia and racism can come into play, and I’ve lived at both ends of that. But I’m determined, I’m strategic, I’ve learned the language, the culture, the codes, the doors to knock on, and how to present myself in the very French way.” She concludes: “In order to move forward, one must adjust some things—but not sell one’s soul—to allow yourself to build on your dreams and make them come true.”

Trajal Harrell

a male wearing a brown jacket standign against a blue wall and looking at the camera
Trajal Harrell. Photo by Bea Borgers, Courtesy Harrell.

Trajal Harrell describes himself as a nomad, dividing his time between Zurich and Athens. But, he says, “my official base is still in Georgia, with my mom. I pay my taxes in the USA, and I don’t have an official residency in any other country.” As to his unusual situation, he explains: “At a certain point I had so many touring and performing opportunities in Europe, it didn’t make sense to keep flying back and forth across the Atlantic. I’ve been touring internationally since 2011 and started using Athens as a hub.”

After graduating from Yale, Harrell began his professional career in New York City. His 2009 solo Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church burst open the definition of what is modernism or avant-garde in dance culture, making a place at the table for the outsiders—namely, contemporary Black, gay, voguing, and ballroom traditions, themselves highly influenced by the performative nature of high-fashion’s catwalk.

Since then, Harrell’s career has taken off, nonstop. In 2019 he was invited to become a house director and to build a dance company within the Schauspielhaus Zürich, a chapter in his artistic life that will end in June 2024. Despite the setbacks of the pandemic, he will have created six new works during his directorship. In its final year his ensemble is beholden to a breakneck performance schedule, and the touring itinerary is intense. Three of the works created during his time in Zurich, along with an earlier piece, will be performed on tour in the month of November alone, at venues in New York, Minneapolis, Zurich, Paris, and the French city of Clermont-Ferrand.

dancers in brightly patterned costumes reaching out
Schauspielhaus Zürich in Trajal Harrell’s The Romeo. Photo by Orpheas Emirzas, Courtesy Harrell.

Like the ensemble William Forsythe assembled as artistic director of the Frankfurt Ballet (1984–2004), Harrell’s company is a cornucopia of diversity in terms of height, weight, skin color, gender identity, ethnicity. Each dancer is a star shining in Harrell’s orbit. They move as one mind—deep in their individuality but, in sum, the actualization of Harrell’s vision.

The Köln Concert (2020), Harrell’s first choreography for Schauspielhaus, will be performed on the U.S. leg of the November tour schedule. The title of the dance takes its name from the now legendary solo concert by pianist Keith Jarrett, performed in the city of Köln and recorded in 1975. Harrell himself begins the “official” performance, standing in place while dancing an emotionally moving solo. When he dances, he becomes a rapturous conjurer diving into the sea of experience and fishing out deep emotions. His African American ancestry is always present, always his partner, dreadlocked in the weave of his Black dancing body.

Harrell has successfully toured South America and Asia. “I think my work is international in scope, but part of [my success] is tapping into international [performance] networks,” he says. The work is also successful stateside, “but COVID stopped a lot of the momentum that was building for touring around the USA,” he explains. With his time at Schauspielhaus coming to an end, his independent company will be supported solely by touring fees. The ensemble is booked solidly for now, and with acclaim on four continents, the future is bright.

a male in black holding a green and blue feather to his face
Harrell in The Romeo. Photo by Orpheas Emirzas, Courtesy Harrell.

Esther Cowens

a female dancer looking sideways, yellow lighting
Esther Cowens in Heidi Weiss’ interbeing. Photo by Mayra Wallraff, Courtesy Cowens.

Esther Cowens is an integral part of the community of musicians, dancers, and actors whose work defines Berlin as a vibrant hub of radical artistic production. She graduated from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts with a strong background in ballet, Horton, Graham, and jazz dance. “I arrived in Berlin in 1996 with Group Motion, Manfred Fishbeck’s Philadelphia-based ensemble, and never went back,” she says. “Later I worked in France, Spain, and Taiwan.”

From 2001 to 2002, Cowens danced in the original cast of the German Lion King in Hamburg.­ Like Wanjiru Kamuyu, she fell in love, married, and is now the mother of a preteen. Following a serious injury, she was waylaid but has returned to performing, making dances, and teaching. Staying close to family, she works mainly in Germany. With her musical theater background, Cowens occasionally records and performs as an accomplished singer. Having learned the language and adjusted to the culture, she is solidly rooted in Berlin and has no immediate reason to relocate to the U.S.

Cowens explains that she and fellow expatriate, dancer and photographer Todd Ford, plan to launch “a podcast devoted exclusively to Black dancers living in Europe.” If they succeed, this will mark a new direction in Cowens’ trajectory and a necessary addition to understanding and documenting the larger picture of what drives dance artists to make Europe their home base.