Americans Abroad

June 21, 2007

Performing overseas is more than an adventure. For these dancers, it means personal, artistic, and financial breaks.



To launch her career, Isadora Duncan sailed for Europe in search of audiences who could appreciate her work and producers who could enable her to do it. In Paris she encountered Loïe Fuller, another expatriate who had preceded her by a decade. Josephine Baker would become the toast of Paris not long after. American dance artists have continued to gravitate toward Europe for some of the same reasons they did at the turn of the last century: sophisticated audiences, presenters with deep pockets, and governments with a high priority on arts and culture.


Over the years, highly visible Americans have fanned out across Europe. In France there’s the former Nikolais soloist Carolyn Carlson and early Robert Wilson collaborator Andy de Groat. In Germany the Hamburg Ballet is headed by John Neumeier; William Forsythe’s new company is based in both Frankfurt and Dresden; and Amanda Miller has recently relocated from Freiburg to Cologne. In Belgium there’s Meg Stuart and her company Damaged Goods. These artists have had a strong influence on the development of dance in Europe.


Today lesser known Americans have flocked to cities from Amsterdam to Zurich. They fill the ranks of state-subsidized companies or make their way as creators in a climate that supports their creative output.


Banning Roberts had a wish list that might sound familiar to many young dancers: to dance with a financially secure company that produces adventurous work and tours worldwide. Roberts found all this at the Cullberg Ballet in Stockholm, Sweden. After graduating from the Juilliard School, Roberts was swept into Hubbard Street 2 in Chicago. She missed New York and returned there to dance with Aszure Barton, Lar Lubovitch, and Buglisi/Foreman Dance. She kept hoping to become part of a company that could afford to work together consistently.


“I knew Europe was going to be the place I had to look. It’s difficult in the States to find contemporary companies, period,” she says, citing lack of funding as the prime reason. On a visit, she took to Stockholm’s “old Europe feeling.” Accepted at a Cullberg audition, she has lived in Sweden going on a year now. The life suits her well. “I take company class every day and the optional modern class once a week. Freelancing, you have to find and pay for your own classes. Here you don’t have to worry about keeping in shape.” Cullberg’s repertoire includes works by the renowned Matts Ek and by current director Johann Inger, a choreographer with a fresh and witty voice.


How was making the transition to living abroad? “No matter how strong you are, it’s a big shock moving to a completely new country by yourself,” says Roberts, a Nashville native. “It takes an adventurous spirit and perseverance, because not only is the language different, but so are the most basic things that you take for granted, like going to an ATM to get money.”


She misses her family and New York’s lively diversity. But, she says, “I’ll stay as long as I’m learning from being here. I’m not ready to set any time limits.” Her advice to young dancers seeking jobs in Europe? “If you’re independent and you’re in the mood for adventure, it can be an amazing experience.”


Like Roberts, Luches Huddleston, Jr. was drawn to the advantages of working in a state-funded company. After training in his native Washington, D.C. and at The Ailey School, Huddleston began his career dancing with Elisa Monte and working in a photo lab. “I was working with the company from 10 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon, and then from 3 to midnight in the lab to make ends meet.” Then, when dancing in a project with Bill T. Jones in Germany, a German dancer in the production told him he might be able to get a job in one of the state-supported theaters with year-long contracts and extra vacation pay. “It’s like a government job in America where you have all your benefits and a health plan,” says Huddleston, who has now been enjoying those working conditions at Mannheim National Theater for 13 years. Like other state theater and opera house companies, the Mannheim troupe does productions 10 months out of the year, including two or three premieres. The dancers have six weeks of vacation in the summer.


“Right away when I came to the company I did a lot of solo roles—Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet—which isn’t usually what happens when you’re new.” Artistic director Philippe Talard recognized Huddleston’s dancing passion and the strength of his presence. And Huddleston enjoyed the chances he was given to choreograph. Now he takes a company class daily and feels well-challenged by current directors American Kevin O’Day and Canadian Dominique Dumais (see “Dance Matters,” June 2005).

He stands out as the only African American in the group. “Being the only American and then being black on top of it is difficult. They take to you very quickly because you’re different. Sometimes that’s an advantage, sometimes not.” Huddleston misses having dancers with similar energy to play off. “It helps me a lot if I have someone else American in the company or someone else who is similar in body type or physicality.” He enjoys living in Mannheim, a city of about 300,000. But he says, “I miss being able to pick up the telephone, call my Mom and say, ‘OK I’m coming in five minutes.’ ”


Choreographer Mark Tompkins, reached by phone at his Paris home, says, “I have no intention of going anywhere else, unless my life is turned upside down.” Initially drawn to Europe to travel and study with the great Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski, among others, Tompkins left his Ann Arbor, Michigan, home at 19. As he didn’t yet speak French, movement clicked as a more communicative approach to performance than language. He earned his living working in a vegetarian restaurant and painting apartments, and began collaborating with American dancers Lila Greene and Harry Sheppard. Tompkins hooked into the contact improvisation scene and started teaching and showing his own work. He relishes bringing together international casts of dancers, and his company has been funded by the French government for over 20 years now. He is an artist in residence at Paris’ Théâtre de la Cité on the Left Bank. “I thought I’d stay maybe a year or two,” he says, “and now it’s 30-some—a bit longer than I expected.”


Something Tompkins sees as a distinct advantage in Europe is the possibility of extensively touring new work. His latest piece, Animal, has toured 24 dates since its October premiere. He also runs summer dance intensives in the east of France, inviting colleagues like Vera Mantero, Kirstie Simpson, David Zambrano, Benoît Lachambre, and Frans Poelstra. That’s when he gets to recharge and become a student himself.


Unlike Tompkins, Jennifer Lacey had established herself as a performer and dance-maker in the U.S. before taking up residence in Paris in 2000. Through the ’90s she had taken part in New York’s downtown scene, dancing initially (along with Meg Stuart) in the Randy Warshaw Dance Company, and teaching and touring her own productions all over the map. She’d received Choreographer’s Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, but when that program was phased out, there weren’t a lot of U.S. funding sources left for an independent dance artist.


In 1999 Lacey was invited to Paris to be part of a group of five choreographers contributing material to a production centered on Nijinsky’s L’Après midi d’un faune. The process was invigorating; the finished work was in demand. And each of the other choreographers invited Lacey to participate in their upcoming projects. Tired of supporting her New York life with her work in Europe, and with the prospect of plenty more work on the horizon, Lacey decided to cross the pond more permanently.


Right away she set up an “association” (France’s equivalent of a non-profit organization). “I waltzed in and got money and got programmed,” she says. She now has regular residencies at dance centers throughout France, and performs at such venues as Paris’ Pompidou Center. She feels stimulated by her collaboration with visual artist Nadia Lauro and enjoys her life in Paris. But as a lifelong New Yorker, she misses the culture of that city, and the American openness to irony.


What’s up next? Choreographing for an opera, her first—Orfeo ed Euridice by Gluck at Vienna’s Taschen Oper. “It’s exactly what I think I can’t do,” she says. But, with the spirit of adventure common to all the Americans abroad, Lacey adds, “I’m ready for that.”


Lisa Kraus, a former member of the Trisha Brown Company, is on the dance faculty of Swarthmore College. She lived in Europe for a decade, teaching at the European Dance Development Center in Arnhem, the Netherlands.