European Dreamin'

December 21, 2008

American dancers have trained and performed in Europe for years, but recently there’s been a surge of migration among young ballet hopefuls. The job situation is good, and the possibility of working with master choreographers like Jirí Kylián, William Forsythe, and John Neumeier, is a big draw. The appeal is huge: a chance to live and work in a different culture, to perform a varied repertory with contemporary European choreographers, and to work for a good salary with full benefits. But is it at a cost? What do American dancers give up when they take the leap across the pond?


For former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Noelani Pantastico, now a recent émigré to Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, the opportunity to follow artistic director Jean-Christophe Maillot and repeat her stunning success as Juliet (which she debuted with PNB last year) in Europe was the chance of a lifetime. “A lot of people think Maillot stole me or that I was unhappy with PNB,” says Pantastico, 28. “But my main motivation for leaving was to feel growth as a dancer and as a human being.” The choreographer chose Pantastico to perform the heroine role on opening night of the Monte Carlo’s Les Nuits de la Danse. Pantastico, who joined the company as a soloist, refers to her first month in Monaco as “magical,” and that opening night in July as a dream come true.


For Casey Herd, another former principal at PNB, a query to the Dutch National Ballet led to him taking classes and guesting in the company’s Sleeping Beauty. Says the 31-year old Herd: “I considered dancing in Europe many times before. Then I heard that DNB was looking for tall principals.” Eventually he was offered a principal contract in the 80-member DNB. “There will be a lot of expectations,” says Herd, “but I needed the challenge of stepping outside my comfort zone.”


Pantastico and Herd describe both the pull and push of making such a move: the excitement of a new working environment and culture, plus the opportunity to move beyond the complacency that sometimes comes with being in one city for a while. It’s something with which their former artistic director, Peter Boal, could empathize. He was struck with the same wanderlust 20 years ago when working at New York City Ballet. He spread his wings in France for three months with Ballet du Nord, and says he became a stronger dancer for it. In fact it was Boal who opened the door to DNB for Herd.

Breaking In

Claudia Schreiber’s
opportunity to dance with the Norwegian National Ballet happened “by chance,” she says. She heard good reports on how artistic director Espen Giljane was building an exciting repertory and expanding the company with international dancers. She and a fellow dancer at Carolina Ballet auditioned in Oslo.


“From the first combination in class to the rehearsals I observed, people were very focused and also clearly supportive of one another,” says Schreiber, 27. “I was convinced that this would be a great place to grow artistically.” Months later, when Schreiber unexpectedly received an e-mail saying ‘Greetings from Norway,’ she jumped at the chance to work for Espen and the company.


“It’s been even more exhilarating and satisfying than I had hoped,” says Schreiber. “The challenge to delve deeper into the material is part of every class and rehearsal.” And she feels inspired by the new, ultra-modern and sleek Oslo Opera House.


Prince Credell
, formerly of Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, joined Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève last summer. He was attracted to the company because of its diverse repertory and central location, the better to be exposed to the wider European dance scene. But it wasn’t easy getting there. Credell, 26, whose dazzling dancing earned him an “On the Rise” (Aug. ’04), had to go through an open audition. “They don’t give the dancer a feel for what the company is like,” he says. “In the beginning the open auditions were fun and exciting, but they are very, very difficult at times.”


Still, Credell feels that the audition process was worth the chance of getting a position with job security. Typically, contracts are yearlong with benefits, including retirement and paid vacations. Salaries are similar, if not slightly higher, even given the cost of living in Europe versus the United States. Some companies also pay for language classes for the new recruits.


An easier route to breaking into a company is to get some exposure to it before. Although Pantastico had performed as the lead in Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette in Seattle, she nevertheless auditioned for a position when the company toured the U.S. This allowed her to “see and be seen” by other company members. Later, during the annual spring layoff from PNB, she went to Monte Carlo and took classes.


Ashley Ellis
was a corps member of American Ballet Theatre when she heard that one of the company’s stars, Angel Corella, was forming his own nationally subsidized group in Spain. The possibility to dance in Corella Ballet Castilla y Leon “sounded like an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up, even though I first thought it was too far away,” says Ellis. “Still, it is quite an exciting experience, to be a part of something so new. After being here for one year, it now feels a lot like home.”

A Different Way to Work

Many of the dancers moving to Europe are looking for a challenge, and perhaps a different way of working. Pantastico says she was searching for a point of view, for a single artistic vision. “I think Maillot’s choreography is a good fit for me,” she says. “I’m cherishing my time in the studio—I’ve always craved more of it. I find that dancers discover themselves and what they are capable of while being coached. I wonder if working in a slower and more deliberate way will prolong my performing career.”


Garrett Anderson and Courtney Wright
of San Francisco Ballet wanted to experience the food, language, and history of a different culture. “I had heard people talk about an American and a European way of dancing and was interested in what those differences might be,” says Anderson. “We’re in a bubble over here with so few European choreographers.” The husband-and-wife team, Anderson a soloist and Wright a corps member, scheduled an audition tour with several companies. “In order to leave this great company,” says Wright, “the choice had to be a careful one.”


Anderson and Wright took company class with Royal Ballet of Flanders in Antwerp and found the dancers and director Kathryn Bennetts (a former Forsythe dancer) welcoming. “Flanders seemed a good fit,” says Anderson. “The dancers were artistically aware, and we were excited about the direction the company was heading.”


Wright, 28, joined the RBF as soloist and Anderson, 27, as first soloist last summer. For the couple, Flanders offered an ideal setting—more of a workshop experience with choreographers. Although they’ll miss the ambitious programming at San Francisco Ballet, Flanders will give them the opportunity to let the work sink in.


Another husband-and-wife team from SFB, Felipe Diaz and Marisa Lopez, have been with Dutch National Ballet for 10 years, more than half of that time as soloists (Lopez was promoted to principal in 2007). Both were on tour in Europe with the San Francisco Ballet when Lopez, 32, was offered a job by then director Wayne Eagling. Diaz, 34, auditioned a few months later and received an offer to join as well. Says Diaz: “For my body and muscle tone, I have enjoyed the training much more in Europe than in America. I like consistently being onstage as opposed to an intense, concentrated period and a long lay off. And I have had less injuries.” They have contracts until they reach 38 (though they must be renewed anually) and a career transition program, which the government pays half of, they can tap into after 10 years with the company.

Finding One’s Place

Pantastico headed for Monaco with some reservations. “I can’t focus on what I’m giving up—all the great repertory at PNB. For me now, I’m more focused on how I’m working. My motto is ‘Never look back, only forward.’ ”


Lopez, of the Dutch National Ballet, talks about missing an “American energy.” “I love when the choreographer brings a smart, efficient drive into the studio,” she says. “I miss that healthy energy; it’s infectious.” She also misses family and friends. “It’s a big decision to move to another continent,” she says. “I think if I had gone to Europe straightaway after graduation, I would have been lost personally and professionally.”


Even though Europe is now home for these dancers, adapting to another culture can be a challenge. Yet each is finding a place in dance that includes meaningful work, good working conditions, and respect as artists. Leaving premier American dance companies is risky business—but so far, it looks like the choice has been a good one. Time will tell.


Gigi Berardi, author of
Finding Balance: Fitness and Training for a Lifetime in Dance, will be speaking and writing on dance from Europe this winter.