Kick-starting your dance career abroad
Working abroad can be one of the major benefits of a career in the performing arts. As daunting and unsettling as the upheaval of a relocation can be, the resulting confidence, self-assurance, resilience and adaptability it builds is life-defining. Whether working away is on one’s radar or not, an overseas contract is not always guaranteed. The unpredictability of where in the world one might be employed is matched only by the uncertainty of whom one might end up working for. For the dancers in this piece, working overseas was not a premeditated decision. Instead, it was an opportunity to perform that was grasped with open arms.
Sarah Davison, a classically trained ballet dancer, found that working abroad has allowed her to escape a restrictive audition landscape in the UK while travelling the world: “The sheer variety of choreography on a [cruise] ship keeps it fresh for me. On land, I found that I was hugely typecast. I trained at English National Ballet School. After leaving, I delved into the freelance world and I would often not even get seen for some auditions just because I didn’t have non-ballet work on my resume. On the ships, I have been able to perform all kinds of styles of dance. It has expanded my range as a dancer, and made me able to try anything. I don’t think I’d have had the same opportunity on land.”
During her four years dancing on-board cruise liners, Davison has worked for Royal Caribbean, Carnival Corporation and Cunard Line. She describes the advantages of being at sea: “I’ve travelled from Peru to French Polynesia, from Russia to Jerusalem, from the Arctic to Sardinia, India to Alaska, Sweden to Guatemala. I have seen a wild bear in Alaska, ridden camels in the desert, been swimming with sting rays in Grand Cayman, and, by 2017, I will have walked the Great Wall of China…I’ve also managed to save money. Being able to do the job I trained to do, be paid to travel, and do it all with my partner has to be the absolute best point to working at sea, and I must say that I pretty much instantly loved it.”
For most classical ballet schools, providing world-class training is prioritised, and educating students on the more holistic aspects of the career ahead is, unfortunately, largely overlooked. Of the four classical dancers I spoke to, each of their careers overseas has been unequivocally rewarding, but not necessarily as planned.
Lorien Slaughter graduated from the Royal Ballet School in 1998. He describes how working overseas was not something on most dancers’ agenda: “I think a lot of people have very narrow ideas of success. Most classical dancers come through schools that are associated with a particular, UK-based company. When you’re young, getting into that company is the horizon for so long it starts to feel like the only option. But it’s a false dawn. There are so many other companies, not to mention styles of dance, that ballet dancers can go into and have wonderfully fulfilling careers.”
Slaughter was successful in forging a career working all over the world: “Dance has taken me to every continent on the planet apart from Antartica and South America. It also opened doors to some amazing places that money simply can’t buy. I have danced in cathedrals for the British legion; Whitehall Palace underneath Rubens’ ceiling with a 40-piece orchestra; for Russian oligarchs’ birthday parties. I’ve worked in Tokyo, Sydney, New York, Anchorage, Bermuda and all over the UK and Europe. In my opinion, wherever you are in the world, if you are are on stage singing, dancing, acting, modelling, clowning or performing – in any capacity – you’re a success.”
Leanne Codrington also graduated from the Royal Ballet School in 1998 and has found the majority of her not-insubstantial success overseas. Her professional career began with a tour across Italy and Greece with Karole Armitage’s Giacomo Casanova. She joined Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York, followed by Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, finishing up at Bejart Ballet Lausanne in Switzerland. “At the Royal Ballet School, we were given advice on how to get jobs, but as far as I remember it stopped there. The conversations didn’t go on to discuss what happened next once you were successful in finding a job abroad.
“After years at ballet school, it was hugely enriching to live in a city like New York. It was so different from anything that I was used to. The people, the culture, the atmosphere: everything felt foreign to me. I have to admit that I hated living in Manhattan in the beginning. I found the people rude and I felt seriously claustrophobic surrounded by skyscrapers everywhere I turned. It took me at least a year for it to feel like home; however, once it did, I absolutely loved it.
“I grew to appreciate the directness I had initially taken to be rudeness, and I began to enjoy the constant stimulation of living in a city where there’s always something happening. A definite highlight of working abroad has been the people that I’ve met. The friendships that I made while far away from home have shaped the person that I am today.”
Georgie Rose Connolly
Georgie Rose Connolly, also a ballet graduate, is getting used to her new life in Oslo working with the Norwegian National Ballet: “After getting the job in Oslo, I was warned by many of my friends that I was in for a rough ride moving abroad. It was predicted that I wasn’t going to enjoy it for many reasons. Friends who had been part of ballet companies abroad told me of language barriers, culture clashes, alienating cities and of isolating and unhealthily competitive work environments. I knew no matter what they said I was still going to Oslo, but it made for a nervous plane ride.”
Having been in Oslo 12 months, now she reflects on the adjustments of the relocation: “The difference in tempo of the two cities was the first thing I felt. Being a Londoner made things feel much slower here. The biggest difference has come from full-time work in contrast to my previous working life as freelance dancer. But in terms of the transition itself, I would say the company is certainly as close to home as I could ever get away from the UK. They’ve made me feel like family from day one. For me, the ease of transition has all been due to the kindness and patience of the people I’ve encountered. They’ve totally broken the stereotype of coldness I was expecting from a ballet company.”
Educating students on getting a job abroad is not a priority for most schools, but perhaps it deserves to be given greater attention. It is limiting to talk only about a handful of prestigious UK career paths.
As these case studies show, broadening your horizons beyond the domestic scene can bring its own rewards.
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