Are you a ballet dancer in America interested in hopping over the Atlantic and getting a job dancing in Europe? Or vice-versa? Do your homework first, and have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into. The professional dance world in Europe, while similar to America, is of a different breed, and it does’t always favor the same skills that are accentuated in the states.
Although Petipa originated much of classical ballet, things split off at a certain point between US and European classical dance. While it may not be fair to lump all of European dance into one group, there are some commonalities that most European ballet companies do not share with America. This is evident in company repertoire, but also in the way they work internally, and each ballet company reflects the cultural environment that shaped them. I’m going to try to shed some light on the most obvious of differences between these two continental dance cultures.
1. The Nutcracker
One of the first questions I was invariably asked when I lived in the US when someone found out I was a dancer was “Have you seen Black Swan?” I had. The other was “Oh! Do you do The Nutcracker?” I did. We all do. If you dance ballet in the US, you do The Nutcracker.
The biggest source of revenue for every American Ballet company is The Nutcracker, the most famous of all Christmas ballet traditions. There are countless versions of The Nutcracker, but each of them is a response to the demand of American audiences. In America, Christmas = Nutcracker. And while The Nutcracker is certainly performed in Europe as well, its symbiotic relationship with Christmas doesn’t exist. Although a few European companies do perform Nutcracker around Christmas, to most it’s considered just another classical ballet. Much of this has to do with this ballet’s history, which is intimately tied to one particular choreographer, George Balanchine, as is much of standard American repertoire.
Balanchine is America’s ballet hero, but did you know he’s not such an instrumental figure in European dance?
2. Neoclassical Repertoire: Balanchine / Kylian, Forsythe
While Balanchine is a huge deal in the states, especially for modernizing classical ballet, in Europe there are other prominent figures that accomplished this feat in Europe. Choreographers like Jiří Kylián and William Forsythe (and certainly others before them) created a different kind of contemporary ballet, and therefore a different dance scene. Their choreography calls for different skills than Balanchine’s and require a distinct approach, and these differences make for some interesting divergences in the respective dance cultures of ballet companies. I’m not going to get into detail here, but if you’re looking to switch continents, the differences in rep and movement style are probably the most important things to pay attention to.
Of course, the diversity of repertoires in Europe is huge, and to speak only of Forsythe and Kylián is to leave out some giants of European contemporary ballet. But this article is focused on large, current trends, and to my eye, these are two of the biggest forces of European contemporary ballet.
One thing’s for sure though: many large classical ballet companies, regardless of their locations, have ossified around repertoire that is well-known and sells well. Many companies are afraid to take real risks nowadays, especially if they’re struggling financially and when they know that certain ballets will always be well-received.
3. Source of Funding
Speaking of being well-received: money.
The obvious source of revenue in ballet is ticket sales, but did you know that US ticket sales account for only about 50% of the revenue they need to keep them running? That number is even lower in Europe. So where does the rest come from?
It comes mainly from wealthy donors and government grants. And while people willing to contribute to ballet’s well-being exist everywhere there’s a large company, let’s just say that government and ballet don’t exactly mix well in America. That puts the US at a disadvantage, because they have to lean heavily on individual donations. Financial support by individuals can be more unstable and difficult to predict, and while most European companies also fundraise by appealing to donors, they almost always receive generous (by US standards) government grants as well. (Take a look at this study comparing the Paris Opera’s ticket revenue compared to total budget of a few other similar organizations. This study was conducted in 2002 and is focused on the larger organizations that house their ballet companies, but I’m guessing the trends remain comparable.)
This adds an element of stability and safety (while reducing their dependence on individual donations), and I would argue allows them to take more risks in the programming and planning of their seasons. When money is tight, organizations play it safe, but art flourishes only when there is strong support and the possibility to fail.
4. Salary Type: Weekly vs. Monthly
As far as I know, this one is a clean split: if you work in America you’re paid weekly; if you work in Europe you’re paid monthly. These differences might seem inconsequential but they do have downstream effects.
Since American companies generally have a rougher time being funded, many cannot afford to pay dancers a livable wage throughout the whole year. Sometimes companies will have only a 30-week contract, and the rest of the time dancers will have to find another job or go on unemployment. This means that ballet seasons are often shorter in America, with a lot more free time. This can be great – more time for guesting, following other possible pursuits (yoga intensive, other jobs, camping), or even resting – but it can also make it harder to stay in shape, be financially stable, and can lead to less fulfilling seasons than we would prefer.
In Europe dancers work all-year-round, so staying in shape isn’t really an issue. In addition, there are often more chances to perform, and dancers are paid a livable wage throughout the year. But the fact that free time is harder to come by can lead dancers to take dancing for granted or to become disenchanted by being overworked. For example, many companies here in Europe have 13-month contracts. What’s that? It basically means that we get double pay for Christmas.
It also feels sometimes like we’re working 13 months out of the year. What was especially hard for me when I came over here to Europe was working for months on end without more than a weekend break, especially after my previous career in America where I had a week off after almost every production. And I’m sure making the switch the other way from Europe can be difficult in other ways as well. Adjusting to a new environment can be hard.
One last thing: cantines. Every company I’ve visited in Europe has a cantine attached to it. And none that I know of in America.
That’s a shame, because it can be pretty great to exit the studio, walk a few steps, order a hot lunch, pay a subsidized price, and have your friendly chef pass you your meal within minutes of finishing rehearsal. I’m not going to talk about pros and cons here. America is just missing out.
Of course, it helps to have a good chef who likes cooking, likes people, and knows what he’s doing. Way to go, Fred!
One last thing
So far I’ve been talking about differences. But here’s one thing that should make you happy, whatever your plan for the future is, especially because you’re reading this: The world of ballet speaks English. Pretty much regardless of which ballet company you join in Europe, if you speak English, you speak the common tongue. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to learn the language of the country you might one day move to, but rest assured that you’ll be able to communicate with your fellow dancers and artistic staff from day one.
The ballet world is, after all, much more full of similarities than differences.
Did I miss anything? Leave anything out? Do you disagree? Let me know in the comments, and if you like this kind of thing, you can subscribe by hitting the follow button below. I’m not much of a prolific dance writer, but if you get something out of it, then so do I. 🙂
2 thoughts on “Five differences between American and European ballet”
Again, thank you for writing, Lucas. I am not qualified to say whether you did or did not leave out anything important, but I’m betting NOT. As one who often felt as if we were working 13 months out of the year, I also like the concept of cantines. Cheers to Fred! Great to meet you at your parents’ home. Ongoing congrats.