Skilled American Labor Heads Oversees, in Toe Shoes


ON Nov. 22 Armando Braswell, a young dancer who graduated from the Juilliard School late last month, put down a $547.63 wager on his future. That bought him a plane ticket from Kennedy Airport to Milan and back again, via Amsterdam. His classmate Bryna Pascoe made a similar bid, but her plane ticket cost $30 less. The goal of both journeys was the same: to make the leap from being a dancer with grand ambitions to being a dancer with a job.

  Mr. Braswell, who had never been to Europe, and his fiancee, Lisa Resuta, arrived in Milan on Jan. 5, a few hours after Ms. Pascoe. A foster child who was homeless at 17, Mr. Braswell had been taught that life was simple: you work where you are, and then you die. Now he found himself standing beneath the soaring stone arches of the central train station in Milan, where he would never have been were it not for dance. ''The whole thing was a dream,'' he said. ''I couldn't believe it was real.'' Until things started going wrong, that is.

Mr. Braswell and Ms. Pascoe are among a growing wave of young dancers seeking work outside the United States. Juilliard, the conservatory of dance at Purchase College and New York University's Tisch School of the Arts all report that in the last few years growing numbers of their graduates are seeking work abroad: a smaller, more elite version of the college tours that high school students make. The trend is most pronounced at Juilliard, perhaps the nation's pre-eminent dance conservatory and a school with especially deep European roots. In the late 1990's only a few students at Juilliard went to Europe. Now it has become something of a tradition. In January fully half of the graduating class went overseas to find work. It is a sign not only of the deepening globalization of the dance world but also of some larger malaise in American dance.

  In some ways expatriation is an obvious choice. While many American dance companies scramble to stay afloat, Europe is stocked with stable and respected companies buoyed by state funds. And a generation of Americans has successfully come of age there. Gerald Tibbs, who was born in Richmond, Va., and attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, now directs Nederlands Dans Theater II. John Neumeier, born in Milwaukee, is the artistic director and chief choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet. William Forsythe's new company is based in Frankfurt and Dresden.

  Others have worked abroad and returned home. Jim Vincent, the artistic director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, danced with Jiri Kylian's Nederlands Dans Theater and Nacho Duato's Compania Nacional de Danza in Spain. Juilliard, Purchase, Tisch and the North Carolina School of the Arts all have dance teachers who have worked abroad. Combine this with the volume of European choreography now on view in the United States, and the distance from Hartford to the Hague seems downright manageable. Over the last eight years 7 percent of the 1,764 people who have auditioned for Nederlands Dance Theater II were Americans, and about two-thirds of them were from Juilliard.

  ''It's an exciting time for cross-fertilization,'' said Wendy Perron, the editor of Dance Magazine. ''If you wanted to be a dancer in 1969, you came to New York. That's not true any longer.''

  There is a sense, at Juilliard and elsewhere, that the era of great American dance has passed. Europe, in contrast, seems a fertile ground for new work, especially in contemporary ballet. Most American dance companies are either modern groups that have sprung from the vision of a founding choreographer or classical ballet companies. This division leaves little room for a dancer who wants to work on a varied repertory but doesn't want to prance through ''The Nutcracker'' every year.

  There is also the question of respect. ''Our advertisements are next to billboards of movies,'' said Corey Scott-Gilbert, a 2005 Juilliard graduate who dances at the Lyon Opera Ballet.

  On a purely pragmatic level, it's hard to beat a 13-month contract with health insurance and six to eight weeks of paid vacation, the norm at many European companies. In the United States, even landing a coveted company gig is no guarantee that you won't have to take a second job at, say, Starbucks to make ends meet. National statistics are hard to come by, but in 2002 and 2003, Dance/USA, a service organization for dancers, surveyed Washington and Chicago and found that fewer than 5 percent of the 444 dance companies in those two cities offered steady, salaried positions. About half did not pay their dancers at all. Even prominent choreographers have chosen to work project-by-project rather than struggle to support a company year after year.

  ''We talk about what's available in the United States,'' said Lawrence Rhodes, the director of Juilliard's dance division. ''The truth is, there's a lot less. There's Cunningham and Taylor and to some small degree Graham and some projects that go on. There aren't that many real concrete jobs.''

  More than anything, perhaps, Juilliard has taught its dancers to believe that they deserve a life in dance. Like their classmates, Mr. Braswell and Ms. Pascoe still hope to be both artists and people. ''I expect nothing less than someone who sits behind a computer,'' Mr. Braswell said. ''We want to get paid. We want to be real people. In Europe you get that. Here you don't. It's a real job there.''

  Mr. Braswell's first problem in Italy was missing the train from Milan to Reggio Emilia, the hometown of Compagnia Aterballetto, -- a troupe both he and Ms. Pascoe had dreamed about dancing with since the company performed in New York last year. When he and Ms. Resuta finally boarded an hour later, the couple next to him kept asking him to say ''Reggio Emilia'' and then giggling. ''Every one stares at me because I'm a black guy with a leather bag,'' he said. ''Every black person I saw was in the kitchen, a construction worker or some crazy guy in the street. I'm with all these white girls who are really pretty, and they were probably confused.''

  His next problem was food. European gastronomy did not agree with him, and on his second day in Italy, he woke up vomiting every last remnant of the steak with peppercorn sauce he had eaten for dinner. This shaky situation prompted him to swear allegiance to McDonald's for the rest of the 12-day trip.

  While waiting for the morning bus to Aterballetto's studios at the Fonderia, a converted 1930's foundry at the edge of the town's center, he stood by a trash can, throwing up between cigarettes.

  An impressive structure of metal and glass, the Fonderia is laid out like a Romanesque cathedral. After class they watched a rehearsal. At one point a puppy ran into the studio; later there was a baby. ''There are people that live and work there and have a life,'' Ms. Pascoe said.

  Mauro Bigonzetti, the artistic director, asked them to improvise. He liked what he saw. ''They are ready,'' he said in a later interview. ''It's not just the feet, the legs, but the brain is ready to work.'' He told them the first contracts that became available would be theirs. They left expecting a call in March.

  From Reggio Emilia, they traveled to Lyon, where they stayed with Mr. Scott-Gilbert and marveled at his apartment: So affordable! So many windows! Such cheap wine! They took class each morning with the Lyon Opera Ballet.

  Then Ms. Pascoe headed to Saarbrucken, Germany, to audition for Marguerite Donlon's company, and Mr. Braswell went to Munich to audition for Ballet Theater Munich.

  That night he had fajitas with the company at the house of Loni Landon, a Juilliard alumna now in the company. ''I was over auditioning and being rejected,'' he recalled. ''It was a party city for me. I bought sneakers.''

  On Jan. 14 he and Ms. Pascoe reunited in Amsterdam, where they and a number of their classmates auditioned for Nederlands Dans Theater II. Ms. Pascoe was in an audition class with 55 people, and she felt that she was never even seen. Mr. Braswell, clad in bright red, was sure he had balanced longer, turned more and jumped higher than anyone around him. Then he was cut. ''It was the first time I felt good and got cut,'' he said. ''That was my introduction to 'They want who they want; it doesn't matter how well you dance.' That broke my spirits.''

  They came home, exhausted but flush with civilization, believing they had tasted a culture older and perhaps wiser than their own, a magical place where even cabdrivers go to the opera. And they thought pleasant, quaint thoughts about heading off into life with a single suitcase and shopping for vegetables at open-air markets; about trading extra-big bathtubs for affordable medical care; about living in a small, old place but dancing in a big, light one.

  By spring, depression had set in. March had come and gone without the much-anticipated call from Aterballetto. Mr. Braswell and Ms. Pascoe kept auditioning. Meanwhile Juilliard had become a binary society: those with post-graduation gigs and those without. Mr. Braswell and Ms. Pascoe were without.

  ''It's all in vain,'' Mr. Braswell said. ''It's: 'Am I tall enough this year? Short enough? He doesn't like my hair, my shirt.' This is depressing.''

  His gloom lifted around 10 a.m. on May 4 when, in the middle of acting class, his BlackBerry buzzed with a new e-mail message, offering him a contract at Ballet Theater Munich.

  ''Finally I'll get paid to dance,'' he said. The class cheered for him. (So did his fiancee, who supported him through school; now they plan to switch roles.)

  And then came the rush of reality. Mr. Braswell had to prepare for his graduation, marry Ms. Resuta as fast as possible (which he did last weekend), pack, find an apartment in Munich, book a plane ticket and figure out how to pay for everything, all before starting work on July 1. There were many things the couple still didn't know: How far would his salary, 2,300 euros a month before taxes, go? What would it be like to live in a really clean city? And his German vocabulary? Nein, danke. He also had an offer with the Stephen Petronio Company, but the Munich offer was far more generous. ''It's, like, triple the money,'' he said. ''And I need a root canal.''

  ''The work I love is not here,'' he added. ''Do I owe America?''

  Meanwhile Ms. Pascoe remained marooned in a mess of half-solutions: a project here, a project there, the dreary prospect of having to take a nondance job looming larger with each passing day. Then on May 23 she got an offer from Saarbrucken. Still she waited, hoping against hope that she would find her way back to Reggio Emilia. A week later she did: Aterballetto called, offering her a contract. She accepted.

  Suddenly, what had been a very nice idea became terrifyingly real. ''I'm moving to Italy alone,'' she said. ''It's bewildering.''

  At press time, 10 of the 20 dancers in Juilliard's class of 2006 had arranged stable, paying work with dance companies, four in the United States (Pilobolus, Doug Varone, the American Repertory Ballet in New Jersey and CityDance Ensemble in Washington), two in Montreal (Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal and La La La Human Steps) and four in Europe (Munich Ballet Theater, the Donlon Dance Company, Nederlands Dans Theater II and Aterballetto). One, Austin McCormick, planned to start his own company; three had freelance work lined up; three were still looking for work; two were undecided; and one planned to go back to school for video game design, while dancing with LaDiego Dance Theater, a small company in San Diego that pays only for performances.

  As with most true stories, this one's ending is neither entirely happy nor entirely sad. Within Europe, government subsidies, though still large by American standards, have been on the decline, and some arts administrators are studying the strategies of their American peers.

  Even the Dutch government, which has a long history of largess, has started to encourage ''cultural entrepreneurship.'' Erik Pals, the marketing and communications manager of the Nederlands Dans Theater, started a business society in 2004 to draw in some private money.

  Mr. Braswell's prize will last only one year. In 2007 Ballet Theater Munich will cease to exist, at least in its current incarnation. The company is part of the Gartnerplatz state theater, and in 2004 the German government cut the theater's budget by 1 million euros. Last summer a new theater director was appointed, and not long after that Philip Taylor, the director of Ballet Theater Munich, decided to leave the company he had spent a decade building. ''The new boss is very commercial,'' he said.

  Uncertainty, as Mr. Braswell and Ms. Pascoe have started to learn, is a staple of a dancer's life on both sides of the Atlantic. Now they, like their peers, will see where the roads they have chosen take them, understanding already that they may not lead to places they had imagined, nor even desired.