Dance alumnae reflect on how UNCSA prepared them for careers with international ballet companies

Many ballet dancers are inevitably drawn to work and train outside of the United States. The artform is an established and time-honored institution in Europe and abroad, and careers with international ballet companies across the globe can expand dancers' skills, as well as their horizons. 

The work and training can also be quite rigorous. Fortunately for those who have studied in the ballet program at UNCSA, the skills they've developed have prepared them to meet that rigor. 

That's a point of pride for ballet professor Eva Draw. Draw joined the School of Dance faculty in 2015 after spending most of her professional life working in the very same European companies where many of her former students now dance (she estimates she's had students go on to nearly 70 percent of international companies). 

Our ballet program gives students the skills to compete on an international level ... And they all have a passion to succeed. That is essential to the talent itself. They are the driving force behind their own accomplishments.

Eva Draw

"Our ballet program gives students the skills to compete on an international level," Draw says. Combined with talent and hard work, she's not at all surprised that UNCSA alumni can be found in companies around the world.

"These dancers work hard," Draw says. "And they all have a passion to succeed. That is essential to the talent itself. They are the driving force behind their own accomplishments."

For five of her former students, those accomplishments include careers and training in Germany, Slovenia, Russia, the United Kingdom and Switzerland. Here, those alumnae share with us how their time at UNCSA prepared them for the international stage, along with their advice for other dancers who are considering pursuing careers beyond the United States.

Eleanor Broughton, School of the Hamburg Ballet

Eleanor Broughton studies at the School of the Hamburg Ballet in Hamburg, Germany. The Winston-Salem native attended UNCSA for nearly a decade before moving abroad in 2021 to continue her training. She began her studies in 2012 at 8 years old in the Preparatory Dance program, and studied in the high school program from 2018-21.

In 2020, Broughton competed virtually in the Prix de Lausanne, which led to an offer for her to study at the School of the Hamburg Ballet.

Eleanor Broughton dancing

Eleanor Broughton / Photo: Kiran West

On her time at UNCSA, Broughton says…
I am so grateful to all the teachers and faculty at UNCSA who guided and prepared me throughout my nearly 10 years there, and who helped me achieve this next step in my training. Without them and their wisdom and generosity, I would not be where I am today. I will always cherish and carry with me the relationships and memories I made, the lessons I learned and the knowledge I acquired while at UNCSA.

And on her studies at the Hamburg Ballet… 
One of the highlights of being at the School of the Hamburg Ballet is that the Hamburg Ballet company and school share one building called the Ballettzentrum (or ‘Ballet Center’ in English). At the Ballettzentrum, all school students and company members take classes and rehearse in the same place. It's very inspiring to see the professional dancers in rehearsals or even pass them in the hallway throughout the day and then watch them perform on stage that night.

Yaman Kelemet, Slovenian National Ballet

Yaman Kelemet is a demi-soloist with the Slovenian National Ballet in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Originally from Chicago, she graduated from the high school ballet program in 2017 (she attended for three years of high school).

Among the highlights of her time with the Slovenian National Ballet is the role she originated as Myrtle Wilson in Leo Mujić's adaptation of "The Great Gatsby," recognized by Dance Europe as a top premiere to watch in 2019.

Yaman Kelemet dancing

Yaman Kelemet

On starting her career, Kelemet says…
I remember feeling an overwhelming amount of uncertainty as I prepared to leap into a new and unfamiliar life as a professional dancer. When I actually started, however, it took very little time to realize that my experiences in school had more than set me up to navigate the industry. I was entering a company for the first time, but had already acquired the awareness, technical proficiency and mental approach necessary to not only stay afloat, but distinguish myself.

And her advice for pursuing an international career…
Do your research and ask questions. Each country and company might have different regulations when it comes to types of contracts, payments, insurance, etc. If you are offered a position, be sure you understand at least the basics of what you can expect from your contract so you can evaluate if it is manageable for you.

And believe in yourself! I have had so many other dancers reach out to me expressing their desire to dance overseas but feel trepidation about moving so far away. Sure, there might be some culture shock or episodes of homesickness, but we overcome so many incredible challenges over the course of our careers, that these don't end up feeling that daunting. If you have managed to secure a position in a company, you have done the hard work already and, in my opinion, can only benefit from an international experience!

Emma Knowlson, Mikhailovsky Ballet

Emma Knolwson is a corps de ballet artist with the Mikhailovsky Ballet in Saint Petersburg, Russia. She is from Charlotte, North Carolina, and graduated from the high school program in 2019, where she studied for three years. After graduation, she danced with the studio company of the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago for a year before receiving an offer to join Mikhailovsky Ballet (after a virtual audition).

Despite a lengthy visa process due to COVID-19, she was able to join Mikhailovsky in time for the premiere of Artistic Director Nacho Duato's "Swan Lake."

Emma Knowlson dancing

Emma Knowlson

On her time at Mikhailovsky Ballet, Knowlson says…
I was very lucky to receive my visa and move to Russia in time for the start of the season and the premiere of Nacho Duato’s "Swan Lake." The company usually performs two full-length classical ballets a week, with only a few days of preparation for each. Within my first three weeks, I learned and performed four different ballets. I really appreciate the training and foundation I received at UNCSA that prepared me to learn and adapt quickly. The work is challenging, but it is so rewarding to be on stage almost every day and to work in such a beautiful theater in a vibrant city that values and loves ballet.

And her advice for pursuing an international career…
Do your audition research. Many companies have video pre-selections for subsequent in-person auditions with early deadlines, so it’s important to plan ahead and be prepared with your materials. I have also found it helpful to prioritize auditions for the companies I think I am best suited for, as traveling for international auditions can be very difficult. There are also great resources for auditioning dancers such as Grand Audition, an organization created by David and Daria Makhateli, which allows dancers to audition for more than five leading international ballet companies simultaneously.

Aerys Merrill, Northern Ballet

Aerys Merrill is a dancer with Northern Ballet in Leeds, United Kingdom. She is from Richmond, Virginia, and earned her B.F.A. at UNCSA in 2018. In an interview with Pointe Magazine, she says she knew she wanted to join an international company even before she went to college. Merrill was offered a corps de ballet position with Northern Ballet after sending performance footage and being invited to take a company class.

Aerys Merrill dancing

Aerys Merrill / Photo: Caleb Ennis

On her time at UNCSA, Merrill says…
My time at UNCSA really prepared me for professional life, not only in the various dance classes that we had but also the extra-curricular programs. One was business perspectives, in which we learned how to prepare our resumes and dance reels. We learned about contracts and how to read them; we also learned about AGMA and the importance of a union. All that information was so helpful in the transition to professional life.

There was a time when some of us in the School of Dance collaborated with the School of Music and danced during one of their concerts, which was an unforgettable experience. Getting a glimpse into the music world, a world that dancers often collaborate with, was a treat. We attended rehearsals in their rehearsal studios and danced with them onstage instead of them being in the pit like most dancers are used to. I really enjoyed it.

The faculty prepared us so well for the professional world because they told us about their experiences and were so thoughtful and caring as they taught us. UNCSA is a special place, and I will always cherish my time there. It was the best four years of my life.

Daniela Thorne, Ballett Zürich

Daniela Thorne dances with the Junior Ballet at Ballet Zürich in Zurich, Switzerland. Originally from San Francisco, she studied for two years in the high school ballet program at UNCSA and graduated in 2020, while simultaneously training at the Dutch National Ballet Academy in Amsterdam. A highlight of her time at Ballet Zürich has been dancing "Emergence" by Crystal Pite.

Daniela Thorne dancing

Daniela Thorne / Photo: Altin Kaftira

On her time at UNCSA, Thorne says…
My time with Eva Draw at UNCSA primed me with the tools and knowledge I needed in order to enter a professional career in the ballet industry. Eva nurtured me with kindness and support as I was still a young girl, but also treated me like an adult about to enter the next chapter of her life. Inside the studio, the classes and corrections were tough, often requiring both physical and mental strength. However, outside the studio, I found I was able to blossom as Eva and the other teachers and mentors I had been blessed with showered me with love, making it clear that the thing they wanted most was to watch me take what they had given and offer their gifts to new audiences.

With these experiences, I was able to walk away from school and begin my career with a grateful heart, knowing that although the journey may not have always been easy, I was fortunate enough to have the support I needed to relinquish the fear of not being well enough prepared.

And her advice for pursuing an international career…
Just go for it. The idea itself, I can admit, is a little daunting but it is important to remember that ballet is a language itself, and one that we all speak. After living in Amsterdam, and now Zurich, I have come to realize that dancers everywhere are all just young artists with ambition and this drive that we all have is what inevitably ties us together. 

Although we can often find ourselves with little to no time on our hands, the importance of friendships and connecting with loved ones is something that I feel should be highly valued in terms of our health and wellbeing. I know that my transition from dancing in the United States to dancing in Europe would not have been nearly as smooth if I did not have such wonderful people around me. And for that, I am forever grateful.

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by Corrine Luthy

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December 22, 2021