Transition as an opportunity

The Zurich Ballet can look forward to great popularity and record workloads. As the largest employer for dancers in Switzerland, this is a reason to be happy and also gives the opportunity to help shape the future for dancers. Christian, you yourself have a very successful path behind you from dancer to choreographer and ballet director of the Zurich Ballet. How would you see your professional transition in retrospect?

Difficult. That was a very difficult time. At first I started my dancing career late. The exercise of the profession afterwards and in particular the step from dancer to choreographer was not easy either, because the profession of choreographer cannot be learned in this way. It’s less about taking steps than about working with people, with the dancers. The choreographer can only practice his art with other artists. That’s a process you have to learn. It can be a lot of fun, but it can also be very painful and difficult. Then there was the change to an even greater responsibility, i.e. to be a director. It’s all a lot of fun, but it also means a lot of work. That is the most important thing. Here I need the unbelievable discipline that we are taught as dancers. This discipline continues to this day. Also today this means that my day starts at half past six and does not end before 11 pm. Now it’s 11 o’clock and I haven’t had time for breakfast yet. But these are all things you have to accept. I believe that any form of transition or professional change can be difficult. But with enough discipline and openness it can also be something very fruitful and beautiful and a lot of fun. However, it is usually the case that there is a certain pressure to find a new position. A pressure to earn money differently and to live on in the quality you are used to or wish for. It’s not easy to deal with it, of course. But I have had the opportunity to experience that as well. Before the Stuttgart Ballet I worked for 2 years as a freelancer with a small company. I constantly had to write applications to get money to finance the performances and then somehow be able to pay the rent myself. I was allowed to experience it all myself and know what it means to be in transition.

Christian, where do you generally see challenges in professional transition for dancers?

That one deals with the topic too late and the transition is connected with a certain pressure or even with fear.

How present is the subject of transition for you in everyday life as a choreographer and ballet director? And how do you deal with it in the company? Are there differences, perhaps ambiguities or challenges of a special kind for you?

It’s always a topic for me and it keeps me busy too. I am glad that Oliver Dähler, managing director of SSUDK, has already been to Zurich Ballet twice with a workshop and I am glad that many dancers have taken part in it. With some dancers it is also the case that I ask them what they actually imagine in the future and trigger different reactions. Sometimes they are really bitter tears, because the dancing profession is very intensive and requires a lot of discipline and focus, so that a kind of fear arises. Sometimes there is a misunderstanding that you have to stop or leave. But my wish with these questions or suggestions is that the dancers think about it early enough and start to set the course. I know that there are some dancers in the company who, parallel to their commitment to the Zurich Ballet, are completing their A-levels or are doing correspondence courses. Dealing with the subject is very much connected with the personality of the individual. I think a lot has already happened worldwide with this problem. Many dancers want to stay in the theatre, and of course we try to find something for them. But I also have friends who have emigrated, founded a bakery chain there and now lead a completely different life. I also know some dancers who have completed banker training after their dancing career. This has a lot to do with the personality of the individual.

Is it therefore essential to remain curious and to discover and further develop one’s own diverse skills and competences early on?

I experience again and again that also future employers will decide in principle for a dancer, because dancers have a special discipline and charisma, a lot of experience and they are also able to deal with difficult moments calmly. The profession as a dancer brings along a lot of qualities.

What further training courses does the Zurich Ballet offer?

We cannot make any general offers, as these must be individually tailored to each person. So the moment a career comes to an end or the dancer is thinking about how to go on, we check. The dancers contact SSUDK for further advice and possible financial support. The main problem usually arises with the question of what he or she would like to pursue as a second career, because many have not even thought about it yet. I always try to find an interview and then recommend the dancer to a position that can offer individual advice, such as SSUDK.

This is precisely why it is so important that there is the Transition Center SSUDK project, which has been set up in German-speaking, Italian-speaking Switzerland and Liechtenstein since 2016 and has now been able to assist numerous artist in this regard. Where do you see improvement and solution approaches in the current situation for dancers in Switzerland and abroad?

I can’t say that much about that. I now think it’s good that the dancers have the opportunity to take their A-level in addition to their vocational training. During my time in Germany, you left after the 10th grade. A-levels and ballet did not go together. I find it very important that this becomes more and more possible and that the ballet schools encourage dancers from an early age to do something different on the side. I think that a different kind of attention has developed here. But of course there is still room for improvement.

The Transition Center SSUDK has been established with the support of foundations in recent years and talks are underway to see what possibilities exist for future funding. The start-up financing has taken place and now the next step has to be taken. Where do you see possibilities for support or solutions?

I think that politics and the canton have a duty to continue to secure funding and to support the SSUDK. I know from Germany that dancers* are entitled to unemployment benefits as “first aid”. However, I think that institutions such as the SSUDK, which offer long-term support, should also be supported by the canton. Although Switzerland was one of the last countries to officially recognise the dancing profession, it is currently the absolute trendsetter when it comes to professional vocational training schools for dance. There are many professional ballet schools supported by the canton. In my opinion, it would therefore be a logical step for the Transition Center SSUDK to be supported by the public sector. At least I hope so.

Numerous artists have already been advised by the Transition Center SSUDK and about 30 dancers have received financial support in their transition, where other funds were lacking. This shows the necessity of the Retraining Foundation SSUDK. However, it is still very important to pay sufficient attention to this issue. Where do you see your position here?

I also see this as our responsibility as an employer here at the Opera House, which is why I keep making plans for the future the subject of discussion, even though some dancers often don’t yet want to deal with them. The most important thing is to create an awareness of the transition topic to plan a second career soon enough.

The interview was conducted by Monika Gugganig.

Translated with

foto © Jos Schmid