Interview With Veronique Breen Highlights

Q: When did you actually start to dance and what was your journey until dancing professionally?

A: My very first ballet class I think I was seven and a half, almost eight years old. I was adopted, and when I was two and a half, I was too scared to look in people’s eyes. I was scared of everybody; basically I had not been introduced to people in general. Everything that was social was a huge stress. So my parents tried to put me into girl scout, but I think I was born a princess. I came back from a girl scout weekend, and all my friends were messy and sweaty but no, not me. It just wasn’t my thing–- I was going because I had to.

My sister had done some ballet, and they were like she’s old enough, why don’t we send her to a little once a week on Wednesdays when schools are done earlier and go take my classes. And I went in there, and I remember my teacher –– I have been in touch with her all the way till now, she just passed last year–-she would make us do our little butterfly stretch. I was lucky; I am hypermobile, so I did have a body that was comfortable with dance. So slowly she pushed me into doing once a week, to do twice a week, three times a week. When I was about nine and ten years old, she was like instead of one level, take more classes, take the lower level and the top level. So I would do three hours in a row, and I would go almost everyday.

And then, when it was time to switch to high school (In Europe we have six years of middle school and six years of high school) she told me there is a professional dance school in Antwerp. So that’s like an hour away from where I was living. They have auditions, so if you are interested in becoming a dancer, that would be the step to do it. And I was like “okay!” I didn’t even question it. I did this big audition and it was weird –- you are getting measured everywhere, even like the circle of your head, the size of your torso, your flexibility and everything. And I got in.

So I moved from home, and I was in new dorms. I had to speak a different language; I spoke French at home but in that part of Belgium we speak Flemish which is like Dutch. All my courses, everything I was learning in one language, was now Flemish. Thank goodness ballet is created in French, and that I understood. The first six months, I cried a lot. You know, you are eleven years old. I am also a year ahead; I finished high school when I was seventeen. But I went for it.

Q: What other companies have you been with along with the Dutch National Ballet and how long have you been in each?

A: It’s funny because people see that the Dutch National is the biggest company that I was with, and of course, if you even look at pictures of how I was in school, I was always the first one in my class; I always had 96 percent in my ballet class exam. Yet, I was one of the last ones to get a job. To go a little over about how does it work in the dance community and things that are not fair…

When you go for big auditions, you can look the part, you can have the technique, but you still may not be exactly what they are looking for. So I had a lot of those–- I was very tall; I am five nine. That doesn’t really fit many companies; most quarter ballet are shorter. That was one of the first issues that many smaller companies in France were not looking for somebody like me. And then I came from Belgium; I wasn’t French. You go to France for auditions, they are going to take the French first. I have very white skin and very dark hair. And sometimes, they want a blonde. All of those things made it so that I actually didn't get the job. It’s by luck that my school was invited to a big festival. There, there was an audition for a very small company called Les Jeunes Ballet de France. That’s based in Paris–– it no longer exists, they closed it. But, basically now you have a lot of those big companies that have the preparation towards being a real professional.

We were in Paris when I was seventeen, I moved all by myself with my big bag. I danced with that company for that company for one year. You just get a one year contract, but you travel. That allowed me to be exposed to the most amazing contemporary choreographers from Paris, France in general, but also from China, from Venezuela, from Cuba, from Norway, from all the countries that we went to and we would do a workshop. We would bring our own choreographer with the school over there. They would have a choreographer and they would choreograph something for us too. And then, we would bring that all at the end of the year, go back to that same festival, and dance internationally with all those schools that kind of bring the arts together. It didn’t where you came from. It was totally intense, totally underpaid. If you were showing any signs of tiredness, I think my director told me many times “Well, you think it’s easier you can go and work at McDonalds. I think they hire.” You know, you go go go go. The rehearsal wasn’t good enough at the end of the show. We rehearsed until one in the morning because the chorus line wasn’t perfect. And you just do it, because you are seventeen, eighteen, and you are hungry for that job, for that dream, for the opportunity.

And funnily enough, when we did the second festival, the director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders where I was in school, refused to take me in the company because I was too fat (I was 105 pounds) and was too much of a baby at the time. He is now an invited guest for that festival, and he is teaching us a class. He goes to my director at the time and says “Who is that girl?” My director goes, “She is from your country, she is from your school. Don’t you remember her?” “No, that’s not––” He did not recognize me because I have improved so much, working with all those different choreographers. Things were created on me, and that brings a certain boost to your way of moving. So then he hired me.

And I went to the Royal Ballet of Flanders for two years. I was stuck in the quarter ballet because I was the tallest in the entire company. And I didn’t like it there. It was not my dream place. I always wanted to go to the Dutch National Ballet, and every year I would spend a whole week in Amsterdam to go take the class with the company, and every year he would tell me “You are a baby. Come back when you have better technique. Come back when you have more of everything.” And I went every year to show myself.

Eventually, that third year, I got my contract as an éléve which is the lowest rank possible; I spent nine years almost with the Dutch National. Those are the only companies I went to. I did audition for different places. At the end of my career in Amsterdam, I was considering moving to a smaller company, something more contemporary, to be taken just as a person, and not just one of the quarter ballet/soloist and fitting in every little spot because it was convenient. But then I got injured. And that injury was the end of my career.

Q: How was life and routine like as a professional ballet dancer?

A: Now don’t forget–– I am a lucky one; I danced in Europe, where we do have a union, and we do have a little bit protection when it comes to schedules etc. We have a pretty good system. So, we never start ballet class before 10am, because the shows go on until very late. You wake up in the morning, you get yourself together, you go to the theater… and it’s fun because most people only enter the theater through the big front doors. We get to use the backdoor and the guy at the backdoor, they know you and they buzz you and go “Hey! How are you doing?” There is this backstage… that’s something I miss. Having all those connections backstage.

Then you go and get yourself into your outfits, you have your own little place in your dressing room, and that’s your place for the time you are going to be in the company. So, pictures, it’s a mess, there are tutus everywhere… You have an hour and a half minimum, most often two hour and fifteen minute class. Then you have a fifteen minute break, and you start rehearsals. Every week, you get the new schedule (pretty much for the week) because things could change, and we had different studios. So, the quarter ballet rehearsals are in the bigger studio and then at the same time they have other rehearsals for solo stuff. We always had the choice between two classes. So, if you didn’t want to have a specific teacher, you can take the class with the other teacher. I would choose the class by pianist. We had great teachers, but I had my favorite pianist, Olga. She could play anything. So if she was playing, I was taking that class. You are in your leotard all day, you have a goofy scarf and things to keep you warm. We had a room to go warm up and stretch and a little workout room. We had a green room we called it where you had couches where you could just relax. We had a physical therapist and a massage therapist, so you could go write your name quickly.

The whole company is in the main theater of Amsterdam, so there is a big cafeteria, where they make healthy lunches. You can go down, go have your cup of coffee, and come back. So then you spend your 10 to 6pm everyday at the theater. On Saturday, sometimes we are done a little earlier, but if there are more rehearsals and there are more shows, you are there seven days a week. Most of the time, you get the first week when the season starts to get just yourself put back together, or just mainly classes. Then, they start rehearsals. One month of rehearsals, before the first show. Once the premier is happening that same day pretty much, the next day you start rehearsing the next show. So it goes on.

I had moments…that is one of the reasons that eventually somebody gets tired is how I got injured. Eventually, I was dancing a Martha Graham piece, which is a totally different technique and very hard on the body. That was another thing I was very lucky; we danced five of the ballets from Martha Graham and I had the chance of dancing at the age of 22 “Lamentations”, where you all by yourself on stage with a bench and a pianist. That’s it. Having that entire audience just to yourself… you know you can be a soloist but you still have a quarter ballet behind you, you are not just you,: hat one stoplight. There is a lot of Martha Graham, and then you rehearse Swan Lake quarter ballet. So you go from barefoot to pointe shoes to loose hair to buns to french twit. You name it.

The shows, you finish at 4 or 5 o’clock. You get a little break to get dinner, and then the show starts at 8. So, around 6:30 you start putting yourself together. You have to do your own makeup and your hair unless you have a special character. Then you have a makeup artist to that for you. Otherwise, it is expected from a dancer to be able to do pretty much everything from hair, make up, and pointe shoes.

The theater is partially your home. You live there for many hours and you live with those other dancers a lot. It can be draining emotionally. You make amazing friends but you also make amazing enemies. BEcause at the end of the day, what matters is who is going to be on stage. You know, it's a competition. You win the prize of getting the tile, getting the piece, to be first cast: that's the prize.

Q: Have you witnessed or seen any racism during your professional career or even before that?

A: I was talking to a friend of mine about that. I’m like “I am the super white girl here.” And coming from Europe, and having danced in Paris where in history where ballet was created, there is a certain expectation, or a certain image that a ballerina has to be. So, being a white girl, did I realize from the start that there were things that were or normal, or not fair? No, it seemed to be that was what was expected: a white ballerina. You know, what else does it need to be? But coming from a family where we had kids from every nationality coming into my house, my parents would tutor them or metnor them, kids who didn’t have parents who would just spend the holidays with me… I never really thought of that as being weird–– it was the norm.

It was only when we did Swan Lake with the Dutch National and it was required to wear white pancake on our skin. I am white, I’m like “You want me to be more white?” And then my friend, Monique, she's black. She’s like, “If I put white pancake, I turn gray.” And she got really upset. And I am like, “Yeah, why do we have to wear pancake? Can we just be our own skin color?” That’s when I started realizing ballet has had that image that it wasn’t created for other colors. That there was a certain class, there was the royalty that was allowed to do it, there was a certain normalness to all of that. But, as we go through the changes, it should follow those changes, and it hasn't.

Finally, now we get black pointe shoes. Now, the pink pointe shoes are not the right color either. I am sorry, I am white, I am not pink. So my tights had to be a certain color–– I still had to pancake my pointe shoes. I never used the stain as they are because who wants shiny shoes like that, honestly. Like nobody. So, we would always put something on our shoes. The preparation of pointe shoes, to me, at first, was just, “I do it too to make it my skin color.” But it was so much more work to make it a different skin color. That it was somebody Asian, for somebody black, for any ethnicity; it was not inclusive.

Eventually, she sued the company because she did not agree. At some point, the director said that if you refused to put pancake on your skin, you would not be one of the swans. That was pure discrimination.

There is more to discrimination than racism in the dance world. Being a women, being part of the #MeToo, there is a lot of that. Being a certain size––being treated fat or not fat, having boobs or no boobs. Even in dance, a male soloist will earn more money than a female soloist. Because there are not as many guys; there are plenty of women to choose from. So, if they want to attract good dancers, they are going to give them more money. It’s not fair, but that is still in every job in reality, and in dance, we are not skipping that.

Q: As a former professional dancer, teacher, and current Gyrotonic Master Trainer and Gyrokinesis Pre-trainer and Instructor do you have any tips for young dancers in order to make the ballet world more inclusive, representative, and a safe place?

A: I think there is one thing that needs to change when it comes to being a teacher. Because that’s where it starts. It’s the teacher that’s going to attract that little girl that is going to have that dream of being that dancer and the ballerina. Don’t break that dream too soon. And it’s not because that somebody is not perfect at technique, that you have to break that dream and tell them that they can’t go and that they can’t. Because, taking a dance class might have nothing to do with being a dancer. It has everything to do, with giving you the presence, giving you the smarts, you’ve heard me say that.

What does ballet do to our brain? You work both sides of your brain whether you like it or not. You do it. You have music, you have counts, and you are moving your body, and then you have artistry. So you work every ounce of your being. That is creating smart people that can think for themselves. And with that, you can be anything you want.

The fact is, with my background, people ask me what degrees do you have: high school. I have a high school diploma, that’s it. Yes, now I have other certifications as an instructor and different techniques, but if I really go to what I go to school for: high school. However, the amount of years I have been a dancer professionally, that's dedication, that’s har work, that is weat. That allowed me to be paid more as a teacher. My first job as a dance teacher was in a high school. I got paid for grade four teacher instead of grade one. Because every four years in a professional company has a value of one year of university. Let’s face it: if I know dance, I know dance. I lived it; I slept it in sometimes. So it’s in my blood. Even if I don’t teach it for ten years, I will never forget how to dance. If there is something I can bring,what you learn in classes, is not just dance. It’s life skills. It’s how to survive, how to keep a straight face when the person in front of you is making you feel the smallest. How would you become a teacher? Would you do the same thing as some of your teachers? Or would you try to change that to make that kid in front of you not feel the way you did. Make them what to do more. Make them want to teach somebody else.

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