‘Germany is a fantastic place to live as a dance artist’
Having trained with the English National ballet, Dubliner Zoe Ashe-Browne now works for the Theatre of West Pomerania
Irish ballet dancer Zoe Ashe-Browne, who is based in Germany. Photograph: Dominic Harrison
Working Abroad Q&A: Each week, Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. This week, Zoe Ashe-Browne, from Sandyford, on working as a professional ballet dancer in Germany
When did you leave Ireland?
I left Ireland in 2006 when I was 16, for London. I was offered a scholarship to train as a professional dancer and it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I was very lucky to have my older sister in the city. She was also studying dance at the time.
Where else have you lived and worked?
Initially I lived and trained in London for three years, then in 2009 I made the move back to Ireland, briefly, to dance as a principal dancer for the National Ballet of Ireland. In 2011, I left home once more and worked between Denmark and London for two years. I eventually made my move to Germany in 2014. This time it was with my partner, Dom.
What took you to Germany?
We were both offered full time work in Theater Vorpommern, the Theatre of West Pomerania, which is situated in north-east Germany. It’s a fantastic place to live as a dance artist. We’re paid well and taken care of. I wish there was more opportunity like that at home.
Did you study dance in Ireland, and abroad?
I first began classes at age six in Windy Arbour with the Debbie Allen School of Dance and later with the Irish National Youth Ballet Company. My professional training all took place in London with the English National Ballet School.
Was it hard to establish a career as a ballet dancer?
Yes, honestly it’s extremely difficult to lock down good, consistent work. It’s expensive to audition, and it’s the most fickle process to have to put yourself through. There is no start or finish line, directors will make judgement calls on your face, body, even choice of clothing, so it can be really hard to get the initial foot in the door. I’ve been very lucky.
How did you get started? Did you get a big break that opened doors for you?
Working with the National Ballet of Ireland fresh out of school gave me amazing performance opportunities. I had main roles created for me in my second and third season and performed in places like the Gaiety theatre, Wexford Opera House and Cork Opera House. As a 20-year-old, it’s a huge thing to carry an entire narrative ballet and I’m so grateful I had those early opportunities to allow me the chance to artistically develop and get some creation and performance experience.
What has been your most memorable performance?
The closing night of Romeo and Juliet at the Gaiety in 2010. Everything about it was electric. I was so young and inexperienced, but I felt the entire audience was on my side. Working with such a talented, female choreographer (Morgann Runacre-Temple) on the production made it all very poignant.
Does your work involve a lot of travel?
I used to work for touring companies, so we’d be on the road the vast majority of the time, going from venue to venue and switching hotels every few days. It might sound glamorous, but it’s not. It is, however, a lot of good fun. Now I’m stationed in Germany and perform in the same four theatres throughout the year, so it’s a nice change of pace, but it doesn’t have the same highs and lows as a touring company.
Do you get to perform in Ireland? What have you coming up on your calendar?
Sadly, I haven’t performed at home since 2014. My last performance was Carmen with the National Ballet of Ireland and the Irish Chamber Orchestra in The Milk Market in Limerick. It was a fantastic night. My partner and I were dancing the lead roles and we held the show outdoors at dusk, so the energy was electrifying. The audience was up on their feet afterwards and Keith Wood, who’d been in the audience, came back to congratulate us.
My calendar is full right now with performances in Germany, teaching workshops at home and finding time to take a break in July, hopefully.
Are there any challenges you face in your work?
Finding beauty in the repetition. Our job is incredibly predictable and if you get caught up in how much you have to repeat yourself, it can drive you mad. I always try to find something new to discover in my morning training and in performances when we’re 20 shows into a run and still trying to make it feel fresh each night for the paying audience.
Facing aging is also particularly difficult. The longer you dance, the more you understand, but your body is degenerating, so it’s a difficult thing to wrap your head around – that your body and mind might only sync up in their understanding for a very short time. Restless Creature, a Netflix documentary about retiring New York City Ballet dancer Wendy Whelan is a wonderful example of what it’s like having to call it a day.
Do you think working abroad has offered you greater opportunities?
I hate to admit that it has. There are many people doing great things for dance in Ireland. But I always think that there is a common Irish attitude of “If you’ve left Ireland, then you’ve made it”, which denigrates the great work that goes on at home.
I’ve found that other countries are much more inclined to support their own dance companies and art in general. It’s a shame, and I’m hoping I can help to change that pattern one day, because we have so much home grown talent to be proud of.
What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career as a dancer?
I have so much to say on that topic, but to keep it brief I’ll just say it is important to find a good, qualified teacher early on, to establish your dance technique correctly. Humility and hard work are the ingredients that will propel you forward. Improving in dance takes a lot of time and dedication, so be patient but consistent with your practice. The dance world is so much more accessible than it used to be, so find the stuff that really interests you.
Are there any other Irish people in your business/social circles in Germany?
I have a very good friend and colleague working with me in Germany called Chris Furlong, who is originally from Churchtown. I love having a fellow Irish person with me. It can feel very lonely sometimes, and the cultural familiarity can really ground you.
What is it like living in Germany in terms of accommodation, transport, social life and so on?
The quality of living in Germany is fantastic. My rent is less than €500 a month including bills. Food in restaurants and supermarkets is reasonable. Transport is extremely affordable and reliable. The social scene is lively and eclectic. It’s a really incredible place to live and work. I was so shocked to come home for my winter break and hear my friends talk about the trouble they are having finding homes, meeting the rent increases, managing life’s general expenses in Dublin.
Where do you see your future?
My path has never been linear, so I suspect there will be a few bends in the road, but ultimately I see myself back at home, making a contribution to the arts scene with my network of fantastic friends and colleagues I’ve met along the way.
Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?
Friends and family, Dublin’s atmosphere, the culture, the landscape, the craic, the butter.
If you work in an interesting job overseas and would like to share your experience, email firstname.lastname@example.org with a little information about yourself and what you do.