Boris Richir, originally from Antwerp, Belgium, received his dance education at the Paris Opera Ballet School, one of the world’s top three dance schools. He started his professional career in 2009 when he joined the prestigious Semperoper Ballet in Dresden, Germany. In 2014, he joined the Boston Ballet followed by the Atlanta Ballet for the 2017/18 season.
Boris has performed soloist, and lead roles in a vast repertoire ranging from The Nutcracker to contemporary pieces such as the revolutionary ballets of W. Forsythe. Boris Richir appears in the 2012 filming of The Nutcracker of the Semperoper Ballet Dresden by ARTE.
In 2012 he became assistant director of ARTof Ballet Courses and masterclasses where he was responsible for the organization of high-level dance summer courses across Europe. During his career with the Boston Ballet, he worked closely together with their Adaptive Dance department where he developed a passion for inclusive dance education. In 2017 he founded United Dance.
We asked Boris to reflect upon his career transition.
Boris Richir: I have always been interested in how cultural institutions position themselves towards their audience. Some have a very community-centered approach while others aim to be more of an elitist experience.
They do this through their marketing, outreach, and choice of off-stage programming. Essentially all aspects other than their core activity of producing art. What makes you like a certain brand? Why is customer experience better in some places than others? How do organizations make you feel included and valued as an audience member, customer, or patron? These are all things that commercial brands take great care in developing and that we are slowly catching up on in cultural institutions. Look at the brilliant redesign of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden where prominent space is dedicated for outreach programs and audience interaction. I find this fascinating and while working in different opera houses have always tried to learn about those aspects.
At the Dresden Semperoper Ballet, a friend and colleague Oleg Klymyuk wanted to start a summer course with then-first soloist Fabien Voranger. They needed someone fluent in English, French, and Dutch to answer emails. That’s how I started to work for ARTof. Over the years I had more responsibilities and I really enjoyed being stimulated in a different way.
When I saw the Boston Ballet Adaptive Dance program I knew I wanted to bring it to Belgium as there is nothing like it in Europe.
Boris: The actual courses were in between seasons during our summer breaks. During the season I would work evenings after rehearsal and during the weekends.
Boris: When I moved to Boston it was very interesting to see a dance company operate in a commercial way. Companies in the USA get little to no state funding and have to make their own money through ticket revenue, donations, and having their own amateur and pre-professional dance schools. It was interesting to see how they worked even though I do think the European system is much more conducive to creating art.
I had never seen a dance company with full education and community outreach that offered regular dance classes. One of those programs is the Adaptive Dance Program which offers dance classes to individuals with Down syndrome. They had asked a few company dancers to come and take part in those classes and I immediately loved it. It was amazing to share our love of dance with people who not only enjoyed it but who also could benefit from it on a physical and mental level. It gave me the same joy and challenge as being on stage. I became more involved with the program as a dancer and teacher. It was really the teaching aspect of it that interested me and not the administrative side of the program. That’s what pushed me to create United Dance.
Boris: Running a company like United Dance was never something I was actively preparing for. I have been injured a lot during my career and those times make you contemplate other paths and things that interest you. When doctors tell you your dancing career might not last long or when you’re in a lot of pain you start exploring new options. I think it is important to keep an open mind and be interested in things other than dance.
When I decided to stop dancing I didn’t go to class for a year - I was very much done with it. It was a relief not to have to deal with company politics, body aches, and the many things that are part of company life that overshadow the actual dancing. It was also time to focus more on my private life.
It was definitely hard to stop because being a dancer is an intricate part of who you are from a very early age. You start to ask yourself who you are. After a year I began to slowly get back in shape and am now dancing in a few projects that really interest me. Today it is nice to be focused on projects that I can personally choose and am passionate about. My main focus right now is developing United Dance.
Boris: When I saw the Boston Ballet Adaptive Dance program I knew I wanted to bring it to Belgium as there is nothing like it in Europe. I adapted it to a one-week format and together with different teachers and health care professionals we created our own program. This curriculum is fully ours and works very well with our participants as it gives them the joy you feel when dancing, gives them the opportunity to truly be themselves, and gives them mental and physical benefits.
I want to give our participants the best possible, fully tailor-made, dance courses. It is equally important to me to give them and their families an exceptional all-around experience. That is why I want every aspect of United Dance to be a seamless, welcoming, and high-end experience. A place where you don’t have to advocate, or fight for your child, and where we adapt to you and not the other way around.
With my experience in running dance courses with ARTof and my involvement with the ECI department of Boston Ballet, I gained valuable skills to cover every aspect of running an organization like United Dance. I especially learned what works and what doesn’t. I listened to the advice of people in my surrounding and contacted organizations who advise cultural institutions like ours and then decided on what our business structure should be.
We founded a non-profit and held our first very successful course in July 2018. I quickly received a demand from parents and youth and young adults with Down syndrome in different countries who asked if we were planning on expanding to new locations. This is how we grew from one to seven locations in a year.
We have two different branches of our business, the nonprofit European branch and the American branch where we operate under the umbrella of a fiscal sponsor. I am fortunate to be surrounded by an exceptional team of teachers, musicians, advisors, health care professionals, and a supportive family. We now have courses in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Atlanta, Boston, Burlington, Genval, New York City, and Paris. We are planning to open two new locations in 2021 and will increase our presence in our current locations.
I love the freedom of running my own organization, I get to bring together all the areas that interest me.
Boris: When founding United Dance I knew I wanted to give our participants what every professional dancer dreams of having: great musicians, a professional class, seasoned teachers, and the best possible surrounding.
Our community of participants constantly has to advocate for themselves and are not used to being welcomed in tailor-made programming in prestigious institutions. With this in mind, when we decide to open a new location, we look at the best possible studio space and dance institution in each city. For example, in Amsterdam, that is the Dutch National Ballet, in Paris the Paris Opera Ballet School and in New York City the New York City Center. Some of them (mostly in the USA) might rent out their studios to outside organizations such as ours and we have a traditional rental contract with them.
With most of our institutions such as the Paris Opera, Dutch National Opera & Ballet, or Emory University in Atlanta we have different types of collaborations or partnerships in place. These institutions usually do not let other organizations use their studios. I contacted them and presented United Dance as well as our goals for our participants. I think we have a great mission that resonates with people. We then discuss possible arrangements and collaborations or partnerships that work best for both parties. It is a testament to the open-mindedness and the generosity of these historic institutions that they welcome us within their walls.
We aim to continue fostering these established relationships with organizations that share our values.
Boris: Realize that you have cultivated more skills than you think during your career. Take a moment to reflect on what you’re interested in. It is hard to find something that will replace dance and the passion you have for it. But it doesn’t need to be a replacement. Find something that you have been interested in or that you are curious about. We all decided to start dancing professionally at a very young age. I think it is normal to be insecure at first and to take some time (even years) to decide what you want to do.
If you want to start your own business, pinpoint your strengths and the areas you’re less familiar with. A ballet company has a wealth of information. Get advice from the people who work in administration on marketing, fundraising, grant raising, and so on. If you are interested in creative jobs, spend some time with the costume department for example. I found that when you have been respectful and friendly during your time in a company, everyone is more than willing to share their expertise.
There are many organizations out there to help budding art organizations and non-profits that offer help pro-bono. If you’re in the USA, you might want to consider fiscal sponsorship at first. Don’t be afraid to spend money on getting good advice and on assistance in the areas of running a business you’re not familiar with. You will end up saving money in the long run as you won’t make costly mistakes.
I love the freedom of running my own organization, I get to bring together all the areas that interest me. Foremost, I enjoy teaching our courses and I hope that through United Dance I am able to make a small difference in the lives of youth and young adults with Down syndrome and their families.
Top image by Wim Robberechts