Chapter 14, Claire Lonchampt: Dare to Follow Your Heart

Dancer with the Malandain Ballet Biarritz

Photo by Olivier Houaix

My name is Claire and I was born in Paris, France. I started dancing at the age of 6 and trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School and The National Conservatory of Paris.

I was 18 when I set out to audition for my first-ever professional dance contract. I was in my final graduating year and had just passed my Baccalaureate exam and driver's license, and as I was still in college it meant flying all over Europe to audition every weekend. I remember my parents would get up at 4 am to make sure that I'd catch my flight at 6 am in order to make the audition at 10 am in Berlin, and that was just one example! It was a tough year for me because on top of the weekend auditions, I also had a jam-packed weekday schedule. Waking up at 5:30 am, finishing school at 8 pm, arriving home at 9 pm, only to continue working on my studies. There were no days off! It was exhausting but when you have to do it, you do it and somehow without thinking.

As I attended more auditions, I was shocked to discover that most of the open auditions were filled with 400 other dancers coming from all over the world! It was difficult just being a number in the room and then not knowing why you were kicked out only after Pliès. It's a fragile time for any young dancer because you are still building your self-confidence and filled with doubts and insecurities. It was difficult persevering during this time and continuing to have the belief that I could make it even after 10 consecutive rejections with no reason. However, it did all finally off when I landed my first-ever 1-year contract with Zurich Ballet.

As I started my new life in Zurich, I found myself alone in a new country learning to adjust to life as a professional dancer without the support of any friends or family. After that first year, I found myself having to audition again as my contract was not renewed. This was not so easy working full-time as I could only audition in my free time or had to sometimes lie in order to audition elsewhere. At 19, I had no idea which company I wanted to go to, of course, I had my "dream companies" like the Netherlands Dance Theater, Dutch National Ballet, and Les Ballets de Monaco, the kind of places where I could potentially work on more neoclassical pieces. It was where I felt the most comfortable and what gave me the most joy. However, the reality is that it's not so easy to get a contract at these top places and as dancers, we usually end up wherever we can get a job!

For me, this was the Finnish National Ballet. I had never heard of the company before so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was a huge national company that comprised of around 80 permanent dancers housed in a beautiful and modern opera house. Finland, like many of its Scandinavian neighbors, received a generous arts budget which resulted in the company having one of the best repertoires in Europe. We had the opportunity to work with some of the very best choreographers in the industry and I was incredibly lucky to have danced pieces and lead roles by J. Kylian, O. Naharin, C. Spuck, U. Scholz, J. Elo, J. Neumeier, A. Ratmansky, J. Cranko, D. Dawson, M. Makarova, W. Forsythe, to name a few!

Though the repertoire was amazing, I had to also come terms with the reality of living in Finland. It was a country that was cold for 6 months of the year—with no sunlight! Not only was it just the weather but the environment and the city itself lacked warmth. The Scandinavian culture was far different from mine and over time I began to feel less happy. After around 3 years it turned into a kind of trauma whenever I would have to return to Finland from my holidays in France. I would miss and crave the French culture so much that as I continued with my life in Finland, the balance between my professional and personal life shifted and I decided that I didn’t want to live in Finland anymore. As I was about to fall into a depression I decided to not renew my contract, declining a life contract with the company. Though it wasn’t an easy decision to make, I was young and unhappy and my mental health had to come first. Turning down a life contract was a risk I was willing to take—even if that meant returning home jobless.

After Finland, it was my third time (season) auditioning and as I was a more experienced dancer I decided to do private auditions moving forward and only at the companies where I truly wanted to dance. To my surprise, I was offered 3 contracts: at the Victor Ullate Ballet, Scottish Ballet, and Dutch National Ballet! As Dutch National Ballet was one of my dream companies, I didn't hesitate to jump at the offer!

I loved the city, country, and my new colleagues. The atmosphere in the company was also very friendly and the Artistic Director, Ted Brandsen was accessible and nice to all the dancers. As I continued in the company, I grew very insecure and lacked confidence which created and resulted in a lot of stress. I had the perception that I was never fit nor good enough compared to my colleagues and even when the artistic staff was satisfied with my work, I would continue to think I wasn't up to par. The worst part for me was when we had to perform the classics such as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and basically any ballet where we had to wear pink tights and pointe shoes. From a very young age, the idea of the 'Perfect Ballerina' was taught as unattainable so even when no one complained about my classical skills, I began to resent these classical pieces. Again, neoclassical and modern were where I felt the most natural.

Things changed for me when I had the chance to work with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Sidi was an incredible artist, choreographer, and an incredible human being who was full of humanity. I was cast as a lead in one of his creations and it didn't take me long before I discovered how much I enjoyed working with a choreographer. This inspiring experience led me to my decision to leave the Dutch National Ballet. It was no longer feasible for me to stay in a big classical ballet company, I wanted to find a place where I could work closely with a choreographer again and be a part of the overall creative process. This was how I ended up auditioning for Malandain Ballet Biarritz.

I had known Artistic Director and Choreographer, Thierry Malandain for quite some time, since my days at The National Conservatory of Paris. We had danced one of his pieces in school and I remembered how much I loved his work and, in fact, I followed his works throughout my professional career. It was actually my third time auditioning at his company and it took three attempts for me to be successful!

The key: Be patient. Be in the right place at the right time!

My decision to leave the Dutch National Ballet probably seems crazy to a lot of dancers as many of them would do anything to get a contract there. It certainly wasn't an easy decision to make but I knew that deep down it was the right decision for me. As a dancer, you do get to a point in your career where you have to focus on what your heart wants regardless of your friends, colleagues, or parents' concerns. I left a big company along with all the stability that it offered (salary, roles, pension) for a much smaller one with less security (lower salary, no ranks, no pension). The only good thing was that it was in France! That being said, it's important to stay strong and true to yourself because only you will know what is best for your life. Looking back, I've never regretted my decision to move back to France.

The company dynamic here is like that of a family and it's located in a beautiful city. I can now honestly say that I feel truly fulfilled and happy in my career and life. Though we are only 20 dancers with no ranks, there is not one dancer that looks the same and each of us brings a unique quality, talent, and skill to the table. It's incredible how Thierry is able to combine our diverse qualities into one cohesive ensemble! It wasn't until I started dancing in Biarritz that I truly understood the meaning of the 'spirit of a troupe'. We tour frequently (6-months at a time) all across the globe so you really get to know your colleagues. I also learned what it means to create a trusting relationship with your director and how that relationship can continue to evolve in the creative process. I don't know anyone more human than Thierry and I feel so grateful to be a part of his team.

I can see that my journey to Biarritz involved a lot of experimentation and learning, especially the things that I did not enjoy doing. It was only through this process of trial and error that I realized what I wanted exactly in my career and life. The 'perfect' company doesn't exist. You have to find what suits you the most according to your personality, culture, skills, and priorities in life, and in order to do that you have to first learn who you are as a person. Have the courage to listen to yourself and to trust your own instincts—even if they go against the collective logic! Dare to experiment and make mistakes, the important thing is to not end up with any regrets!