Colleen Swihart; photo by Debra Gloria
Colleen Swihart, former student of Chamberlain Performing Arts in Plano, Texas, has been all over the map with a successful international career. Starting with Houston Ballet, she then worked for Ballet Memphis and State Street Ballet in Southern California. After working for three years in Dusseldorf with Deutsche Oper am Rhein, she recently retired from the Ballett Rossa in Halle, Germany. I met with Ms. Swihart this afternoon to get her insights into her diverse cultural rearing.
FWD - You started working in the States. What drew you to Germany?
CS: "I always liked Europe. I had teachers that encouraged me to go. They said I would be a good fit for a European company, and at the time I didn't really know what they meant. Anyway, I liked the culture, and I happened to be at the right place at the right time when I got the job in Dusseldorf. Looking back, I feel very lucky and blessed."
FWD - New York is considered the dance hub of the U.S. What did you enjoy about dancing on the West Coast with State Street Ballet?
CS: "Obviously the weather is beautiful! Location is huge. I also had a friend dancing there at the time, and it didn't feel like you were living or working there. It always felt like you were on vacation! But, it was a dream of mine to dance in Europe."
FWD - In your experience, what differences have you noticed between American and European audiences?
CS: "European audiences have this ingrained appreciation for the arts. In Europe, a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday matinee would be sold out, whereas in America, those same days wouldn't be as well attended. Also, in Europe, you can see a performance starting at 8 euro if you're a student, to 160 euro. Here, if you're going to the opera house, you can expect to pay 85 dollars to start. So, I think in Europe they make it more accessible, but America struggles with this. You know, America has football and these major sports, but unfortunately, I think the arts are neglected."
FWD - There is an on-going debate in dance academia about style i.e. Vaganova versus Cecchetti. Is there a method of teaching you believe encapsulates classical dance more than another?
CS: "If I had a daughter and I put her in ballet school, I would want her to study as many styles as possible, since learning different styles makes you a more versatile dancer. If you have an extreme style, for instance, very Russian, it can make it hard for a choreographer to use you. It's good that you have a solid base, and then experiment with additional styles."
FWD - I saw footage of Ballett Rossa performing the intriguing Carmina Burana, and Romeo and Juliet, but with an interesting modern twist. What was your favorite role you danced under the direction of Ralf Rossa?
CS: "Of course, Carmina, with the music of the orchestra and choir together is great. We had the choir on stage with us. A girl got injured and I got to do a solo in it. Another work was Nijinksy, and I got to be Nijinksy's wife. My partner, the lead principal, was great to dance with. When you do lots of partnering, pas de deux work, it makes for a more enjoyable experience."
FWD - While you were training, did you feel your body responded better to a certain style?
CS: "Well, I was so busy picking up and trying to learn choreography. We did some Kylian, where people from Nederlands Dans Theater came to stage his work for us and they were lovely people to work with. There are many hours of rehearsal and I enjoy the process. Some dancers look only at repertoire, whereas I look at the whole experience."
Swihart in Jiri Kylian's Petit Mort;
photo courtesy of Deutsche Oper am Rhein
FWD - With such an extensive career, you've had the opportunity to work with many choreographers. Is there a particular choreographer that inspired you the most?
CS: "Ben Stevenson is a great choreographer. This is a hard question because I don't want anyone to feel left out! Ralf Rossa I can say is a wonderful person to work with. Ralf trusts his dancers; he would tell us something, but then step back and give us the confidence to let us find our own way. Youri Vamos in Dusseldorf. I like how his version of Giselle had a different twist to it."
FWD - Speaking of choreographers, Germany produced the highly acclaimed modern choreographer Pina Bausch. What impact would you say Bausch has had on German companies?
CS: "I stood on the outside, and said to myself, 'Hmm, let me see for myself what this is all about'. Then I saw her company perform and I was blown out of the water. Every single dancer had 110% commitment. You might see another company that has one or two dancers on stage that look maybe like they are having an 'off' day. But not hers."
FWD - What was your greatest challenge as a professional dancer?
CS: "For a lot of professionals, it's that at the end of the day you're exhausted and your body is sore, but the next day, you still have to get up and do it again. You're in class from 10-2, break from 2-6, then rehearsal and performance from 6-9 or later. Sure, you have a four hour break for lunch, but can you really rest? It's not exactly like you can sit back and have a glass of wine. You squeeze in grocery shopping, take care of this and that. And if you have a demanding piece that night, it can be difficult. I don't know, maybe I'm a wimp."
I wouldn't say that. It's a grueling schedule.
CS: "I don't want to complain. I've had a really nice career and I'm so grateful. But unless you strictly are around ballet friends all the time, having a personal life can be a challenge. It can be done, but it takes a lot of extra effort."
FWD - Now that you're retired, have you considered any career transitions into teaching or directorship?
CS: "Not at all! When you're a director it's a very stressful position. To be a director or teacher, you have to have a passion for what you're doing, and I never really felt a calling for either. People assume that since I've been doing this since I was six that I'll want to stay in it and teach, but I'd actually like to try something completely new in a different field. You have to have a special eye to correct students, and I don't know if I necessarily have that ability."
I agree with you about having a special eye to correct students. I teach beginning ballet myself, and I enjoy it, but I would prefer not to focus on technique. I love giving combinations to advanced students. I'll let someone else clean up the dropped hip or pronated foot.
CS: "Maybe you can choreograph someday!"
FWD - I'd love to! What advice would you give to students considering a professional performing career?
CS: "Stick with it. Constructive criticism is one thing, but if you get negative feedback, take it with a grain of salt. Don't take something one person said like, 'Oh, you should lose five pounds', and get crazy with it. I think it's really sad how some directors and teachers speak to students. I don't think they realize that what they say to a young person can affect them for the rest of their life. In Europe, they're a lot harsher. The dance world is very subjective. One director may not like you because you're blonde, but then you'll meet another director somewhere else that loves you precisely because you're blonde. A dancer may have their dream company in mind, and if that company rejects them, they need to remember that not one company has authority over the whole dance world. Once I realized this, it made auditions fun. In fact, I likened it to looking for a boyfriend! You do your best, and even if one company doesn't like you, there will be another one who is right for you. Yes, you need to take corrections, but one person's opinion does not dictate to the entire dance community."
Ms. Swihart is getting married in Hawaii this September, and will be moving to England.
-July 27, 2011