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Ballet Under a Star: Ballet Quad Cities’ New Artistic Director, Steve Beirens PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Dance
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 29 August 2007 02:55

When Ballet Quad Cities Executive Director Joedy Cook was looking for a new artistic director earlier this year, she quickly rejected Steve Beirens.

"I would get all these résumés," says Cook of her search to replace Matthew Keefe, the company's artistic director for the 2006-7 season. "And I'd watch the DVDs they sent, and I would have all these little piles. And Steve went into this ‘no' pile."

A native Belgian and former principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, the 36-year-old Beirens began studying dance at age 12, as a student at the National Ballet School in Antwerp, Belgium. In Europe, he performed with the Recontres Internacionales de Baule and Le Jeune Ballet in France, and the Zürcher Ballet in Switzerland; in the United States, he appeared with the Tulsa Ballet, the L.A. Chamber Ballet, and the New Mexico Ballet Company.

With two decades of professional dance on his résumé, Beirens appears to be the sort of candidate that any ballet company's executive director would want to hire on the spot. Except, perhaps, Joedy Cook.

Beirens and Cook laugh, as they do throughout a recent interview. "That's the joke we have," Beirens says. "When she called and told me [I had the job], I started laughing. ‘Well, isn't that funny! I went from the ‘no' pile to the ‘yes' pile!"

 

Tree-Climber

Growing up in Brussels, Beirens remembers the first time he was intrigued by dance, when he picked up his younger sister from the ballet studio she was rehearsing in. It wasn't a performance that interested him, he says: "It was more the girls. I wanted to be around the girls."

But that was where his interest ended. "I was a soccer player," says Beirens of his pre-teen years, "I was vaulting on horses, I was skiing, I was mountain biking. ... Never had it crossed my mind to dance." However, it did cross someone else's mind.

"I needed some discipline in my life," he says. "I was kind of a tree-climber, a boy out in the streets getting in trouble - being a boy, you know - and my mom knew this art form would teach some discipline. She was like, ‘Okay, we'll send you to auditions for professional [ballet] school, and it's going to be your job.'"

His parents had him try out for Antwerp's National Ballet School, and with only a few openings available at the prestigious boarding academy - and some 200 children auditioning - 12 year-old Beirens made the cut. "And it became my job," he says.

Beirens quickly discovered a knack for the art form. "I never knew I had the talent," he says. "And after a week, two weeks being in the school, and being around the dancers - being around the girls and partnering the girls - I discovered I had the talent, and I started to love it. There wasn't one day that I was in school [when] I told my mother, ‘I want to get out of here. I don't want to be a dancer.'

"I never wanted to go back home," he says with a laugh.

After five years of study and performance in Antwerp, the director of a Paris ballet company saw the 17-year-old Beirens in a graduation-year dance, and offered him a season-long contract - and his first involving pay. "It was a great experience," he says, "because I performed all over the world. We were in Paris for three months, and then we were on the road for the rest of the year. We went to Africa, we went to South America, and Asia ... . We went all over the place."

For the next half-dozen years, Beirens performed with numerous European companies, his professional career only interrupted by an eight-month stint in the Belgian military at age 23. ("I postponed for five years," he says of the mandatory service demanded of 18-year-old Belgians. "They only let you postpone for five years. But I had jobs [at 18]. I was out of the country.")

Despite his success at home, Beirens was hoping to work abroad. "When you're a dancer in Europe," he says, "you always want to come to America. And vice-versa. American dancers? They want to go to Europe."

And the opportunity to work in America presented itself in the summer of 1994, as a principal dancer for dancer/choreographer John Clifford's fledgling company, the Los Angeles Ballet.

"So I signed a contract and came to the States," he says, "and never got paid. For three months. And that was my first experience of dancing in America."

 

I'm on Vacation

Steve Beirens Leaving Europe wasn't necessarily an easy decision, as Beirens says that professional dancers in Europe "get paid 13 months out of the year. Not 12 months. Thirteen months. You get vacation money; you lay on the beach and your paycheck comes in. There's a security in Europe, because our [arts] companies are government-funded."

As any artist knows, though, money is rarely a chief concern. Beirens says, "You don't become a millionaire being in [dance], that's for sure. Unless, back in the day, you were Nureyev or you were Baryshnikov. ... They became famous because in that era, nobody could do what they were doing. These days, there's so much more competition out there. It's very hard, so you've really got to love what you're doing in this business, because you will not get rich by it."

Regarding the chance at his first American job, Beirens says, "I got the opportunity out of nowhere. I just came to America to visit friends in New York, and a friend said, ‘Oh, they're starting a new company in Los Angeles, and they're looking for dancers, and I think you'd fit that company.'"

Beirens was interested yet, at the time, wary. While in New York, he says, "I had nothing with me - I didn't have a photo or résumés ... nothing. So we called John [Clifford], and John said, ‘Oh, just make a tape.' And I'm like, ‘I haven't danced for three weeks and I'm gonna make an audition tape? I'm on vacation!'"

Yet Beirens secured a New York studio for the videotaping of an audition - "I just did a variation and sent it out to L.A.," he says - and after a few days, returned to Belgium.

"By the time I flew back from New York," he says, "I had a contract in the mail."

After three months, though, Clifford's company folded. Yet Beirens didn't have long to wait for employment, as word of his residency in the states quickly spread; within weeks, he received an offer to join Chicago's Joffrey Ballet as a principal dancer.

"When I was in Europe," says Beirens, "and I was thinking of coming over to the States, it was one of the companies that I wanted to dance for, because of the reputation they carried over to Europe. It was the same as American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet. ... Those are the companies in Europe [where] you go, ‘If I can become a principal in one of those companies, I've made it in my career.'"

He spent six years with the Joffrey Ballet, but was forced to end his tenure in 2001. "I had knee surgery," he says, "and I couldn't really perform anymore on a back-to-back basis - the two shows a day, and the vigorous schedule we had with the Joffrey. My body couldn't handle it any more."

Beirens found himself at a crossroads. "I wasn't sure if I wanted to dance anymore," he says. "I wasn't sure if I wanted to stay in the business. I was sick and tired of dancing in pain, having to take painkillers before I danced - waking up in the morning and feeling like a 60-year-old and I'm in my late 20s."

He left the Joffrey for more sporadic work at ballet companies across the country. "I decided to freelance," Beirens says, "so I could do my own schedule, pace the year out." Yet eventually, even that proved too physically taxing.

"I finally decided, ‘No more. I want to pass my experience that I have on to students, and hopefully, down the road, get a job as artistic director and help a company grow.'"

 

Longshot

At roughly the same time, in the Quad Cities, Cook was putting résumés in piles. "By the end of March," she says, "we had over 70 applicants. We were very overwhelmed. And pleasantly surprised." And Cook and Beirens both remember the day she landed upon his application.

"One Saturday, I got like seven résumés, and Steve's was one of them," she recalls. "And almost all of the candidates had sent in a DVD or a video of their choreography, and Steve didn't. So I called him and I said, ‘Hi. I got your stuff and I'm really interested in knowing more about you, but it looks as if you have no experience with choreography.' He's like, ‘No, no I don't ... .' And I said, ‘Well, all right. Thank you. Bye-bye."

Cook roars at the recollection, but Beirens verifies that she isn't joking. "That was the conversation," he says. "I'm like, ‘No, I didn't do any choreography,' and she's like, ‘Okay. Okay, bye.'" As the weeks passed, however, Cook still hadn't found an ideal candidate, and Beirens, for his part, still hadn't heard a definite "no."

About a month after their initial, brief phone conversation, Beirens e-mailed Cook, asking if she had hired an artistic director. Cook admitted that she hadn't but told him that she did call his references - "great references," she says - and the two agreed to schedule an in-person interview.

A four-day in-person interview. Beirens met and spent time working with the company's dancers, saw the group in performance, met Ballet Quad Cities' board of directors, and four days later returned to his wife Tiana (a professional ballet dancer herself) in Los Angeles.

"Tiana thought I was hit by a bus," Beirens laughs, "because I was so drained. So tired from four days of intense interviewing; basically every hour of the day I was booked with another person."

However, he continues, "I really felt satisfied with the interview process, and I said to my wife, ‘If I get the job, that would be fantastic.' But I knew it was a longshot, because I never had the experience of really leading an entire troupe."

Cook, though, says that Beirens' lack of choreographic know-how wasn't as big a detriment as many might think; Ballet Quad Cities' first artistic director, Johanna Jakhelln, didn't originally have any, either.

"Steve said to me, ‘If no one ever gives me a chance, how will I gain experience?'" Cook recalls. "I just started thinking about that more and more, and I thought, ‘I've done this once with Johanna, and it was a fabulous journey.'"

Aiding her decision to hire Beirens was the connection she felt with him upon their first meeting. "It's hard to explain, really," Cook says. "We were very relaxed. ... We were very much ourselves."

Beirens agrees. "It was weird. I showed up, looked at Joedy, she looked at me, and we were like, ‘Have we met before? Do we know each other?' We hit it off really well right away."

Cook and Beirens believe the company's board of directors recognized that connection, and a couple of weeks after the applicant's Quad Cities visit, Cook called to tell Beirens, "Your dream has come true."

Since his arrival a month ago, Beirens has had the opportunity to direct members of Ballet Quad Cities in a pas de deux from Arthur Saint-Léon's Coppélia - which he staged for August's production of Ballet Under the Stars - and was quickly reminded of the difference between dancing and directing: "I have to learn to really enjoy the work I put up there," he says with a laugh. "The scary part of being away from the stage is once the dancers are on stage, it's out of my control.

"But when the company does a great show," he adds, "it's the same satisfaction I [would] get if I would have done the show as a dancer. Even when I was dancing myself, I was more satisfied with helping another dancer grow."

Beirens will have plenty of opportunities to do so this season, as beyond his artistic-director duties, he will re-stage and, he says, "freshen up" Jakhelln's original choreography for December's The Nutcracker ("my first big challenge," Beirens calls it), followed by a piece for the company's Dance Piano Extraordinaire in February, and a full re-mount of Coppélia in April.

"I'm happy and I'm grateful that I had a great career as a dancer myself," Beirens says, "but I was always more intrigued in getting a company to move forward - getting a great show out of a company. And when I got the call for this job, I was the happiest man in the world."

 

Information on Ballet Quad Cities 2007-8 season, beginning with the October 19-21 production of Dracula at Davenport's Capitol Theatre, is available at (http://www.balletquadcities.com).


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