Dancer, choreographer and brand ambassador Zoë shared her dance journey with us.
I suppose it’s good to start this piece about my dance journey off by introducing myself in the present. I’m Zoë Ashe Browne and I’m a professional dancer and emerging choreographer from Dublin. I work for the Royal Ballet of Flanders (Opera Ballet Vlaanderen) under the directorship of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. I’m based in Antwerp, Belgium, where the company rehearses and performs most of its work. We perform a mixed repertoire here, which is something I’ve always wanted to experience. So everything neo-classical and contemporary is in the repertoire. So far this season we have performed works by Akram Khan, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Daniel Proietto and Crystal Pite. Next on the list were works by Alain Platel, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Pina Bausch. Our performances are unfortunately now cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Right now (Covid 19 lockdown situation aside), I am living my dream as a dance artist. I’ve always wanted to work for Ballet Flanders and I feel so privileged to be a part of their powerful and versatile ensemble. But my journey here was anything but linear.
...my journey here was anything but linear...
I started dance training aged 6 with The Debbie Allen School of Dance in Windy Arbour, Dublin. She was and still is a wonderful teacher with an emphasis on the purity of technique. When I was 10, I joined the Irish National Youth Ballet Company. I was part of their youth ensemble for 6 years.
At 16 I became certain that I wanted to perform professionally. So I auditioned for full-time vocational Ballet schools in the UK. I was very lucky because I auditioned at a time when scholarships were still available through the British government. Something which has been massively diluted since then. I was awarded a full scholarship to train at The English National Ballet school. I moved to London in August 2007 aged 16.
...as challenging emotionally as it was physically...
I spent 3 challenging years at ENBS. It was the most competitive environment I’d been exposed to by far and it was as emotionally challenging as it was physically. Our first year started with 28 male and female pupils. 3 years later, only 9 of the original class graduated. The attrition rate was particularly high because of the intensity of the training. We would begin at 8.30 am and finish at 6 pm Monday to Friday. On Saturdays, we finished at 3 pm. Our entire lives were the school.
My ambition upon graduating was to join a large scale Ballet company that performed the quintessential repertoire favourites such as The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, La Bayadere and so on. That didn’t happen for me, and now, years later I can say with complete sincerity that I’m grateful it didn’t.
Contract with The National Ballet of Ireland
My first professional contract was with The National Ballet of Ireland back in my home town of Dublin. We were a company of 16 with a full touring schedule ahead of us. So it was a perfect opportunity to dance a lot straight out of school.
At the time the company was commissioning works by a then up and coming choreographer, Morgann Runacre-Temple. Today, Morgann is a very established choreographer. She has worked with companies like The Royal Ballet, Northern Ballet, English National Ballet, Stuttgart Ballett and many more. I was lucky that Morgann saw something in me and through working with her I was awarded fantastic opportunities. I danced the lead roles in her creations of Carmen and Romeo and Juliet for the company. Both productions toured Ireland, England and were both performed in London. These contrasting female lead roles gave me so much invaluable experience and memories to last a lifetime. I’ll never be able to fully express my gratitude to her.
This was the toughest period of my career...
After 2 seasons with Ballet Ireland, I left home and made the move back to London. I wanted to delve into the world of freelancing. This was between the years of 2010-2013. This was the toughest period of my career. I worked for a small Danish company called The Peter Schufuss Ballett which was a project-based ensemble. We would rehearse in London and tour the Danish countryside extensively. Alongside that, I also had several guest contracts with The English National Ballet Company, as well as independent projects, commercial gigs and anything that could help me stay afloat in London.
I worked several normal jobs too during this time of my career. Like bar work, ballet teaching to toddlers, serving in a department store and anything that could help me pay the bills. This period in London taught me a lot and was truly the most challenging period of my professional career. Maintaining physical fitness, making time for auditions and keeping financially stable in London was a balancing act I couldn’t keep up long term.
There were times when I really thought about calling it a day...
Eventually, I made the choice to move home and return to Ballet Ireland where I hoped to rejuvenate and re-charge. I did exactly that and after another fantastic year with the company, I moved to Germany. I worked for a small company called Ballett Vorpommern. This is where I had my first taste of Contemporary creation. Our season was usually split into 6 months of pointe shoe works and 5 months with guest choreographers doing neo-classical and contemporary works. It was a small company of 14, so we worked hard and consistently. This is where I did most of my creative and physical development. Having a structure back in my day that was full time, combined with financial security and performance experience under my belt allowed me to find a space where I could really explore myself artistically.
After 4 years with the company, I knew I was ready to give my dream jobs a try. I did an audition tour and was offered jobs at The Royal Ballet of Flanders and Scottish Ballet. Both had been dream companies of mine since being a full-time student. I couldn’t believe that after years of trying for companies of this calibre I was now being given a choice. It was an impossible decision at the time, but I ended up choosing Flanders. It was a mixed repertoire company and, at 28 years of age, I felt my intensive Ballet days were mostly behind me.
I want my story to serve as an inspiration because it wasn’t straight forward or simple...
Today I’m a company dancer, an emerging choreographer, a summer intensive director and brand ambassador. It’s taken me 10 years, but I am exactly where I’ve always wanted to be.
I want my story to serve as inspiration because it wasn’t straight forward or simple. Like many artists, I suffered setbacks, disappointments and there were times when I really thought about calling it a day. But somehow, I always found my way back to my path.
So I suppose my parting words for this piece are to believe in your work and your output. Embrace the setbacks, the changes of direction and life lessons that come with achieving dreams. And lastly, mind yourself, always.
Our sincere thanks to Zoë for her honesty and openness in this article. Right now we are all experiencing a time of prolonged uncertainty. No one is exempt from or untouched by this pandemic. Uncertainty can be a frequent companion for artists throughout their careers. It is so important for us to share our fears, our experiences and our failures. So vital to make connections and to let each other know that we are here and that they are not alone in their anxieties and feelings. Zoë has not had a linear or traditional career progression, but I don't think she would wish it any other way. Our journeys can define and shape us into the strong and unique people and artists we are today or will be tomorrow. Zoë is a brand ambassador for So Danca UK & Ireland and we are so proud to be working with her.