The impact of Brexit has been felt throughout the performing arts, in the UK and across Europe. Dancers are no exception – Rebecca Haw knows this all too well.

Rebecca Haw is a British-born ballet dancer with the Semperoper Ballett in Dresden. Having experienced many hurdles when she auditioned at the start of her career, in 2020 she decided to found her own company, Audition Educator, which offers guidelines to dancers for applying and auditioning. Early in 2022 she set up a classical ballet agency, CODA, representing dancers of all ranks including international stars.

Rebecca Haw and Gareth Haw
© Andrew Seidl

I asked Rebecca about the impact of Brexit – if it had led to any negative feedback from ballet company directors, for instance. “Whilst I haven’t explicitly heard any employer say that they would rather not hire from the UK, Brexit has to be a factor, just as it is with any other nationality where there’s a visa situation involved. The difficulty comes because it’s still so fresh. The systems and processes for what’s happening in the UK, in relation to systems outside the UK, are just not set up properly yet,” Rebecca says.

“In a way, it should be no different to an American or Asian dancer needing a visa to work in Europe,” Rebecca continues. “After the recent Brexit deal went through, in Germany we were only given three months to get a visa. That's not a lot of time. If you weren’t approved, you would have been shipped back.”

Rebecca Haw
© Kristóf Kovács

“Each EU country will have its own guidelines,” Rebecca explains, “but here in Germany, if you had been here for five years, you could apply for permanent residency. After eight years you could apply to swap your passport and become a German citizen. This is not simple. They interview you extensively and you have to sit German language and history exams. At the time I hadn’t been in Germany for five years, although I have now and I’m in the process of doing my studies to pass the relevant exams.”

I was particularly concerned to learn that without citizenship, all areas of her personal life are affected. “Even with my contract and my work visa, I am not allowed to buy a property here. It’s not just applying for a mortgage, but people have had other issues regarding their lives as a whole, like parenting for example. My businesses have been set up here, but the visa is attached to my work contract so if and when I retire from dancing, I may have to relinquish the businesses and go home. I would have to apply for a self-employment visa, which is far riskier.”

Rebecca Haw
© Alex Fine

The UK does not offer as many opportunities as Europe, simply because we have fewer ballet companies. Many graduates will instinctively go abroad to seek their first employment. Rebecca concedes, “historically, it wasn’t easy to get a job in the UK. At the start of this process, companies in Germany were still operating with the same behaviours and hiring very broadly, with many nationalities. Dancers were arriving months late because of visa hold ups. Anything that is a fixed term or a short contract is a real problem.

“We still have a lot of British dancers in our directory,” Rebecca continues. “I don’t think the consequences of Brexit have quite sunk in. They’re still auditioning, but it’s prohibitively expensive to travel around Europe attending auditions, and you can only be a tourist for a certain amount of time without having to go through the proper visa channels. The pandemic obviously changed the way people auditioned, because it had to be virtual. You try doing fouettés en pointe in a living room! For a company director watching on Zoom, it's just not viable. Now everything is on video, but it’s hard to get right. Even for dancers with real talent, if the video is not stellar, you won’t get a foot in the door.”

Rebecca Haw
© Kristóf Kovács

I wonder if there has been a rush to seek citizenship or stability through other means. She says, “Irish passports have been a help in securing work, and it’s what a lot of UK dancers are doing. Any distant relative will do! It can be incredibly useful. It’s something that we ask clients to put on their CVs at the agency because it works well with securing short term contracts.”

It prompts me to ask why coming home to the UK is not a viable option. “I was always going to come back to the UK, but I’ve changed my mind quite significantly. I’m in the privileged position of having become accustomed to German systems and processes, whether that’s in my professional or personal life. I always said I couldn’t live anywhere where I couldn’t buy pork pies and sausage rolls – but now I’ve taught myself how to make them! Circumstances may change, and I used to be steadfast in my wish to return to England, but it doesn’t look as desirable any more."

Can we afford to be positive when looking to the future? Rebecca concludes, “the process may be slightly more convoluted for UK dancers, but is it hopeless? No, absolutely not!”