OK guys. I decided to try something new. It’s actually something I’ve thought about for a while- interviewing other artists who have chosen to pursue their artistic careers in countries other than their own. I get so much inspiration from talking with other artists about their experiences and this way you can share it too! So for our very first Expat Artist Interview Series I present to you dancer Lateef Williams!!
Lateef is basically a gold-medalist at expat’ing, having lived in five countries. (Yes I did make that word up.) I met Lateef at an audition in Belgium in February 2017. The audition was split into a men’s class and a women’s class but somehow our eyes connected and I knew I wanted to talk to him. I’m so glad I did! Lateef has kind eyes and gentle positive shining energy that makes you want to know him. It was an immediate connection. And of all the places he could’ve been from- he was American! So much for broadening my horizons 😛 Fast forward 8 months and he got that job in Belgium and I moved to France! (Though we still haven’t managed to meet up in Europe as I’d hoped…yet!) Turns out he had previously danced at my company in France (this tiny dance world) and he became an invaluable resource to me when I was taking my baby steps toward becoming an expat. He constantly pushes me from afar to go for things because he has done so much in his career already!
As I was doing this interview I kept going yes yes yes because his words really resonated with me. From his rich and varied experience with multiple companies in many different cultures he has acquired so much wisdom about art and life. I hope you enjoy getting to meet Lateef as much as I did!
Tell me about your Background.
1) Where did you grow up? I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but I grew up between Wilmington, Delaware and Philadelphia.
2) How did you start dancing? I started dancing because I loved moving as a child. I remember specifically watching SwanLake and “Dirty Dancing,” when I was about 6 or so and being mesmerized. Apparently I told my Aunt and her friends that I was going to become a dancer just like the ones on the TV. Fast forward two years later one of my Elementary School teachers had a conference with my Dad saying that she thought that I should take dance lessons because I seemed to be always moving/dancing around the classroom. Shortly after that conference I began taking ballet classes.
3) When was the first time you left the United States? The first time I left the States was when I was 12. Some of my family and I went to visit an uncle of mine who was living in the UK at the time.
4) When did you first move away as an expat? I first moved away from my country in 2009 to Augsburg, Germany [to join Augsburg Ballet].
5) Did you always want to live abroad? Yes! I was very intrigued about the idea of living abroad when I was child. My Uncle had lived many places too and I was inspired by him.
6) How many countries have you lived in? 5, including the US. [US, Germany, France, Chile, Belgium].
Let’s talk about Art.
1) How do you feel like a sense of place informs your work, if at all? I think a sense of place definitely informs your work. It’s important to be very aware and in touch of your surroundings. Inspiration can be found anywhere but it’s our job to be open to it. Also, having a sense of place can give you a sense of groundedness which also help you to feel grounded in your work.
2) How does your current country (Belgium) differ from the country of your origin (the US) in terms of how it views, supports and otherwise treats the arts and artists? In general companies and Art institutions in Europe are state funded meaning that a large amount of their support comes from the government. However, in the States the majority of dance companies and art institutions receive their support from public and private funders. In general, European companies tend offer longer contacts with benefits.
In general, people [in Belgium] seem less interested in going to the theater and supporting live art. I believe it’s a challenge for most, if not all, art institutions globally. However, I do feel that going to the theater, and/or supporting live art is somewhat more integrated in the culture here in comparison to the States in my opinion.
3) I know living in another country changes you in a lot of ways. But I’m wondering in an artistic sense. How have you grown, changed, stretched in terms of you as an artist because of the experience of living in another land? It has helped me to be more adaptable to new styles and techniques. It has reminded me that, truly, at the end of the day we are all connected no matter where we may live on this planet. Our Joys, highs and lows, desires and needs are the same. Knowing that has in a lot of ways humbled me as an artist and as a human being.
4) Ballet has different schools (of technique, training and style). Is this something you have to constantly adapt to? I strive to be a blank canvas every time I approach a new process or style. Of course, I draw from previous experiences however, I believe our job as dancers is to be available as much as possible. It can be a real challenge changing styles in short time periods but, if you can capture the flow, “groove,’ of whatever choreography or style as soon as possible it becomes easier to adapt.
5) What are some drawbacks to changing companies? Being New! Although new beginnings are exciting, having to re-introduce and rebuild yourself can take time. The life span of a dancer is relatively short in comparison to other artist in their perspective fields. With that being said sometimes being new in a company can be challenging because you basically are starting over so to speak. Often times it takes some time to learn a company’s dynamics and also adapt to a new environment. In addition, building a level of trust with the director and artistic staff also can take time regardless of your level and or previous experiences.
6) When do you know it’s time to leave a company? I think it’s quite personal for each dancer. However personally speaking I never want to feel too comfortable. Meaning whenever I feel that perhaps I have just about reached my full potential in a particular place then it usually means it’s time for a change. However, sometimes it’s been a matter of timing, such as a great opportunity has presented itself to me and I wanted to seize the moment.
7) Auditions suck. Why put yourself through them time and time again? Yes it’s true auditions in general are not fun but some of my best auditions have been when I’ve let go and tried enjoy myself. In those moments I have usually had the most success. There have been auditions when I have felt super great and confident in my work but didn’t get the job. I would be disappointed but sometimes I have also felt a sense of peace if I knew that I truly performed to the best of my abilities and gave it a good effort. Also, even if the odds are against you in an audition sometimes great things happen out of them.
8) What do you look for in a dance company? Companies that are diverse. From the artist to the staff and to the repertory. I think it’s very important that companies reflect the world we live in- multi-cultural and diverse. Creations are also important to me because I enjoy the creative process.
Alright, moving onto the Expat part of being Expat Artist…
1) Traveling is obviously a different experience than living in a place but I’m always looking for more places to put on my Travel List- what are some of your favorite places you’ve traveled to? Atacama Desert in Chile. Madrid, Spain. Zurich, Switzerland. Miami Beach, Florida.
2) Why are you drawn to travel? I travel because I believe it’s vital to the development of a well-rounded human being in our society. Traveling energizes me, inspires me, and often times humbles me. Also I am a curious person. I enjoying sightseeing and learning about different cultures.
3) What are some challenges you’ve faced in moving to another country? Speaking the native language of that country. Visas and bureaucracy. Finding the activities or things that you may have enjoyed doing or having in your home country.
4) What is your favorite part of living in another country? Learning a new language, sight-seeing, and finding local farmers markets.
5) What are some things you learned living in so many different countries overseas? I’ve learned not to try and compare my experiences too much. I’ve learned to be patient with myself while settling into a new place, with new languages and culture. It can be overwhelming at times when you are new to a place. Although it can be exciting and there are many things to discover, at the same time it can be daunting too. It’s a process, so I remind myself to be patient and take things one step at a time.
6) Do you have any advice for artist thinking about moving countries? Make sure you know what kind of Visa you will need if you are planning on working abroad. Most companies usually assist in the visa process but if you are a freelance artist it can be a bit more tricky but definitely manageable. Also, if you’re planning on moving to a country where you don’t speak the language I think it’s helpful to already begin studying and learning before arriving to your destination. You don’t need to be fluent but it certainly helps in process of getting settled in.
7) How do you deal with things like homesickness, not having access to the same kind of diet, things like that? Technology really helps in dealing with homesickness, from Skype, to Whatsapp, to podcasts. In terms of diet, the bulk of my date is plant-based. So I enjoy finding local farmers markets and adapting to what is available to me.
8) What is something that you bring with you to every new place you travel no matter what? Bible, journal,laptop.
9) What qualities or characteristics do you think is required to be a successful expat? Being curious, independent, organized, patient, open and adaptable to change and new experiences.
10) Have you found it easier each time to move and start over? Yes and no. It’s never easy to say good-bye and to rebuild your life so to speak. However, change is inevitable and new beginnings can be energizing and exciting. They are new opportunities to be the person that we want to be and to live the life we desire.
OK Rapid Fire Time! Let’s get to know Lateef a little better…
1) Favorite place to visit New York City- I usually only get there once a year but every time I am there I always leave feeling energized and inspired.
2) Favorite food Any food made with love 🙂
3) Best live art you’ve ever seen Crystal Pite’s company Kidd Pivot
4) Top bucket list where you wanna go place Egypt/Thailand
5) Weirdest travel/ food/ stage experience My very first tour as a professional was to Mexico. I ended up having a small accident and losing one of my front teeth. Fortunately, there was a dentist who was on call 24hrs and he temporarily glued the tooth back. Unfortunately it didn’t stay in very long and I had to finish the rest of the tour with a missing front tooth!
6) Give us a Dance Fail moment The company I was dancing with at the time was on tour to Madrid. Unfortunately there was injury about 5 minutes into the show and the dancer was unable to continue. I was asked to step into his spot for a very intricate choreographed ensemble dance. Let’s just say it did not go well at all. When everyone was going one direction I went the other.
7) Favorite stage experience/ choreographer/ piece Though I have had several memorable stage experiences and still hope to have plenty more one that sticks out to me is dancing the title role of “Orpheus'” by Leo Mujic’s. It was created on the company I was with at the time. Beyond it being physically and mentally demanding I remember always feeling like I literally had just traveled through “the underworld.” I also had sense of feeling like I was glowing from inside of me.
8 ) 10 years from now.Where are you. What are you doing? I hope to be healthy, and happy. I hope to be contributing to the art form in some capacity. I hope to be sharing and shaping the next generation of Artist. I hope to be using all of my experiences in a way that is helpful to others. I hope to be living on purpose with passion.
Thanks so much for taking time to contribute your wisdom to expatballerina, Lateef!
Check back for the next Expat Artists Interview Series in a few weeks! Next up will be an incredible German visual artist living in Portugal!