Waldean Nelson '09: From Liberal Arts To The Opera House Stage
The former growth and structure of cities major thought he would be an architect, but is now living out different dreams as a professional dancer in Sweden.
In the Swedish dance company of 38 artists from 20 nations that he now calls home, Waldean Nelson '09 fits right in. “In the past I was labeled as ‘heady,’” says Nelson, who once planned on being an architect. “But here, everyone has an opinion, and different experiences and awareness, and we put these into the pot and see what comes out. We’re given a lot of freedom.”
“Here” is GöteborgsOperans Danskompani (Gothenburg Opera Dance Company), the Nordic region’s largest contemporary dance company, where the Brooklyn native is in his third full-time season as a dancer. From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, Nelson attends dance classes and rehearsals for performances in the Opera House and on European tours.
Nelson started dancing at age 13 at Brooklyn’s Philippa Schuyler Middle School. “We had modern dance classes in sixth grade, and it just felt right,” he explains. But academics came first for Nelson, who attended New York City’s Stuyvesant High School and focused on physics. Still, he earned scholarships throughout high school to study ballet, modern, and other styles/techniques at prestigious schools such as the one run by the Alvin Ailey company and the Dance Theatre of Harlem. When it came time to apply for college, he considered attending a conservatory. “Haverford won out because of academics,”he says. “It was near Philadelphia, which has an interesting dance scene, and it’s near New York, so I could audition for summer programs in dance.”
Nelson majored in growth and structure of cities at Bryn Mawr, with an architecture concentration, and minored in dance. Each summer, he won dance scholarships to study at different institutions. “The summers were eye-opening—it was a glimpse into the world of professional dancing, and I could see how I measured up,” he says. Nelson studied abroad his junior year in Copenhagen, focusing on architecture, taking dance classes with Danish Dance Theatre, and in the process, falling in love with Scandinavia.
Just before graduating, in January 2009, he was offered a full-time contract with the Brooklyn dance company Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE. “I was looking at architecture schools, but once I got the offer I never looked back.”
Nelson spent two years with the company and then began freelancing, working for weeks or months at a time with various project-based choreographers and companies. “I was doing a lot of touring, and going back and forth to New York, Europe, Seattle, Vancouver, and Montreal,” he says. “It was a lot of fun and very exciting at first, but I was living out of a suitcase. I loved the work, but it was beginning to take a toll. I was looking for a new challenge—a place where I would be able to anchor myself and grow.”
He’d always dreamed of working in Europe, because the arts are so well-supported there. So in January 2015, Nelson took his savings and embarked on an audition tour of European dance companies.
Gothenburg was his second stop, and he received a job offer soon afterward, while waiting for a fight in Berlin. “I started to cry in the airport Starbucks,” Nelson recalls. “It was a long time coming.”
“My path has been so untraditional. Most professional dancers don’t go for a liberal arts education before starting their careers. I remember all the times I felt so weird, that the combination of academics and dance shouldn’t go together. I’m glad I was stubborn enough and foolish enough to keep both feet in both worlds.”