Riley Watts always puts Glenburn, his hometown, on his bio, but the dancer often doesn’t tell people where he’s from. It causes too much confusion.
He brags that he’ s from Maine but when asked where that is, he usually replies “north of Boston” or “near Canada” and leaves Glenburn and neighboring Bangor out of it. Maine is too much for most Europeans to wrap their minds around.
Watts, 23, heads back to Europe this month to begin a two-year stint with Netherlands Dance Theatre in The Hague. He spent the past year dancing with the Bern Ballet in Bern, Switzerland.
“I always knew I wanted to go to Europe,” he said on a visit home in July to see his parents, Jean and Harley Watts of Glenburn. “I’ ve been obsessed with foreign countries since I was little. Plus, a lot of the up-and-coming choreographers are Europeans.”
Riley said that he doesn’ t worry about not being able to speak Dutch.
“The language of dance is English,” he said.
The dance scene in Europe, especially at NDT, is less conservative than it is in the United States, he said, and there’ s more financial support for the arts.
Watts will be one of the oldest members of the company called NDT II. It’ s a troupe of 16 dancers ages 16 to 23. Watts was 22 when he signed his contract, he said.
“They have a fantastic reputation,” he said of the company. “They perform a lot of different creations. The most exciting are done by one of the foremost contemporary choreographers in the world. He’ s about to retire in a couple of years, so doing a new ballet that will be one of his last is very exciting for me.”
That choreographer is Jiri Kylian, a 61-year-old native of Prague, Czechoslovakia. He was forced to take refuge in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1968 after the Soviet invasion of his native land. In the mid-1970s, Kylian joined NDT. He founded NDT II, the company Riley is joining, in the 1980s as a training ground for NDT I, then considered to be the primary company.
Watts began training for his leap across the Atlantic when he was in grade school and taking gymnastics classes. When he was 10, his mother sent him to a free ballet class for boys at the Thomas School Dance in Bangor because the lad “had a lot of energy,” Watts said.
He continued taking ballet classes when he entered John Bapst Memorial High School. It was a trip to New York City the summer after his sophomore year, however, that made him realize he was a dancer. Ivy Forrest, Watts’ dance teacher in Bangor, arranged for him to take a program with the Joffrey Ballet, where she had danced.
“I was 16 and didn’ t really have a future planned in dance,” Watts said. “If she hadn’ t done that, I don’ t think I would be where I am. It was that summer that I realized that I really loved the ballet and the life of a dancer. When I came home, I was itching to dance and get better training.”
Watts transferred to the Walnut Hill School, a private boarding arts high school in Natick, Mass. After graduation, he went to the Juilliard School and earned his bachelor’ s degree in 2007. He also won a prestigious scholarship in 2006 from the Princess Grace Foundation in college.
“I concentrated in classical ballet and modern dance at Juilliard,” he said. “They pride themselves on training dancers who can do anything in the professional dance world.”
Forrest, now in her 60s, still teaches at the Bangor dance school. She understands Watts’ excitement at working with cutting-edge choreographers. She danced for George Balanchine and with the Joffrey Ballet in New York City 40 years ago when it was the dance mecca of the world.
She believes that Watts has what it takes to make it in the competitive world of dance — passion.
“He’ s impassioned,” Forrest said of her former student. “He has the kinetic and the musical ability necessary, but that’ s what it takes, having a passion for it. … He’ s a delightful person too and has a fantastic, supportive family.”
Watts admitted that he loves to dance, even if it’ s just in the studio.
“I feel at home dancing,” he said. “I can go to classes and work things out. It fits like a glove.”