This is, in so many ways, a rehearsal. A preparation for the future. The music from Swan Lake is instantly recognisable, but it’s for practice, not for real: the rippling piano can only approximate Tchaikovsky’s soaring strings. The pianist is accompanying a repertory class for final-year students at the prestigious Elmhurst School for Dance, the affiliate school of the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Eight young men and women, aged 18 and 19, are rehearsing the white swan pas de deux, under the guidance of senior teachers Errol Pickford and Lei Zhao. The ambience is studious and practical: everyone is focused on getting the work done properly. The students are a mixture of heights and shapes and races, but watch how they adjust their limbs, lines and timings, the way they check the mirror, the teachers, each other, themselves – and a powerful, unifying aim comes into focus. They are all working to embody this pas de deux, to become that ideal. And behind that, you sense yet another ideal at play. They are also working towards transforming themselves from who they are now – ballet students – into who they might become: ballet dancers.
These students are at a pivotal moment in their lives. They will soon leave the school where they have been boarding, some for three years, others for seven. You could almost see their time at Elmhurst as a rehearsal for the stage they are about to enter: life as adults and – if they make it – as dancers. What has this preparation been like?
In the beginning, all of them found it tough. Elmhurst is a boarding school, and the separation from home and family was hard. ‘But you learn independence very quickly,’ says Michaela Clarke who, like all the students, dances as if she could fly but talks with her feet on the ground. ‘Because you live away from home from such a young age, you have to learn how to look after yourself. You mature quickly.’ But alongside independence, they also learned to rely on others. ‘You make strong bonds with your year group,’ she continues, ‘and learn how important other people are. Actually, you make new family.’
The other big step was the heavy workload. In addition to the demands of dance training, all students also complete the standard school curriculum. ‘You’d be knackered at the end of the day,’ says Taylor Clow, ‘and then at 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening you’d be sat in your room still working on your art project. Then ballet at 8:40 the next morning. It is tough being so tired.’ He’s not complaining: he’s being matter-of-fact. These students – like all the ballet students I’ve ever met – are both pragmatic and diligent. ‘It’s nothing like Saturday classes at your local ballet school,’ says Damani Williams, who entered Elmhurst at 16. ‘It’s more work and more intense. But you see the results. You see yourself developing and improving.’
They’ll deal with Plan B when the time comes
Are they prepared for lives as dancers? And what about the unforeseeable or unimagineable future – one in which they don’t make it into a company, or change career because of age or injury? They appreciate that their academic qualifications will stand them in good stead. Some have a ‘Plan B’ in the back of their minds (mostly working in theatre or arts). But the imperative now is to focus on their first steps into the professional dance world. They’ll deal with Plan B when the time comes.
It’s not only the students who are changing. Ballet training is changing. Ballet itself is changing. And Elmhurst is changing too. Robert Parker became artistic director in autumn 2012 – fresh from a lauded career as principal dancer at Birmingham Royal Ballet – and is well placed to see how the training matches up to the wider world of ballet. He’s a youthful and dynamic presence at Elmhurst – I keep seeing him breezing down the corridors, from one meeting to annother. ‘It’s like spinning plates!’ he says when we finally manage to meet. He has a typical dancer’s ‘deal with it’ attitude to the job, and already has some practical proposals in place: developing links to professional companies, or introducing Dalcroze eurhythmics (‘musicality is really important if you want to be more than just a good dancer’), more aerobic exercise and gymnastics (‘because these days, dancers need to be fearless about trying things out’).
But dance is only one part of the jigsaw that makes up a dancer, and Parker is keen to stress the importance of less tangible qualities such as autonomy – in the self-management of injuries, for example – and creativity, whether in choreography or initiating their own projects. ‘We want to produce dancers of the future, but also the creators of the future,’ he says. ‘Recently, I was really thrilled when I was approached by some students who wanted to produce their own show for the school. They did everything – choreography, staging, sets, lights, ticketing. I think it’s probably the first time the students have been given that level of autonomy.’ He beams. ‘I thought they went in as students, and came out as professionals.’
Down-to-earth school principal Jessica Ward (‘the buck stops with me’) is another part of the changes at Elmhurst. She joined in 2010, having trained in contemporary dance and worked in north London comprehensive schools. ‘The school governors took a bold step when they appointed me,’ she freely admits, ‘because I came from a very different world. But I think they were looking for a fresh pair of eyes.’ Ward’s largest overall change has been to introduce a more integrated, holistic approach. Cross-faculty meetings now give staff ‘a more complete picture of each student. If you’re a dance tutor, you are also aware of how each student is progressing academically, whether they have pastoral issues and so on. It’s much more person-centred and joined-up.’
Ward also attends meetings of the school’s active student council, in which students discuss any aspect of the running of the school. ‘Vocational schools haven’t generally invited so much student participation as we do now. Students elect reps and meet with staff. It means they have an input and an interest in the school’s development. They feel their voices are heard through the school, right through to the principal.’ Ward is clear that schooling is a preparation not only for the profession, but for adult life. ‘Sometimes,’ she confesses with a smile, ‘I say to parents that if our students turn out to be resourceful in an emergency and interesting to sit next to at a dinner party, then we’re doing something right!’
Founded in 1923, Elmhurst was rebuilt in 2004 as a spacious complex of studios, corridors and grounds. I wander through the upper foyer, where art teacher Annika Amos prepares an exhibition of students’ work, while all over the building there are dance classes. It’s not all ballet: there is contemporary and jazz and, to my surprise, flamenco, where I encounter Ana García preparing her students, aged 12 to 13, for their end of year show. The girls are rehearsing a section that features sunglasses and attitude. ‘Imagine,’ says García, ‘that you are the most beautiful girl in the world and you going to meet’ – she pauses – ‘your new boyfriend!’ There’s a flurry of excited laughter, but García is also making a serious point. They may be working on technique but they are also working on performance. ‘Imagine looking in the mirror and you really like what you see,’ she says. ‘What other people think – doesn’t matter! You are the best! Now go, walk like that.’ They go out, and they strut their stuff.
Pleasure, laughter, confidence – not qualities I generally associate with dance training.
I am surprised by how surprised I am to see this pleasure, this laughter, this confidence – not qualities I generally associate with dance training. Especially ballet training. Indeed, the ballet class I attend next, for the school’s youngest students, also preparing for their end of year show, is much more in line with my expectations. It is orderly, the students are focused and diligent and the teacher is attentive and instructive. But to my eyes, it also looks needlessly disciplinarian, personally undermining (telling students to be quiet may be ok; telling them they have a ‘gob’ isn’t) and frankly pretty joyless. But as Ward had said: change takes time.
When I speak to the young students after class, however, they appear to be a rather chipper bunch. They seem already to have developed a new sense of family: the girls in particular have a strong sense of sisterhood. I can imagine them turning out to be resourceful in emergencies and interesting at dinner parties.
What I can’t imagine is how they will turn out as dancers. Some may be great, some competent and some, for whatever reason, will simply not make it. And suddenly I realise that vocational dance schools have an almost impossible balancing act to perform. Not only do they need to prepare students for future careers as dancers, with all the demands that entails; they also need to prepare students for a future in which they are not dancers at all.
If there is a solution to this conundrum it lies in exactly what Ward is working to achieve: a holistic approach to the individual. Dennie Wilson, a former Elmhurst teacher who now heads the RAD Professional Dancers Teaching Diploma, agrees. ‘You have to prepare students for life, as human beings. That isn’t separate from dance training. It’s how they will meet the challenges of the dance world too.’ She also notes what dance training brings to the workplace. ‘Dancers are productive and dedicated,’ she says, ‘and they have a phenomenal work ethic. The flip side is that they can be overly obedient. Choreographic practice is changing that, but you can still see that learning to make decisions for themselves can be a painful process for some of them.’
Shortly after my visit, I meet Mikko Nissinen, director of the Boston Ballet, and ask if he considers that graduates from vocational ballet schools are properly prepared for the profession. On a technical level, he thinks they are, but technique is only one aspect of being a dancer. In fact, he has a three-point plan. ‘First, you need to know how to dance. Second, how to perform. Third, how to manage your injuries. If you have those, then you might have a chance for a great career.’
What about the dancer as a person? ‘The beautiful thing about dance,’ Nissinen says, ‘is it gives you focus and structure. If you do it for the right reasons, you are going to learn so much about yourself. But we all become one with ourselves at different stages. Some dancers have it early, and feel comfortable in that relationship. Others may be struggling all through their career until near the end they open up and find themselves. Every flower opens at a different time,’ he says. ‘It’s a question of how beautiful the flower is on the day when it opens.’
The measure of success is not whether they succeed in becoming someone else, but whether they manage to become themselves.
I remember my final moments at Elmhurst, the young students bursting with excitement on our quick tour of the boarding quarters, eager to show off their rooms. And I wonder what the world will be like when they graduate, who will go into dance careers, what they will achieve, who will be happy. And I realise that the measure of success is not whether they succeed in becoming someone else – a famous dancer, a great choreographer – but whether they manage to become themselves, whoever that may be.