tue 18/12/2018

Opinion: What ballet school is for | reviews, news & interviews

Opinion: What ballet school is for

Opinion: What ballet school is for

There are fewer than 300 ballet jobs in UK companies - is this why British dancers find themselves outnumbered?

Uniformity/conformity: the Royal Ballet School selects out those who don't fitJohan Persson/Royal Ballet School

How many classical ballet dancing jobs, full-time, are there in Great Britain? I make it just 289. That's the Royal Ballet 94, English National Ballet 67, Birmingham Royal Ballet 57, Scottish Ballet 36, Northern Ballet 35. Rambert does sometimes take classically trained dancers: another 23. So, at a stretch, 312 full-time jobs for Britain's classical ballet graduates to be searching for a vacancy in. Moreover, a profession in which most are tenacious of their jobs, staying perhaps 10-plus years.

Out of this tiny profession (likely to shrink, with the next stage in the subsidy cuts) only some 40-50 can emerge at top pay grade. Out of those top-rankers, only perhaps 15-20 are truly outstanding, the ones companies depend upon for first casts, who draw box office, special fan devotion, special critical interest (and we may all have slightly different ideas who that elite are).

I did this arithmetic because I felt this basic information was lacking in a very lively debate going on this week at the Guardian website. Observer critic Luke Jennings wrote in detail last Sunday about his visit to the Royal Ballet School, and probed the anxieties often expressed about the lack of home-grown dancers making it to the top of British ballet companies.

Among the questions Jennings raised were whether there is a justification for the amount of state subsidy for places in Royal Ballet School training (£30,000 pa) and what to do about all those built-up expectations when very few graduates (if any) join the Royal Ballet. Is this because the Royal Ballet doesn't find RBS graduates acceptable - or is this a red herring, as nowadays all graduates get a full-time job in a ballet company somewhere, even if not in WC2? After all, the RBS mission statement includes the aim to "Maintain a high employment rate of graduating dancers, with many being recruited to the Royal Ballet or Birmingham Royal Ballet." But "many" implies more than two or three.

Jennings also cited the criticism by British families of the high proportion of foreign dance students who may be taken into the Upper School for a final year or two's grooming, then be sent out onto the fast track in the Royal Ballet as a successful RBS product. Again, are the Alina Cojocarus and Steven McRaes unfairly freezing out home-grown talent which can’t just be transplanted in from Kiev or Sydney almost fully-formed at 16?

de valois teaching at RBSThese very vexed issues have unstopped a torrent of comments on Jennings’s article online, from parents both satisfied and frustrated, dancers who succeeded or failed (as it were), teachers in and outside the ballet world, and what you could call Dissatisfied Taxpayers, who demand an economic equation between the tax spent subsidising this kind of specialist art training and the eventual fiscal outcome to the UK.

As always it's suggested that "body fascism" is a criterion in the constant weeding out of growing students, that British kids are belaboured for not being long-legged or athletic enough, or not disciplined enough, or told they’re too “reserved” to fight their way into the top ranks.

Finally, Jennings postulates that the school's nakedly pragmatic outlook undermines the Royal Ballet's aesthetic cohesion, contrary to Ninette de Valois's founding idea of the school as the nursery bed for both the company and the "English style". (De Valois pictured left, teaching at the RBS.)

It's weird that so much of the debate is about various people's expectations, and so little focuses on what can be done to raise a real interpretative artist from a merely pleasing dancer. That, surely, is the aspiration of every intelligent, sentient dancer (the great Royal Ballet ballerina Antoinette Sibley told me once that going into ballet was only worth it if you reached the very top and got to show your artistry).

But the harsh truth is that soulfulness will only matter a damn if the child also has an unshaken commitment to the mechanical discipline of learning the relevant physical vocabulary so well as to speak fluently with it. If they begin to doubt, it will show, and they will swiftly find themselves behind the harder-working.

Another harsh truth is that nature favours some more than others. And yet another truth is that a child is often ready to take repetitive mechanical work on board, for their own reasons that a teenager or adult would not share.

I’d say near-parallels are gymnastics and learning a musical instrument. As a young training violinist and pianist, I did the hours of scales and double-stops, while hating them, because I could feel in my fingers and arms how they led to mastering the difficult music that I wanted to play. But the competitive world that lay ahead as we graduated from music college was a handicap race - there was no equal starting point or level field, especially if you aspired to be a successful soloist. Those with already an advanced technical training and an assertive attitude to repertoire at 18, those with more natural aptitude for the exacting task, obviously had a crucial edge in breaking into the professional world at 21. And out there, no mercy is shown to fumbled notes or memory lapses (ask a critic).

Technique, in ballet as in piano and football, is only a toolbox, and the more tools you have in it, the more marvels you can make

Ballet training has much in common with this. With so few dancing jobs likely to fall vacant in British ballet each year, it’s understandable that those who run the training side will look for qualities that fit the successful path, from their point of view. To select kids for a 100 per cent employment result internationally at the end of training is the opposite thing from selecting for future 18-year-olds refined to a Royal Ballet ideal, when by definition a heart-stopping 70 per cent failure rate can be expected just because of the arithmetic. Sure, they'll get a job elsewhere, but they will always know they missed their primary target. What Stock is doing is "managing expectations", so that nobody fails.

The “where’s the style” question is trickier. Of the seven RBS staff for the Lower School, where style is first defined, only two danced with the Royal and Birmingham Royal Ballets. The rest, like a majority of the other staff and visiting teachers, are "outsiders". Evidently “Royal Ballet style” is not high on Stock's priority list, and this aesthetic choice of hers may or may not lead to what's seen as unfair selection.

But in any case, try to define “Royal Ballet style” in MacMillan, then “Royal Ballet style” in Ashton, then “Royal Ballet style” in McGregor. Then define what's different about "English National Ballet style". It’s nonsense, don't you think? The musicality, the physicality, the social and period character, all are different in every piece, in every choreographer. Company style comes from the director's preference, if anywhere. The dancers who are eulogised as “Ashtonian non-pareil” or “ultimate in MacMillan/McGregor” are simply the most technically expressive and most compelling interpretative artists of the ballets being programmed and firmly directed at the time. They take their training and make themselves who they are.

So I'd wish to see more focus, firstly, among parents on accepting that technique, in ballet as in piano and violin (and in football and sprinting too), is only a toolbox, and the finer tools you have in it, the finer and more varied marvels you can make; and secondly, among teachers on opening the imaginations and minds of the youngsters in ballet (or music) training so that they feel a lift of their hearts at being sent out against the monstrously challenging odds ahead of them. If it's trepidation they feel, their ballet training should have given them a valuable start for a different, more fulfilling career.

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The harsh truth is that soulfulness only matters a damn if the child also has a dedication to the sheer mechanical discipline

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Nobody seems to mention that none of the British ballet schools give enough serious emphasis to musical training, which should go hand in hand with dancers' physical and all-round artistic development. In St Petersburg, the learning of a musical instrument alongside dance training has been obligatory for many years, and in Europe generally the State Music School system is also much more rigorous before pupils even reach conservatoire level. A dancer who can't read a musical score or who understands only very superficially the music he/she is dancing to will always be at a considerable disadvantage to his/her foreign counterparts. It is the attention to a more all-round approach which should help to create the truly first-rate performer, whether in music or dance. Until this aspect of education is addressed, british dancers will continue to suffer in comparison with foreign talent - mere precision in the execution of dance steps is not nearly enough !

Anonymous, your assertion that 'none of the British ballet schools give enough serious emphasis to musical training' is innacurate. At The Royal Ballet Lower School, every pupil learns to play a musical instrument or participate in the school's excellent choir, on top of regular music classes. Also, since it was founded by Ninette de Valois in 1926, great emphasis is placed on choreographic training within the training system of the School. Many influential choreographers of recent times are graduates: MacMillan, Bintley, Cranko, Kylian, Neumeier and more recently Wheeldon, Marriott and Scarlett, to name a few.

Thank-you for your reply. You don't mention whether other ballet schools with fewer resources are on a par with RBS music-training wise. I still maintain that the thoroughness of musical training before conservatoire level needs closer scrutiny in all the ballet schools.The musical grading system here simply does not compare favourably to the european system. You mention some great choreographers. However, Kylian only came to the Royal Ballet School at the age of 20, after his formative musical training through the famously thorough Prague system had taken place; Neuemeier's first training took place in the US and Copenhagen, and Cranko's training and first choreography happened in South Africa before he joined RBS. MacMillan is a truly great British choreographer, as Bintley is turning out to be. However, the jury is still out on the younger generation !

Not just RBS - the other vocational lower schools - Elmhurst, Tring Park and Hammond - have excellent music teaching and most students learn one or more instruments or sing.

Well fat lot of good it does the Russians! They have the worst musicality!

Some trolls have a lot of "musicality"...

Does anyone know how many dancers graduating from White Lodge actually *want* to join the RB (if given a magic wand)? Just curious.

I think most would love to be offered RBS. My son said he'd rather go to a smaller company with more opportunity to dance, but I'm not sure he'd've turned it down!!

"Well fat lot of good it does the Russians! They have the worst musicality!" Really?! And that would be the conclusion of your very scientific research? Or are you just trolling here?

Get your facts right ms Brown! At the point when this article was published, there were 8 lower school teachers and 4 of them had been dancers with The Royal Ballet or Birmingham Royal Ballet. In addition, 2 more of those 8 teachers had been taught by Madam herself and another was nurtured by David Poole and has a huge knowledge and experience of the Cecchetti method which, as anyone with any understanding of the British style knows is the basis of the Ashton repertoire.

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