Ballet’s reputation for requiring hard work, long hours and physical pain is not without merit, but there is fun to be had too. Anna Winter speaks to teachers, dancers and programme leaders about how to get into a ballet career
Ballet’s rigorous demands mean aspiring classical dancers must train intensively during adolescence and are usually ready to start a professional career in their late teens.
All the members of a top-flight ballet company – from the newest member of the corps de ballet through to the highest rank of principal dancer – will have been hot-housed to some degree, but not all will have left home at 11 for balletic boarding school.
Uniquely, the Academy of Northern Ballet, affiliated with the Northern Ballet company, offers a Centre for Advanced Training scheme in classical ballet. It means students from the age of 10 upwards can train intensively in Leeds while remaining at home with their families and attending their school as normal.
Teacher Cara O’Shea says: “Going away to full-time boarding school isn’t right for every student. Some students will thrive but others aren’t emotionally ready, so it’s great that we can offer this alternative.” Students are given individual training plans and attend at least eight hours during the week and all day on Saturday. The scheme covers five years, but O’Shea adds: “We can offer a student an extra year with us if they’re not emotionally ready to leave home or would benefit from it.”
Each year group is partnered with a ‘big brother or sister’ from the professional company. “They come in and talk to the kids, offer advice and are an extra person they can go to, which is proving really valuable. Sometimes a boy’s friends at school might not appreciate what they’re doing and if they can talk to a real dancer who has gone through the same thing, it’s sometimes better than me just talking to the student.” CAT schemers can take part in professional performances, as well as studying contemporary dance, nutrition and dance history. “We want them to have knowledge they can apply throughout their careers.”
Ballet training: physical development
Ballet training might not suit everyone as the years go by. “It’s usually to do with bodies not being able to take the intensity of classical ballet training,” says O’Shea. “We don’t want to hurt our students or cause unnecessary strain and it’s a harsh job, but we would rather dancers make that decision when they are younger, rather than stringing them along.”
English National Ballet School trains a select group of students aged 16 to 19. Recent graduate Rhys Antoni Yeomans now dances with the English National Ballet Company. He started dancing aged 10 and took on the title role of Billy Elliot in the West End musical aged 12, after which he returned to school in Manchester, taking dance classes in a range of styles at Centre Pointe studios from 5pm until 9.30pm every evening.
He joined the ENB school at 16. “Waking at 6.30am to have ballet class at 8.30am every day was such a shock to the system and I had to unlearn everything,” he recalls. “I’m very flexible and a big performer so I had to reign that in and learn how to manage and work my body efficiently. It was an amazing learning curve to see how to train properly. I love a challenge and with ballet there’s always something to improve.”
Like Yeomans, Birmingham Royal Ballet apprentice dancer Joseph Taylor started dancing aged 10 but only discovered ballet at 15 on the suggestion of a teacher. “Even though I’d been doing commercial, hip hop and jazz for years, ballet felt more natural,” he says. Unusually, he joined the Upper School of Elmhurst – affiliated with Birmingham Royal Ballet – aged 18 (“after normal sixth form”) and studied there for three years. “There was healthy competition between the boys in my year – there were only six of us in the first year,” he recalls. “We were always trying to outdo each other but always there to support each other if one of us was having a bad day or things weren’t working right in ballet class.” His advice to students starting full-time training is to “remember to have some fun and a life outside the studio. When you get into a company and have roles to act, it helps if you have some life experience to draw from”.
Ballet training: What are the schools looking for?
What qualities are needed to get into the most prestigious school in the country – the Royal Ballet School? “When it comes to audition, obviously one needs to look for the classical aesthetics and a body that’s going to withstand the intense training. The most important thing is that light behind the eyes, to see someone that’s engaged and really wants to be here. We’re looking for an artist, for a trainable physique and coordination and natural flow of movement,” says Jessica Clarke, artistic manager of the Royal Ballet Upper School, which adjoins the Royal Opera House via a ‘bridge of aspiration’ over Covent Garden. The Royal Ballet’s junior school, White Lodge, is in Richmond Park.
Before morning ballet class (and sometimes pilates), Upper School students have academic study from 8.30am to 10.30am. “It’s incredibly important. For their life as a dancer they need to be educated, thinking young people. With it being a shorter career than some, they need to have other qualifications if they’re retraining in a new field.” The afternoon consists of pas de deux, coaching on variations, pointework, repertoire, contemporary, character, strength and conditioning, improvisation and choreography. It’s a lot.”
Clarke notes that the increased application of sports science to classical dance has influenced training over the years and reduced the injury rate. “We’re training athletes as well as artists,” she says, citing research into the impact of landing from jumps, which has altered the structure of classes. “On some days, we’ve integrated our allegro into our centre work [training away from the barre]. It gives bodies – especially when they’re developing – time to recover. So they’re not doing half an hour of centre work followed by 20 minutes of jumping back-to-back.”
The school draws out technical amplitude, but bravura ability must go together with artistry. “Sometimes students can get caught up in the tricks and excitement and we remind them that it’s also about beauty, classicism of style and interpretation, musicality and artistry. The tricks are fantastic, but they don’t get to your soul.”
Almost all Royal Ballet dancers have trained at the school and jobs for graduates – which now start as year-long Aud Jebsen apprenticeships – depend on the number of contracts available.
Central School of Ballet, meanwhile, trains dancers for a variety of destinations and has a long-standing connection with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company. Two dancers are selected each year to work with Bourne and final-year degree students gain pre-professional experience touring the UK with Ballet Central.
For more information on training go to thestage.co.uk/advice