Once focused on technique, dance schools now offer training in creative development and entrepreneurial skills to prepare students for the industry. Leading institutions tell Rachel Elderkin how their courses have evolved
In an industry reliant on freelances, with intermittent project-based work and more artists than there are jobs, a career as a performer is no longer the most viable path in contemporary dance. So how are the contemporary dance conservatoires, traditionally tailored towards careers in performance, preparing their students for today’s industry?
A lot has changed since these institutions were established. The current economic situation and ongoing cuts to arts funding mean that, to make a career in contemporary dance work, artists have to be increasingly inventive about how they use their skills.
Talking to four of the leading UK conservatoires for contemporary dance – London Contemporary Dance School, Trinity Laban, Northern School of Contemporary Dance and Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance – each emphasises the importance of versatile, adaptable training programmes; when careers are so varied, the training must be too.
Traditionally, classes in ballet and contemporary techniques were at the core of conservatoire training. Gradually, that structure has changed with classes becoming just one aspect of a more flexible programme integrating physical training, creative development and entrepreneurial skills.
“This idea of splitting technique, the doing and the thinking being separate, is an old model. It doesn’t make sense today,” says Martin Hargreaves, director of research and postgraduate programmes at LCDS.
Within one audition a dancer could be asked to switch from technique class, to contact improvisation, to creative work, or even asked to work with text. It makes sense that training should offer a closer reflection of those scenarios.
Laban has implemented a layered approach to teaching in which the content changes across the three years, students encountering different practices at more varied intervals.
‘You can’t only be entitled to higher education if your parents are middle class; that’s narrowing down society’ – Janet Smith, NSCD principal
Once students reach their third year at NSCD, technique modules are taken out and ‘embedded’ in their performance and creative modules. “It’s less box-like,” says director of studies Darren Carr. “Students still have class every day but it’s not separated – it’s a more holistic approach.”
At Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance, the structure remains strictly 50/50 with ballet and contemporary training. “We stick to that in terms of training hours,” says principal Amanda Britton. “We teach classical solos, pointe, pas de deux and virtuosity. We take ballet seriously.” While the school may have a slightly different focus, the need to be versatile remains central. Subsequently classes of varying styles run alongside each other throughout the training, teaching students to switch quickly between techniques.
In addition, all four schools regularly bring in guest artists to lead workshops, exposing students to a range of practices and influences, alongside creative and collaborative projects throughout their training.
The most significant force of change however, seems to be coming from advances in the fields of dance and sports science. Both Laban and LSCD have dance science researchers on their faculties and, at Laban, teaching their undergraduate and postgraduate dance science programmes.
Influenced by a more in-depth understanding of how to sustain a physically demanding career and a drive to reduce injury rates in training, classes are being structured with the whole programme in mind rather than on an individual basis. “If there’s more ebb and flow between classes then students will be working more effectively,” says Lise Uytterhoeven, director of dance studies at LCDS.
Fitness training is encouraged, and a ‘warm-up’ and ‘cool-down’ week incorporated into term. Britton notes that when she took on her role at Rambert the hours of training went up, but with these measures in mind the dancers are getting “fitter and stronger at the same time as doing more”. Cardio, pilates classes and an outdoor gym complement students’ technique training.
With long training schedules it’s important that conservatoires provide students the tools they need to support themselves, physically and mentally. “Conservatoire-level training [daily schedules can run from 8:45am until 6pm] is based on this idea that the dancer doesn’t have to do anything else, but they do,” Hargreaves points out. “We see levels of exhaustion: working till 2am to be able to live in London, then coming in at 8:45am. We need to prioritise their well-being.”
Janet Smith, current principal at NSCD, holds a similar concern. “The school started from the notion that you can have access to professional dance training regardless of your background – the current tuition fees and loss of maintenance grants makes that difficult now. I’m concerned as we go forward. It can’t be that you’re only entitled to higher education if your parents are middle class; that’s narrowing down society.”
To help, NSCD encourages students to take jobs inside the building, such as front of house at its theatre. It also offers free meals to students who need financial support, which 33% currently make use of. So how can conservatoires maintain the physical intensity of their training while supporting the needs of students?
“Fitness isn’t just about physicality, it’s also about how you remain positive and providing students the psychological tools to do that,” says Hargreaves.
At NSCD students take 20 minutes of constructive rest, three times a week, using breathing techniques and other relaxation practices. “It’s time to just lie, sit in your body and relax,” explains Smith. “It’s something we’ve introduced over the last two to three years in response to anxiety. We need to help young people cope with that.”
When preparing students to enter a career that requires as much mental resilience as it does physical, well-being becomes essential. Gradually, that seems to be seeping into conservatoire programmes – not just through counselling and practices such as yoga, which most offer, but in the way these institutions are thinking about their training.
“It’s about changing this idea that your success depends on other people, shifting that thinking to ‘what do I need?’ and ‘how do I resource myself within a supportive context?’ – not ‘how do I please this mythical choreographer?’,” says Hargreaves.
For LCDS and NSCD, part of that process is giving students more autonomy – a step that reflects the independence and agency required from contemporary dancers today, whether they’re working for a company or as an independent artist.
‘Contemporary dance artists are expected to contribute to society in an experimental, curious and sustainable way’ – Frances Clarke, dean of dance, Trinity Laban
While most conservatoires commission choreographers to make work on final-year students, at LCDS it is the students who suggest who they’d like to work with. “The artists then pitch their ideas to the students” explains Hargreaves. “It’s about the agency of the dancer – moving away from the idea that you always have to be chosen.”
At NSCD, second-year students curate their own festival, Flock Fest, which involves everything from commissioning artists to building venue partnerships and promotion. In a freelance career those are important skills to learn.
As Frances Clarke, dean of dance at Trinity Laban, says: “Today’s contemporary dance artists are expected to be creative, entrepreneurial and multi-skilled – to have the capacity to think beyond existing boundaries of art forms and contribute to society in an experimental, curious and sustainable way.”
The opportunities provided during training to ‘be an artist’ offer vital preparation for this future, allowing students to discover what interests them artistically – what might drive them forward as they build their own career. “The people coming through our school are already moving on from the ‘mould’ of this industry,” Smith says. “They’re motivated by making a difference in society and the social enterprise of that, as well as the artistic value.”
It’s a reflection of the resourcefulness of artists, and the arts, in an economic world that is often dismissive of their value. As such it’s crucial that conservatoires build a training programme that encourages their students to see the breadth of value they can bring to both the arts and the wider world.
Location: The Place, central London
Courses: BA (hons) and MA/PGDip courses in contemporary dance, as well as an MA in Screendance
Location: Leeds, West Yorkshire
Courses: Wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate contemporary dance courses, including MA Dance and Creative Enterprise
Location: Twickenham, south-west London
Courses: Foundation and BA (hons) in Ballet and Contemporary Dance and MA in Professional Dance Performance
Location: Greenwich, south-east London
Courses: Undergraduate and postgraduate programmes across performance, creative practice, community dance and choreography