Inspiring dance and musical theatre training: why everybody’s talking about Bird College
With multidisciplinary courses, extensive facilities, an emphasis on student well-being and bespoke training with its own agency, Bird College offers exemplary tuition to students seeking a career in musical theatre or dance
Bird College Conservatoire for Dance and Musical Theatre was founded in 1946 by Doreen Bird. She was aged 18 and the college began its life in the living room of her mother’s house. Now, 74 years later, Bird College is one of the UK’s leading conservatoires for dance and musical theatre training and is a founder member of the Alliance for Musical Theatre Conservatoires, which was established in November 2018.
Since their appointment in 2005, joint principals Shirley Coen and Luis De Abreu have been working tirelessly to make Bird College the outstanding institution for dance and musical theatre training it is today.
Based in Sidcup in south-east London, for many years the college was spread among several facilities, but since 2015 has been unified on one fully equipped campus. It boasts 13 dance studios, three drama studios, eight teaching rooms for individual singing, a gym, cafe and common room, breakout spaces, changing facilities, physiotherapy rooms, counselling rooms, a library and other extensive facilities.
There is also a state-of-the-art theatre, with large wardrobe and scenery workshops and a prop room, which allows all the college’s shows to be produced in-house.
“And we’re improving the facilities all the time,” says De Abreu. “We’re also attracting fantastic West End artists and creatives who want to come and work at the college. All our productions are led by industry professionals – directors, choreographers and musical directors. We recently appointed renowned choreographer Stephen Mear as president. That speaks volumes about the calibre of industry people who want to be associated with the college.”
Mear, a multiple Olivier award-winner and Tony nominee, said at the time: “Bird College is an organisation I admire greatly. I continually work with many of its graduates and am always impressed by their professionalism, excellent technique and artistry.”
What sets Bird College apart from other schools is its student-centred approach to training, exemplified in its comprehensive student support system. “We have nutrition workshops and mind workshops, mental health workshops, relaxation workshops, anxiety workshops, yoga and Pilates. Everything we do is about ensuring our students’ well-being,” De Abreu explains.
He adds that Bird’s campus is a welcoming site with plenty of green outdoor spaces. “In the summer it’s fantastic,” he says, “and we’re only 25 minutes from the West End, which allows students easy access to some of the best theatre in the world. It is a fundamental change for the better.”
Although Bird College started as a dance school, the role of the dancer, particularly in musical theatre, has developed quickly. Musical theatre artists have to be able to sing and act as well as dance, and there was a need for training that covered all three disciplines. The college started to include singing and acting classes alongside dance – it now offers a variety of multidisciplinary courses.
The BA (hons) in professional dance and musical theatre – validated by the University of Greenwich – is a three-year course in which students engage with a range of disciplines; musical theatre, acting, singing, voice, ballet, jazz, tap and contemporary dance as well as many supporting academic subjects.
Students on the BA course can follow different pathways depending on their strengths and interests. They can focus on dance, triple threat, or actor-led musical theatre.
“It’s still a multidisciplinary and diverse training,” De Abreu explains, “but across the degree there might be slightly more dance, singing or acting. Offering this bespoke training focuses on students’ strengths and their future career pathways.”
There is also a diploma in professional musical theatre validated by Trinity College London, which equips students with the technical and creative skills necessary for a successful career in dance and musical theatre. During the course, students cover dance and theatre studies as well as music theory, fitness, health studies and employment skills.
Alongside those three-year programmes, Bird College offers an intensive one-year foundation course for students who show potential but have not quite reached the technical standard for full-time vocational training. Across the year, students train intensively to reach the standard for entry on to a three-year programme, including daily classes in ballet, tap, jazz, contemporary, singing, voice, acting and musical theatre.
The foundation year also provides coaching for auditions, covering topics such as suitability of song, dance and monologue, interview techniques, photographs and application forms. Students who complete the foundation year will automatically be given a free audition for Bird College’s vocational courses.
In addition, there are several short courses throughout the year that offer a taster of life at Bird College, and a Level 4 Diploma in Dance Education, which is an accredited teaching qualification aimed at students who wish to begin training as a dance teacher. The college is also the Music Hub for the London borough of Bexley and there are numerous opportunities for full-time students to access music lessons.
“Our vision is about inspiring excellence,” says De Abreu. “It’s about inspiring individuality and diversity and developing talent and versatile artists. We want our graduates to have very successful careers within the theatre and related industries.”
To that end, Bird College has its own agency, which represents students and acts as a bridge between students and the industry. It helps students understand the profession and prepares them for successful and rewarding careers.
Many of Bird College’s award-winning graduates are now renowned artists, including ballet dancer Gary Avis, Olivier award-winner Lara Pulver and Tony and Olivier-nominated actor Gavin Lee, who are patrons of the college.
Lee says: “My time at Bird College was invaluable. The all-round training was crucial for sending me out into the acting profession. You need technique, stamina and artistic creativity to make it in the entertainment world and Bird College nurtures these disciplines perfectly.”
With its student-centred approach, its world-class training and facilities, its successful graduates and excellent international reputation, Bird College Conservatoire for Dance and Musical Theatre is an exemplary college and an excellent choice for students who wish to have successful careers in dance and musical theatre.
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