It’s Monday morning at London’s Royal Ballet School, where nearly life-size photographs of legendary ballerina Margot Fonteyn guard the foyer. Past them, in a large, airy studio, 40 second-year students struggle through a series of rapid quadruple pirouettes. The complex, dizzying combination seems nearly impossible.
Instructor David Peden, a graduate of the school and a former senior soloist with the Royal Ballet, stops the class. “Who’s your favorite ballerina?” he asks.
The students hesitate. “Go on!” Peden urges.
“Miss Darcey?” suggests a shy 17-year-old, her perfect French twist studded with rhinestones.
“Marianela?” offers another, tugging at her royal blue leotard.
“Good,” answers Peden. “Now be that ballerina!”
Considering where ballet superstars Darcey Bussell and Marianela Nuñez got their start, it’s no surprise that these students refer to them by their first names: Following in the footsteps of Margot Fonteyn, Kenneth MacMillan and Anthony Dowell, both Bussell and Nuñez began their careers as students at the Royal Ballet School.
One of the ballet world’s preeminent training institutions, the RBS has a rather complicated history. It begins in 1926, when British ballerina Ninette de Valois—then a dancer with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes—opened the Academy of Choregraphic Art, the school’s first incarnation, in London. In the 1930s, the academy underwent several transformations, including the addition of a performing company made up of students from the school and freelance dancers. Eventually both the school and the company moved to London’s Sadler’s Wells theatre and became known as the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School and Company. In 1946, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet was made resident ballet company at the newly reopened Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and the school moved along with it. Finally, in 1956, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet received a Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth, thus forming the Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet School.
For the past three years, 100 percent of the School’s graduates have been placed with professional companies. In addition to landing contracts with the Royal Ballet and the Birmingham Royal Ballet, alums of the RBS have joined many North American companies, including American Ballet Theatre, Miami City Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada, Boston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and San Francisco Ballet.
How does the Royal Ballet School maintain such an impressive rate of success? The faculty is key. “Our teachers all have dedication, commitment and a love of young people,” explains director Gailene Stock, also a graduate of the school and a former soloist with the Royal Ballet. “Teaching for the Royal Ballet School is not just what they do after careers as professional dancers. They are here because they love ballet and they want to pass it on.”
And their classes are very demanding. Students complete an intensive eight-year program stressing precision and clarity of line. The look of RBS technique is a bit more “conservative” than that of most American schools, particularly in the port de bras. Arms are placed slightly lower,
especially in arabesque, and there is a distinct softness at the elbows rather than a rounded shape. Ultimately, though, the goal of the school is to teach a style free of mannerisms. “We aim to produce well-schooled classical dancers who are versatile and able to move into any company,” Stock explains. “The standard is always increasing. We need to keep in tune with what’s in demand.”
To this end, students spend their first five years at the Lower School, a boarding school housed at the historic White Lodge in London’s Richmond Park. There, dancers aged 11 to 16 study ballet, contemporary, character, Irish and Scottish dancing as well as music and traditional academic subjects. Eleven might seem like a very young age to leave home, but student William Bracewell, now 18, understood it as a necessary sacrifice. “The thought of leaving my family at that age didn’t exactly thrill me, but by my final audition, I had set my mind to it,” he remembers. “It’s what you have to do if you want to make it.”
While a few students are “assessed out” along the way, most audition for and gain admission to the Upper School for three more years of training. Housed in the heart of Covent Garden, just across the street from the Royal Opera House, the Upper School features six state-of-the-art studios, physiotherapy facilities, changing rooms and academic classrooms. Thanks to the enclosed Bridge of Aspirations, completed in 2003, dancers can walk right into the backstage rehearsal studios of the Royal Opera House. Students take dance classes six days a week, focusing on advanced repertoire, variations and pas de deux, in addition to supplementary classes in nutrition and sessions with performance psychologists. During their first two years, they also study arts management and complete an advanced (“A Level”) course in either art, math, English or French. Graduates
receive a Diploma of Dance from the Royal Ballet School and Trinity College.
Each year, hundreds of hopeful would-be ballet dancers from around the world send their audition tapes to the RBS. A lucky few are invited to London, where they take class before a panel of judges. According to Peden, “We are looking for a certain physique, but mostly we look for the dancer’s potential beyond audition nerves.” Stock also attends the Youth America Grand Prix and the Prix de Lausanne competitions each year, as a school representative, to scout for potential RBS dancers. “We seek students with great ability, drive and commitment,” she explains. “We need to see how keen they are, how hungry they are.”
Even the “hungriest” students will find the school’s intensity challenging. “It’s hard being ‘on’ all the time,” William says. “When I get home at night, I barely have the energy to eat dinner and take a bath.” But they’ll also reap great rewards. William, for example, is already getting noticed by major ballet companies. We think he’s well on his way to becoming another RBS success story.
Life at the Upper School
9:00 am-10:30 am: ballet technique
10:45 am-12:40 pm: choreography
12:40 pm-1:30 pm: lunch
1:30 pm-2:45 pm: pointe work (girls); variations (boys)
3:00 pm-4:15 pm: contemporary (girls); upper body conditioning (boys)
4:30 pm-5:30 pm: repertoire
9:00 am-10:30 am: arts management
11:00 am-12:30 pm: ballet technique
12:30 pm-1:30 pm: lunch
1:30 pm-2:45 pm: contemporary or special coaching (girls); upper body conditioning (boys)
3:00 pm-4:15 pm: pas de deux
4:30 pm-6:00 pm: choreography
9:30 pm-11:00 pm: ballet technique
11:15 pm-12:30 pm: pas de deux
12:30 pm-1:30 pm: lunch
1:30 pm-2:45 pm: body conditioning (girls); variations (boys)
3:00 pm-5:00 pm: repertoire
Kat Richter is a freelance writer with a master's in dance anthropology. She lives in London.
Photo Courtesy Royal Ballet School