It goes without saying that in order to have a successful career in ballet, a dancer must eventually meet, if not transcend, the expectations of the directors who will employ them. Teachers shoulder the heavy responsibility of preparing their dancers for this eventuality. So how do those at the top of the field help their elite dancers to achieve this goal?
“Whether or not I like what’s going on in the ballet world, which I do, it’s making sure your dancers are quite up with the rest of the world,” says Leeanne Rutherford, Director of Ballet Theatre Australia.
Renowned ballet teacher Tanya Pearson of the Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching Academy believes that for better or worse, dancers must be trained to meet the ever increasing physical demands of the art. “The dancers nowadays are much more flexible and that’s demanded by choreographers. When I was training we were more musical and artistic. That was the emphasis then, not high extensions, but now at the moment there’s a trend towards that. Ballet has become a little more gymnastic.”
Pearson, however, emphasises artistry and the importance of interpreting roles to help her students stand out in the crowd amongst the many technical wizards churned out by ballet schools across the globe. In this way she reconciles her own teaching philosophy with the evolving standards of the art and believes that this has helped her dancers achieve success in international competitions such as the Youth America Grand Prix.
Apart from possessing a suitable physique and sufficient facility, the ability to coordinate steps easily, a high level of maturity and a ‘safety blanket’ of good grades are all crucial to a ballet student’s chances of professional success. However, some full-timers do transcend these ‘cookie-cutter’ prescriptions to be accepted into their courses. “Some students just have the ability to work on a regular basis,” says Rutherford. “It’s not a struggle, they’re just meant to do it. It’s like a calling for them.”
To help such talents, Beth James, Director of the West Australian Conservatoire of Classical Ballet avoids focusing too squarely on technique. “Jobs are vast, however, the dancers need to be in a good position to take them,” she says. “It’s not just always the technique that’s going to make it there, it’s the whole package more so now. I try to help dancers in a more holistic way, to strengthen not only their bodies but their minds and their emotions as well. Organisational skills also need to be looked at.”
She points to self-belief as one of the most formidable but least talked-about obstacles to a young dancer’s success. “It’s learning to accept that although in their mind’s eye they need to be perfect, we are okay with them not being perfect and know that they are going to learn from their mistakes,” says James. “We respect that they are still above and beyond the acceptable range.”
Sonya Shepherd teaches Certificate II & III students at Charlesworth Ballet Institute. Dancer Charlotte Price (foreground) is now studying in Amsterdam. Photo by Darren Clark.
“Ballet’s got a bad rep for being a negative environment, so it’s about trying to turn that around,” concedes Briana Shepherd, who teaches at the Charlesworth Ballet Institute. “It’s actually quite hard. I mean, I often find myself being quite negative and I have to turn around and go, ‘Okay, would you want to hear it this way?’ You have to pay attention to how the students receive the corrections too, because everyone learns differently.”
At the Charlesworth Ballet College, the Institute’s professional programme, dancers are schooled in both academic studies and ballet. The college therefore takes on much responsibility for the overall development of their elite students as they enter their teen years. “Sometimes they want to go out, or they just don’t want to do it. But it’s making them understand that if they want a career they have to put in the hard work now,” says Shepherd. “I try to nurture the passion, to have them understand that yes, it is a lot hard work, physically and mentally, but it can be a very rewarding career path.”
Whilst finding ways to address the differing strengths and weaknesses of each student, teachers must also keep in mind the likely demands of their future employers. Tanya Pearson tries to tackle both by exposing her students to different methods of training such as Vaganova, RAD and Cecchetti.
“Each day we have a different teacher, male and female, and they’ve all been trained from different backgrounds. I feel that the exposure to these different styles will help them to follow any teacher that they may strike in an open situation. We also expose the students to regular performances with Sydney City Youth Ballet to be able to perform to an audience, because that’s what they’re training to become a professional dancer for,” says Pearson.
For particularly talented students, participating in international competitions can be beneficial in this regard, giving them an opportunity to see where they range amongst some of the world’s best pre-professional dancers. In a competition like the Youth America Grand Prix, dancers receive reports from the judges who are a selection of directors from schools and companies all over the world. “It’s interesting for students to see how other people see them and if they are marked fairly high in the range they can feel they are up there close to the winners,” Pearson observes. “They can know they’re going in the right direction and maybe next time they’ll be the winner or maybe next time, they’ll get a job. An audition process, after all, is a competition.”
But even for the perfect teacher with dream classrooms full of physically ‘ideal’ students, the fate of the young students is ultimately not in his or her hands. A student’s passion, work ethic and belief in their own capabilities are the major hallmarks of a young ballerina in the making, says Shepherd.
“If they’re willing to keep going, even when it becomes hard, they will get there.”